Theatre Commands and CDS: The debate continues

Exactly a week ago, I wrote this piece (( It evoked varied reactions that I have detailed here (

Today I am putting up more observations. 

One is from a middle-ranking serving Indian military officer. He in fact sent a long note on the subject which is worth examining. as I said, more opinions will mean more debate and more discussion which should be welcomed by everyone.

Here’s is his opinion:

Your case for military organisational reforms is well made. 

However,the proposed approach (existing Commands to be made ‘theatres’ headed by four stars etc) appears too radical. In military planning we have a term ‘Situating the Appreciation ‘!

In my view,first and foremost,we need to have a clear political level consensus of what sort of a transformed military organisation we want at the end and then draw a road map to achieve it. There are prominent administrative, legal,operational and financial dimensions to the process. Not sure whether we have a team in place to look at these nuts and bolts.

In the present set-up the respective Chiefs draw their powers from the law of the land, mainly the Army,Air Force and Navy Acts,which gives them administrative and operational powers. A change in their charter will mean changing the law.That will have to be the start point for any lasting change. Without legislative backing no organisational reform will stand the legal test.

Secondly,an incremental,less destabilizing approach could be adopted by making it incumbent on existing Commands(all Services) to dedicate resources for certain category of contingences when called for by the Joint Commander(CDS/Your case for military organisational reforms is well made. However,the proposed approach (existing Commands to be made ‘theatres’ headed by four stars etc) appears too radical. In military planning we have a term ‘Situating the Appreciation ‘!

Once we achieve confidence in this model of contingency driven joint operations, we could look at integrating structural blocks,viz. Logistics, Financial Managemnt, Military Law etc to usher in more integration. In this manner we could move from enhanced jointness to credible integration over say,a ten year time frame. It has to be a gradual,incremental approach. 

Remember,the bottom line for the Govt is economy. All govts which pushed jointness and integration  (both are qualitatively different terms) were primarily interested in saving money. Rightsizing, avoiding duplication of expenditure-going for a lean and mean military.  

