Theaterisation: Top Brass Evolves Approach

The top brass of the Indian military has decided to continue with more discussions and conduct in-depth cross-services studies before finalising the number of theatre commands it needs to create for enhancing joint combat potential of the three armed forces, last week’s top-level meeting appears to have concluded.

Last Thursday, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen Bipin Rawat presided over the high level deliberations attended by all the three service Chiefs—Adm Karambir Singh, Gen MM Naravane and Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadhauria—their respective Vice Chiefs and several two star officers drawn from across the armed forces.

A threadbare discussion for over five hours considered several options and possible scenarios in which the armed forces might be called in to operate in the near future. After considering strategic options that could unfold and the employment of forces in a joint environment, the discussion was enlarged to bigger issues: How many theatre commands does India need, what should their composition be and how to evolve a timeline for the implementation of the plan, it is learnt. Although, all three services reiterated their known positions, there was apparently broad agreement that many more brainstorming sessions were required before arriving at a definitive conclusion on the exact nature of joint or theatre commands that India needs.

This is a clear indication perhaps that some kind of course correction has been injected into the plan for carrying out the next stage of higher defence reforms.

In January 2020, as is well-known, the government finally bit the bullet and appointed the country’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), as the principal adviser to the cabinet on military matters, 19 years after a Group of Ministers (GoM) had recommended such a measure. Gen Rawat took charge on January 1, 2020. Additionally—much to the surprise of the strategic community—a Department of Military Affairs (DMA) was also created to look after all military affairs (the three services) in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). These were indeed pathbreaking decisions.

The next step, according to decision-makers, is to create synergy and foster jointness between the three forces by restructuring the decades old system of planning, force equipping and force projection to make the Indian armed forces future ready. Decades of well-entrenched individual service mindsets at the highest level of the military leadership and lack of adequate knowledge about each other, has meant that the task is easier imagined than implemented.

While the armed forces will continue to have detailed debates and deliberations on the creation of theatre commands, there is another school of thought that advocates formation of an independent oversight committee comprising a mix of knowledgeable civilians, former chiefs and bureaucrats to broaden the discussion and get more inputs. Whatever the shape of the discussions, the outcome will have to be oriented towards attaining maximum impact, national security planners have indicated.

Nitin A. Gokhale