The political deadline of Independence Day is reported to be a new driver for the creation of the theatre command system. If true, it could be a huge blow to the process that is still gasping for breath due to disagreements between the multiple stakeholders.
The process of evolving the basic structure of the theatre command has quite understandably resulted in clashes between diverse belief systems harbored by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and civil agencies because perspectives on the effectiveness of military power are often viewed through the narrow lenses of the land, sea, and airpower. Such a perspective is blind to the fact that in actuality, everything is connected and forms part of a much larger ecosystem.
Theatre commands part of larger strategy
Armed forces are part of a nation’s military power, which in turn is part of other national instruments used in statecraft. They have to be utilised in combination with other instruments like diplomacy and economic measures supported by intelligence, technology, and strategic communications. None of these can claim supremacy over the other. The ‘instrumental front runner’ is a dynamic concept that is determined by the context at a point in time.
The context is always bred by politics, which, in essence, is about using influence to protect and further one’s interests. Influence requires power and the relative importance of any form of power is dependent on the context. It could be a complex kaleidoscopic mix of elements like the strategic, geographic, economic, socio-cultural, technological, and informational.
Military power plays its prime role in the strategic context where the relationship is fundamentally underpinned by political demand and military supply. The military instrument is the knife that can be used to kill, destroy, maim, and whose blade can also be used as a surgeon’s blade to save lives. Shaping and applying the knife effectively in the pursuit of national interest in a particular context is the heart of civil-military relations. None of the parts have an independent existence, and understanding the roles of the parts in relation to the whole is the challenge of civilian and military leadership.
The theatre command system is supposed to provide the strategic architecture that will optimise the effectiveness of India’s hard power resources. Its context is geography and threat perceptions. The conceptual foundation of the system is about synergising different forms of power through flexible cooperation. The Lego game is based on the same principle. A theatre is the geographic setting that is defined to bring the required parts together. Hence, the larger the theatre, the greater the need for more Lego pieces to fit the resources to the purpose.
The purposes are distilled by interests generated by geopolitics, domestic politics, and policy evolution. Apart from the core interests of defending the territories and the populace, the protection and promotion of the Constitutional values and India’s development are the focus points of national security initiatives. The theatre command system, therefore, stems from a political initiative to strengthen national security. It is a major national security reform and not merely of defence.
The military is a major role player in security but it’s not the only one. Maritime, continental, and air spaces have a plethora of civil security and functional agencies with which the military has to synergise to achieve its missions. The air defence and coastal security functions, for example, demand coordination at multiple levels. The notion of command and control has to be one of sharing and not of ownership, ensuring that the leadership of organisations see themselves as players in the same team. The structural changes wrought by the theatre command system cannot be effective without embracing the notion of team play.
What’s being ignored
The theatre is a geographic space under an operational commander and it must be large enough to make sharing easier. Recent press reports indicate that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to make an announcement on Independence Day about the theatre structure that will have three Continental, one Maritime, and an air defence command. Such a structure seems to ignore some basic imperatives. Air Defence is a unitary function and cannot be equated to a theatre. There can be an air defence command that operates as a functional entity under the Air Component Commander at the highest joint service operational level. All the functional commands play supportive roles. Other functions like training, logistics, intelligence, communications, cyber, space and Special Forces, etc will have to follow the same principle.
The speculation of three continental theatres with Jammu and Kashmir as a separate theatre is questionable. The size of the region restricts the Lego pieces, which impacts the operational freedom of the theatre commander. It also makes coordination a challenge. The better model would be of Jammu and Kashmir being under the ‘western continental theatre’ so that its internal lines of communications, that include the states of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, are under the control of one theatre commander. This is a geographic imposition. Also, the theatre will have complete responsibility for the continental part of the Pakistan front and the Ladakh portion against China. Coordination of airpower too will be easier.
A single maritime theatre ignores a major responsibility of the theatre in the internal domestic spaces. The internal spaces that are demarcated by state boundaries must be under the maritime theatre as it maintains the integrity of the land-sea connections. With one maritime theatre, the continental space will include the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Odisha. Ideally, the Maritime Theatre must have no continental security responsibility, but that would entail the theatre commander not having control over the area headquarters that is responsible to manage the internal security and a host of other administrative requirements. Without the area headquarters under it, there would be an immense problem of coordination until the Army’s command headquarters continues to function. But that will be a sheer waste of resources and would complicate operational control as the theatre structure must, preferably, directly control the largest operational entities of corps, fleets, and operational groups of the Indian Air Force. The geographical structures of two maritime theatres are explained here.
The strategic reach of sea power involves vast geographic spaces that stretch from Africa in the west to the western Pacific in the east. Such a space has multiple national entities that encompass both friendly and adversarial forces. In the theatre system, joint planning and coordination of resource availability are done at the highest level. Execution must be decentralised to the theatre commander. There is a case that there must be two theatres for maritime space.
Without the military and civilian leadership shedding the concept of ownership and viewing their respective organisations as being team players, no theatre structure can be effective. It is imperative to shed shibboleths like each entity is prime and can execute tasks on its own. Importantly, the shortage of resources is a perennial problem. Therefore, joint planning and coordination at the highest level must flexibly allocate resources but execution must be left to the theatre commanders while retaining the option, especially for airpower, to be exercised centrally. In the continental theatres, the planning and allocation of airpower resources must, perforce, have a greater degree of centralisation. But that does not in any way have to mean that the theatre command system is not necessary. With seventeen commands that are geographically separated and ad hoc joint operational centers, there is every reason to dismantle the unnecessary, and create better integrated joint structures.
The political leadership has mandated the theatre command system to be established. But it should refrain from creating political capital by seeking leverage through grand announcements on Independence Day. National security must not be conflated with improvement of political party images. Importantly, all stakeholders must contribute and share to strengthen the process of creation of the theatre command system. The individual players must become team players. Only then can Team India led by the Prime Minister succeed.
Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat; and former Member, Executive Council, IDSA. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)