The wheels of integrated theatre commands are in full swing to crystalise the plans and roadmap for the reorganistion of the Indian military’s jointness. While the military leadership is actively addressing tricky issues such as operational challenges and determining the roles of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the three Chiefs of Staff, once these commands become operational, Nitin A Gokhale, Editor-in-Chief of BharatShakti.in, provides a detailed account of this current churning of the complex exercise. This comprehensive report is being presented in a series of articles. The first part of the series discusses the formation and structure of theatre commands.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unexpected announcement of appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as principal military adviser to the government from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15 August 2019.
Four years after that rather sudden decision, three or four areas have seen substantial progress in reorganising India’s higher defence organisation. A Department of Military Affairs (DMA) has brought greater cohesion in decision-making in the Indian armed forces; CDS Gen Anil Chauhan is now firmly in the saddle after the first incumbent Gen Bipin Rawat’s death in a helicopter accident; the three services appear to have reached some kind of broad consensus on the creation of three joint or theatre commands.
However, discussions on what model to adopt in creating a structure at the headquarters to exercise command and control over the proposed theatre commands and the shape they must adopt in executing military plans are still ongoing. Various models have been deliberated upon in the regular meetings that the CDS and the three Service Chiefs have been holding under the rubric of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC), of which Gen Chauhan is the permanent Chairman by virtue of his position.
Various models adopted in implementing theatre command structures in countries such as the United States, UK, Australia and a couple of other countries are being thoroughly examined to see which elements can be replicated for Indian requirements.
According to multiple well-informed sources, the military leadership has agreed to create three adversary-specific theatre commands: A northern command to tackle the China challenge on the land borders stretching from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to Ladakh in the north-west, a Western Command to look after the Pakistan front and a Maritime Command to keep a watch on the Indian Ocean region in particular and the larger Indo-Pacific in general.
The devil, as usual, lies in the detail. While it is easy to announce theatre commands, how they would function in coordination with the HQ IDS (Integrated Defence Staff) and various verticals under it remains a tricky issue to tackle. Along with it is the question of the exact role the CDS and the three Chiefs of Staff will play once the theatre commands start functioning.
One of the key points made in the government’s notification in appointing Gen Rawat to the top post in December 2019 was that the CDS would not exercise any military command, including over the Service Chiefs to provide impartial advice to the political leadership. If so, several questions arise: who will have operational control over the theatre commanders? Should the government consider restructuring and expanding HQ IDS to fulfil that requirement?
The process will entail realigning some of the existing services headquarter verticals under/functions under HQ IDS without affecting the overall functional aspects of service HQ with the remaining elements.
If so, what would be the structure of such an organisation, and how will the HQ staff in the theatre commands interact with the headquarters in Delhi?
Looking at the higher defence organisation structures in Australia and the UK, appointing a No. 2 to the CDS (calling him Vice Chief of Defence Force or Vice Chief of Defence Staff as the case may be) seems imperative. Can this second-in-command to the CDS then exercise authority over theatre commands with the help of two deputies, one tackling pure operation and the other administrative and related matters?
If this model is to be adopted, then the theatre commands must have a parallel organisation to coordinate day-to-day functioning with the headquarters effectively. Again, this must be discussed threadbare before arriving at a satisfactory arrangement is the feeling among those entrusted with finding a way forward.
Nitin A Gokhale