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What are military theatre commands and why does India want to switch to them

A proposal is being discussed to have 5 unified or theatre commands that will help in better planning & military response, and aim to have unified approach to fighting any future war.

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New Delhi: India is in the process of carrying out the biggest military reforms it has ever seen — theaterisation.

The plan is to have five unified or theatre commands, which will help in better planning and military response, and aim to have a unified approach to fighting any future war.

However, the process, which is being led by Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, has expectantly not been a smooth one — as military theorist and historian, Sir B.H. Liddell Hart, famously said: “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get the old one out.”

Internal differences over the structure and scope of the theatre command came out in public last week with Gen Rawat terming the Indian Air Force as a “supporting arm” like the Artillery and the Engineers and the Air Chief Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria pointing out that there is much more to air power.

While there had been murmurs in the official corridors of power that all was not well, serious differences over the basic structure came out last month during a meeting to approve a draft note for the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Cabinet Committee on Security, for approval to create theatre commands.

While the creation of theatre or unified commands was the decision of the government, CDS was mandated to bring it to fruition.

With various questions relating to structure, command and finer aspects remaining unanswered, a committee has now been set up on the orders of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh so all issues are completely thrashed out.

Here is everything you want to know about theaterisation and what India hopes to achieve from it.


Also read: PMO can help theatre command take off by finding a politician with defence background


Theaterisation has its origins in World War I

The dictionary meaning of a theatre of war is “the entire land, sea and air areas that is or may become involved directly in war operations”.

The word ‘theatre warfare’ became more prominent during World War II with the battles being fought across continents.

During World War 1 too, battles were fought across the world, but the major ones took place in what was then known as the European theatre.

In World War II, new theatres emerged with multiple fronts — Nordic Front, Western Front and Eastern Front. There was also the Pacific-Asian Theater, Africa and Middle East Theater.

These theatres referred to the geographical grounds of the battle and all deployments — army, navy and air force — happened accordingly in a unified manner.

Depending on what kind of operations was being undertaken, officers from specific services took over the command even though it was largely led by the Army.

As of now, almost all major countries like China, Russia, the US, the UK and France work on a theatre command concept. However, most of this theatre is based on its global outlook and part of their expeditionary character.

China is the latest entrant to a theatre concept and comes at a time when it has ambitions to play a larger role in the world.


Also read: Maritime Theatre Command could bring Coast Guard ships under its control


Why India seeks theatre commands

India currently has 19 military commands with 17 of them service-oriented. While both the Army and the Air Force have seven commands each, the Navy has three.

India also has a Tri-Service Command — Andaman and Nicobar Command — besides the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which looks after the country’s nuclear stockpile.

The aim is to bring all the 17 individual commands into four or five unified or theatre commands. It might also have two more functional commands for training and logistics.

The rationale being this will help in better planning and military response and also bring down cost.

While the cost may go up in the immediate future since all theatres would have to be armed with sufficient systems, it will prove to be cost-effective in the long term as all acquisition will be a unified one.

The classic example for the perils of not having a unified approach to acquisition is the procurement of the Apache attack helicopters from the US. While the Indian Air Force got 22 Apaches, the Army has also placed orders for six of these choppers. The end result — loss of at least Rs 2,500 crore and haphazard operational planning.

The other aim is to have a unified approach to fighting the future wars. Sources said China’s theaterisation move has had an effect too.

“One thing that we can say about China is the uniformity in response, be it in the East or the Ladakh in the north. This is so because China’s Western Theater Command looks after the entire borders with India unlike us where we have multiple Commands and structures to respond with different officers at the helm,” the senior officer told ThePrint.

The need for a unified approach to war fighting was brought out in the deliberations after the 1999 Kargil battle.

The Kargil Review Committee and the then Group of Ministers besides the Naresh Chandra Committee had called for structural changes in higher defence management.

It was the Shekatkar committee, headed by Lt Gen. (retd) D.B. Shekatkar, which had recommended the creation of the post of CDS and theatre commands.

Until this committee, every other panel had only spoken about the need for unified planning.

While the Army and the Navy are on board on the issue of theatersisation, the IAF while supporting the move says there can’t be multiple theatres. They argue that a single theatre is what is needed.


Also read: What is Shekatkar report, defence ministry’s first order of business after lockdown


Theatre proposals

According to the current proposal that was discussed during last month’s meeting, there will be five theatres — Northern Land Theatre (Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Central sector) Western Land Theatre (Pakistan centric), Eastern Land Theatre, Maritime Theatre Command, and Air Defence Command.

However, Gen Rawat Friday said the Northern Command will not see any change and will remain in its present form for the time being since it is operationally sensitive as it has China and Pakistan besides internal security to look after.

The first two that would be rolled out are Maritime Theatre Command (MTC) and Air Defence Command (ADC).

As reported earlier, the MTC will see a merger of the eastern and western naval commands, besides getting elements from the Army and the Air Force.

The MTC will be headed by a three-star Naval officer and will also have one two-star officer from the IAF and a three-star officer from the Army.

Similarly, the ADC will be headed by a three-star IAF officer, along with a three-star Army officer and a two-star Naval officer.

The other theatres planned will be headed by three-star Army officers with elements from the IAF and the Navy.


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


 

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