IAF assets are few, but it has speed, flexibility on its side. Theatre commands can limit it


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The day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the appointment of the first Chief of Defence Staff two years back, the debate on theatre commands started. Within a month of taking over, General Bipin Rawat announced the formation of theatre commands. Does India need to adopt this concept? Has the subject been debated enough? Are we in a great hurry to implement it? Definitely we are, considering the tight timeline that has been drawn. It has been announced that the first two theatre commands to be formed will be air defence and maritime theatre commands by 2022.

The concept is derived from the US Armed forces, which divides its entire defence forces in theatre commands covering the globe. To understand it, we will consider the example within our region — the USPACOM (US Pacific Command). This theatre command is responsible for all countries and oceans from the US West Coast to India, which means that any operation or exercise that needs to be undertaken in this region will be the sole responsibility of the PACOM. These theatre commands operate kilometres away from their homeland, so it’s mandatory to have all their resources built-in to undertake operations independently. Each theatre, thus, is separated from the other functionally. The integral resources include army, navy, air force, satellite backup, logistic backup, missiles and counter-missiles, cyber cell, etc.

India is planning to have three integral theatre command one each facing Pakistan and China, and one for the southern peninsula. However, even though the geographical size of US is much larger than India, the Americans have only one theatre command called USNORTHCOM for their homeland.

The example of US clearly illustrates those countries that have a larger area to control, have ambition to be a world power and maintain larger expeditionary forces use theatre commands. Therefore, Russia and China also can be placed in this category. The theatre command concept can be attributed to the need to have control over larger geographical expanse (inclusive of land and sea), which in turn mandates extended lines of communication, and overstretched logistics and supply chains. Therefore, it becomes mandatory that these theatres are self-sufficient and capable of operating independently for long time periods. Does India have such requirement or ambition, is the subject for discussion.

Also read: Raising theatre commands can’t be left to the military. It’s a govt’s job all over the world

Does India need theatre commands

India needs to consider its geographical size while thinking about theatre commands. It is nowhere comparable to the US, Russia, and China. We have smaller lines of communication. Therefore, it does not necessitate integral forces as required in a theatre command. We are a peace-loving nation and maintain our forces to defend our territory. However, due to the dynamic nature of war, if there is a demand at a certain time or place, we will resort to offensive action, as we demonstrated in eastern Ladakh by taking over dominating heights south of Pangong Tso, which halted the Chinese PLA.

India is a developing, democratic nation, and currently concentrating on building a strong economy. We definitely are not aiming to be a world military power, at least in the near future. Hence, we do not require expeditionary force to project our power overseas. What we require is military to defend our territory only, which is manageable with conventional forces. In the case of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, we did send our forces to help out the government in power during crises at their request. But such requirements are an aberration, not the rule. For humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, we do operate worldwide, but it’s a time-bound operation and can be planned and achieved with available resources and present organisational structure.

Extra assets 

The theatre command concept definitely necessitates more assets because these will be allotted in pockets to the individual theatre commander. The nations that have expeditionary forces do have these assets in the form of aircraft, ships, and guns. India’s defence budget is 1.63 per cent of our GDP, which is not sufficient for theatre commands. Where will this additional money come from?

Some argue that the formation of theatre command itself will help in optimising resources. That is far from being true. Most of our defence equipment is imported, and hence the fund requirement is large and the procurement procedure cumbersome. Indigenous production of defence equipment is being planned under the Aatmanirbhar initiative, but it will be a long-drawn process. It will be wiser to give impetus to this indigenous process first, rather than pushing for theatre command.

Also read: Expert panel to fine tune military theaterisation plan after stakeholders differ on key issues

Air Force operational view

It is being said that the Indian Air Force (IAF) has major objections to this concept – the main reason being its resource availability and the unique characteristics of air power.