Global Examples in Integration of Military
Major military powers across the world have steadily integrated their militaries for enhancing efficiency and rationalize defence spending. In the United States, which maintains the largest military organisation in the world, the institution of Joint Chiefs of Staff has been in place since 1947. However, in 1986, following efforts of Congressmen Goldwater and Nichols towards defence reforms, a new legislation (named after them) was passed to ensure closer integration of the US military, leading to evolution of the present structure based in Unified Commands. In the UK, a Chief of Defence Staff was designated as the professional head of the armed forces and the Principal Adviser to the government, following the Strategic Defence Review of 1998. In Canada, integration of the Canadian Defence Forces was achieved during 1964-67 by former Defence Minister Paul Hellyer, who brought together the political will, legislative backing, institutional wherewithal and cooperation of the armed forces to usher lasting reforms. In Australia the Theatre Command concept was introduced in 1997 with the establishment of HQ Australian Theatre (HQ AST), under a Chief of Defence Staff. The aim was to separate the Australian political strategic level from war fighting, discontinue the adhoc approach to co-ordination and control of operations, institute unity of command at the operational level and provide a standing capability for planning campaigns, operations and other activities. In Russia, four Strategic Commands were created in 2010, by a Presidential decree, with appropriate allocation of resources from the three Services and independent arms directly under the Centre viz. missile, space and airborne forces. The Chinese model also appears to have evolved on similar lines, with re-organisation of the seven Military Regions, under a regional commander, which control the allocated resources of the three Services and the Logistics and Armament departments, for operations. To evaluate a suitable model which is better suited in the Indian context, it would be in order to take a closer look at the US and Australian approach to Theatre Commands, which have endured and evolved with time, having undertaken operations at home and overseas.
Theatre Commands in the Indian Context – Evolving a Viable Model
Exploration of an appropriate Theatre Command (TC) based model for re-organisation of Indian military structure should begin by understanding the diversity of the existing organisation. The Indian Army is divided into six operational commands, the Northern Command (NC) with HQ at Udhampur, Western Command (WC) at Chandimandir, South Western Command (SWC) at Jaipur, Eastern Command (EC) at Kolkata, Southern Command (SC) at Pune and Central Command at Lucknow. The IAF has five operational commands, namely Western Air Command (WAC) at Delhi, South Western Air Command (SWAC) at Gandhinagar, Southern Air Command (SAC) at Trivandrum, Central Air Command (CAC) at Allahabad and Eastern Air Command (EAC) at Shillong. The Indian Navy is organised under three area commands; Western Naval Command (WNC) at Mumbai, Southern Naval Command (SNC) at Kochi and the Eastern Naval Command (ENC) at Vishakhapatnam. Interestingly, none of the operational command HQs of the three services are co-located. It bears note that in 2001, following the KRC Report, the Andaman and Nicobar Command was established at Port Blair as the first Unified Command with an operational mandate. The success of this ‘experiment’ in integration has also spurred more aspirational debate on the subject. The options for unified command structure which have been discussed in professional circles include developing Joint Theatre Commands at the Army Command HQ level or developing geographically based Theatre Command structures or evolving a Theatre Command at the national level that provides a unified command structure that integrates the operational employment of the three services as part of a National Command Theatre. Ideally, the chosen structure should be such that it requires bringing about minimal changes to the existing organisations and yet achieves the desired integration to actualise joint strategic planning at the operational level. The broad Five-Point Terms of Reference(TsOR) that could govern the formulation of a suitable model are suggested as follows:-
(a)          It should result in institution of an empowered CDS or Permanent  Chairman COSC while largely preserving the current operational and administrative powers of the Chiefs of Staff the Services, enshrined in respective laws of the land (Army Act, Navy Act and Air Force Act).
(b)          It should not result in reorganization of existing commands or destabilization of well entrenched administrative/operational structures.
(c)          It should permit adequate autonomy to extant Commands in terms of air space management, maritime domain awareness (including surveillance), coastal security and geographical/territorial jurisdiction, without any alterations in areas of responsibility (AoR) of various Commanders-in-Chief.
(d)          It should accord adequate authority/legislative backing at the apex hierarchy of the integrated structure (CDS or Permanent  Chairman COSC) to demand from Service HQs human and material resources for OOAC and other Joint operations, including nomination of a Sub-Theatre Joint commander, from amongst the C-in-Cs, for executing such operations.
(e)          It should facilitate qualitative enhancement in jointness by establishment of localised arrangements for joint planning and conduct of operations by inter-service Commands with overlapping operational mandate (including overlapping AoR).
Towards a National Theatre Command
In keeping with the above TsOR, the most viable option for ushering structural integration would be to create a Unified Command structure at the national level, viz the National Theatre Command (NTC). At the apex level of NTC would be the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC, assisted by his staff at HQ NTC. The broad contours of the proposed model are as follows:-
(a)          Geographical Scope.        Like the Australian model, it would consider the entire national territory (including Air Defence Identification Zones and Maritime Areas of Responsibility) as a theatre and could be named as National Theatre Command (NTC). HQ IDS would need to be re-designated as the Joint HQ NTC and it would have suitably enhanced joint planning staff under the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC.
(b)          Operational Mandate.        Operational forces would not be permanently under the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC but would be allocated by concerned Service Chiefs when so called for by CDS, based on Joint Planning process. Assigned forces will be mobilised for specific campaign/operations and reverted to the control of parent Service, on termination.
(c)          Planning.      While detailed planning would be undertaken by at JHQ NTC, suitable representatives of Service HQ would be co-opted in the joint appreciation and planning process. In this model, retention of strategic focus would be easier and response in terms of OOACs and emergent threats, including terrorism, could be tackled better.
(d)          Logistics.      A steady movement towards integrated logistics in the military becomes imperative in the long term, for the Theatre Command model to be financially viable. At present, the logistics mechanisms of the Services are separate and bear limited commonality. This aspect will need to be addressed by introducing incremental changes towards commonality in logistics functions. Most advanced nations of the world have integrated this aspect in their military organization.
Relationship of CDS with Service Chiefs.       The CDS or Permanent  Chairman COSC would be senior to the Service Chiefs in protocol and functional terms. His position is envisaged to be of a single-point advisor on military matters to the political leadership. However, the CDS would not be responsible for routine, day-to-day administration of the Services. The Service Chiefs would continue to remain responsible to administer, train and develop their respective Services, and employ them for regular operations. However, they would provide expert advice on all important matters concerning their Service to the CDS or Permanent Chairman COSC, when called for. This arrangement would thus provide flexibility to tackle threats that encompass the entire conflict spectrum from asymmetric to nuclear. It merits consideration that though the proposed model is considered the least disruptive to the existing arrangements, evolution of structures to achieve to integration would not be an easy, natural process. It would need a ‘top-down’ approach by the political leadership with legislative backing and sufficient mandate provided to the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC.  


The prevailing state of affairs concerning reforms of higher defence organization in India could be described as ‘cautiously interested in enhancing jointness but reluctant for integration’. The situation could be given a transformative turn by putting forth a model that is least destabilising to the existing arrangement yet sufficiently reformative to bring our apex level military management structure in tune with global trends. Establishment of a National Theatre Command, headed by an empowered CDS or Permanent Chairman COSC, to command and coordinate operations entailing inter-service participation, is considered an appropriate step to begin the process of ushering credible integration in India’s higher defence organisation. As the evolving organization settles and gains more confidence in joint ethos, the powers and mandate of the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC could be reviewed and strengthened to enhance integration in substance and scope.

Another reaction came from a reader who despite giving out his name, is unknown to me so will, like others before him, remain unnamed! He says:

Yes we do need integration of Services for Operations. This can be best achieved by reverting to concept of C-in-C as existed in 1947 with proviso that he will be subordinate to the Cabinet through Defence Minister. Service Chiefs be made responsible for Training and Administration. Operational Logistics be responsibility of Theatre Commanders. Civil Wing of MoD be responsible for Inter-ministerial Coordination. Defence PSUs and Ordnance Factories be hived off to Ministry of Industries. DGDE and MES be subsumed in QMG Branch of the Army Headquarters. CDA be answerable to Defence Minister and Service Chiefs for Capital and Revenue parts of budget. 

Let’s have the observations/reactions/criticism coming.