Why Indian Military’s Theaterisation Plan Must Not Copy US 

It must be understood that unlike US, India’s stakes are very different. US doesn’t have to defend its own borders. 

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
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The recent announcement of the creation of the Maritime Theatre Command is the first concrete step towards a total transformation of the Indian Armed Forces into integrated theatre commands designed to conduct tri-dimensional military operations across both our land borders as well as in the Asia-Pacific region.

With its strategic geographical location, growing economic strength and vibrant population, India is perceived as a regional power and a potential global one. Our aspirations have, however, to be backed up with both soft power as well as a strong military that can influence the course of events around us.

Indian Military’s Plans For Theaterisation: Why The US Model Won’t Work For Us

The proposed theaterization plan is largely based on the US model. It must, however, be understood that unlike the US, India’s stakes are totally different. America does not have to defend its own borders. The structure, training and psychological make up of its military is therefore fully oriented towards global power projection and multi-dimensional military operations in regions far away from home.

On the other hand, India’s primary focus will always remain on the protection of our territorial sovereignty against two highly inimical neighbours. Nepal also remains in semi-permanent political turmoil and at loggerheads with India, which is being cleverly exploited by Beijing.

To complicate matters, the threat of nuclear weapons will always continue to influence policy-making.

This dangerous external environment is compounded by a domestic situation which has been reeling from the COVID pandemic, a stressed economy and internal upheavals that are taking a toll on both the government as also on the mental and financial health of our nation and our people.

The country’s last bastion, the military, is itself faced with multiple challenges.

  • We have a dwindling defence budget and face shortages in critical war fighting equipment.
  • The combat units are deficient of officers.
  • The capability and integration of external intelligence gathering and coordination leave much to be desired.
  • Our defence R&D is deplorable.

Why It’s Important For Indian Military To Remain Stable

The private sector is not yet geared up to meet the military’s needs but the CDS is ready to accept lower standards of weapons and equipment. The Army has for too long been fixated on low level counter-insurgency operations, as a result of which we are steadily losing the art of conducting large-scale conventional warfare involving integrated application of combat forces.

The slew of proposed reforms and tinkering at the grassroots level, to save a penny here and a penny there, are causing friction within the senior leadership and uncertainty and disquiet amongst others. None of these are helping the cause of the military.

Under these circumstances, it is essential that the one pillar of power and security that needs to remain absolutely stable, and not be buffeted around, ie, the Indian military — remains stable.

While undoubtedly there is a need to integrate the three Services, there seems to be a tearing hurry to complete the much more complex task of theaterization in the next two years. The mandate given to the CDS is to “bring about jointness in operation, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, etc of the three Services, within three years”.

It certainly does not state that the operational restructuring of the three Services into Theatres has to be completed by 2022.

Prerequisites For Multi-Dimensional, Integrated Theatre Commands

In order to create and successfully operationalise multi-dimensional, integrated Theatre Commands, there are several critical prerequisites that must be met. These include:

  • a clear operational directive from the government,
  • well thought-out strategic and operational doctrines based on realistic mid- and long-term threat perceptions,
  • strong budgetary backup,
  • adequate and dedicated war fighting resources and reserves for each theatre,
  • a seamless chain of command & control from the Theatre Commander upwards

All this has to be backed up with fully integrated intelligence, communications, training and logistics organisations as well as carefully structured tri-Service headquarters down to divisional levels. Most of these do not exist today.

While these hurdles can be managed over time, the most complex and difficult challenge is to bridge the emotive and psychological chasm between the Services which is bound to be further aggravated by issues of turf and promotional avenues, especially those in the rank of C-in-C. The first priority must therefore be to address these areas and commence a cradle-to-grave integration of body and spirit amongst the three Services. Easily said, but a monumental challenge for the future military leadership.

What The Grand Theaterisation Plan Envisages

The Grand Theaterisation Plan envisages restructuring of the entire military into Northern and Western land theatres, a Maritime Theatre Command and an Air Defence Command, apart from supporting subsidiaries like Special Forces, Space, Logistics, Training and Cyber Warfare Commands.

The Northern Theatre Commander, probably located at Lucknow, will control operations along the entire 3500 km long Indo-China border from Ladakh to Arunachal, 2500 kms with Nepal and Bhutan, 3300 km with Myanmar and 4100 Kms with Bangladesh, while the Western Theatre Commander located at Jaipur, will control operations across the 3000 km long Indo-Pak border from the super high altitude Siachen across the deserts of Rajasthan and down to Rann of Kutch.

The current territorial and operational responsibilities of the existing Army Commands have been well thought-out and matured over the last fifty years.

Creation of Northern and South Western Commands, raising of several additional defensive and Strike Corps, readjustment of operational boundaries, relocation of fighting formations closer to the borders etc have all been necessitated to overcome the problems of vast geographical expanse, greatly varying terrain and climatic conditions, span of command & control of operations, tenuous lines of communications, availability of and need for rapid movement of reserves, as well as management of extensive logistics chains.

Who Will Handle The Northern Theatre?

The five Army Commanders already have their job cut out, planning and conducting complex defensive and offensive operations across these borders. With theaterisation, they will have another superimposed three-star General breathing down their necks and interfering with the conduct of operations.

In any case, to expect a lone Theatre Commander to plan, control and conduct vastly differing and difficult combat operations stretching from Siachen to Kutch or from Ladakh to Arunachal, without having the rank, stature and staff of a Service Chief, is a disaster in the making.

To add to the complexities, there is talk that the Northern Theatre may well be given to an Air Force Three Star with zero experience of land operations! The degradation of the Service Chiefs from their powerful command positions to that of a resource manager and provider is also bound to meet with resistance.

There are many other contentious issues regarding the proposed Air Defence Command(ADC) and the Maritime Theatre Command(MTC). Will the ADC located at Allahabad, become a super Air Force under a three star, instead of decentralizing air power assets to the regional Commands? Will the Vice Admiral of MTC be able to control such large forces across the entire Indian Ocean Region or does it require two MTCs ? Will MTC be structured around Carrier based fleets or be replaced with submarines ?

Yes, We Need An Integrated Military — But First, Let’s Focus On China-Pakistan Threat

There is little doubt that we need an integrated military capable of conducting tri-dimensional combat operations, be it across our land borders or on the high seas. However, there are pitfalls in trying to overnight dismantle and reconstruct existing structures and systems that have taken decades to establish and mature. It may, therefore, be prudent to pause, take a deep breath and reassess these critical issues before diving off at the deep end.

Most importantly, under the current hostile conditions, the Indian Armed Forces just cannot afford to be imbalanced in its ability to meet the twin threats from China and Pakistan. 

Thus, without tinkering with the operational functioning of the current geographical Commands, the process of forming integrated Commands and Corps could start. However, let us take at least ten years to assess the situation and then create overarching Theatre based Commands that would best suit India’s operational and power projection requirements.

(Lt Gen SR Ghosh (Retd) is a Former GOC-in-C, Western Command. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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