It’s important to understand how our air forces work. Air power has the potential to make significant contribution for success in war. Due to its inherent reach, responsiveness, concentration of force, speed and flexibility, air power can be projected in a short time over a large geographical area. 

However, IAF resources are always scarce as the equipment used is expensive. Therefore, it is desirous to have a strict control over these limited assets, and the best and proven way to achieve it is by controlling it centrally. This cannot be achieved in theatre commands. Air forces are highly technology dependent, and the aircraft, weapon system and even combat support systems like C4ISR require immaculate and continuous maintenance. For these tasks, highly trained personnel are required, which again is limited. Air force operations also require dedicated ground support from their home base. Currently, the acquisition process being slow, the shortage of aircraft and systems is more pronounced.    

The Indian Air Force has good reach and endurance of modern-day aircraft. This is enhanced further by use of air-to-air refuelling (AAR). Therefore, with centralised control by the IAF, these assets can be used in different theatres effectively. Other combat support assets of the IAF like Airborne Early Warning and Control System, AAR, transport aircraft and helicopters when controlled centrally are optimally utilised.

Also read: Joint military command is the future but India can’t rush into it

Enhancing synergy  

After the 1999 Kargil war, the Union government felt the need to improve jointness among the three Services. Based on the recommendations by a committee established to achieve this, the Integrated Defence Headquarters (IDS) and the two joint commands Strategic Force Command (SFC) and Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) were established, however, the results were not encouraging. I say this based on my personal experience while working at the IDS. It is said that the theatre command concept will help in establishing jointness and synergy within Services. If so, it will be prudent to study the effectiveness of these integrated commands prior to accepting the theatre command concept. Formation of three more such commands namely cyber, space and special forces command, as suggested by the forces, is pending decision with the government.

The purpose of a theatre command, as envisaged by the CDS, is to enhance synergy among the three Services and achieve military/national security objectives, quickly and in the most effective manner with minimum casualties. However, will the formation of theatre commands enhance synergy? It needs an in-depth study.

Core competency

The domain knowledge of an integrated force commander will be limited when it comes to the other two Services under their command. This will be a major problem in optimal use of assets in theatre commands.

Air Force assets are limited, but the roles in which these assets are used are many — namely counter-air ops, counter-surface force ops, strategic air ops and combat support ops. An integrated force commander (if from the Army) is likely to give more importance to counter surface force ops over other operations due to their core competency. This criticality of assets will be more pronounced after their distribution in pockets to theatre command. In a two-front war, the availability will suffer further because the assets with the respective theatres will not be shared due to their own requirement.

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Conceptualisation to operationalisation

The plan as of now is to establish air defence command and maritime command till 2022, and thereafter, three integral commands, one each for India’s two fronts with China and Pakistan and one for the peninsular region. More commands may also be established. Conceptualisation to operationalisation is a long-drawn process. If something new is to be tried out, it requires brainstorming on all aspects before implementation.

The Union War book is a classified documented that lays down the exact role each government ministry, department will play in times of war. From this document, each Service prepares its doctrine (fundamental principle that guides the employment of assets to achieve the national objective). Currently, we have doctrines of all three Services, but there is no unified doctrine for all three. I think this should be the first step to establish a theatre command. This is why it appears that the process is being hurried up without the concept being clear. Each Service has their war colleges — these institutions should be tasked to work on conceptualisation.

The current military situation in India is definitely not conducive for theatre commands because China is active in Eastern Ladakh and also in the Northeast. The Pakistan front, as of now, is peaceful but how long it remains so is a question for all. The readiness for any conflict will suffer if the theatre command plan is implemented now. Covid-19 has affected the entire population and the economy — recovery will take time. So, the defence budget is likely to reduce further, which will be another hurdle. We need to utilise this time to debate, and study the efficacy of theatre commands for India. The need of the hour is more internal debate before implementation.

AVM Suryakant Chafekar was the Commanding Officer of the 48 Squadron and retired from the Indian Air Force in 2017. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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