Inaugurating the annual DRDO’s Director’s Enclave on July 15, 2023, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Anil Chauhan said, “Theaterisation is a fundamental change in the national security realm that is on the anvil, and it will help the country effectively tackle the entire spectrum of conflict. It is one of the most ambitious changes with far reaching implications attempted post-Independence.” Noting that international geopolitics is in a state of flux, he said the national security strategy should aim to absorb the changes in such a manner that it meets the challenges and exploits the opportunities.   

The CDS, however, did not mention when India’s national security strategy (NSS) will be enunciated. The NSA, under whom General Chauhan served for many months before being pulled out of retirement and appointed the CDS, was officially tasked in 2019 to define the NSS but has failed to do so. So, are we establishing Theatre Commands before defining the NSS; putting the cart before the horse? Or is the plan to announce both the NSS and the Theatre Commands coinciding with the upcoming elections; since all developments in India revolve around vote-bank politics.

Earlier, news reports had said that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is putting finishing touches to establish two Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs), one each for China and Pakistan, and one Maritime Theatre Command (MTC) for the Indo-Pacific. Headquarters of the ITC (West) is to be at Jaipur, ITC (North) at Lucknow and MTC at Karwar. Reports also said that the proposal to establish the Air Defence Command has been dropped and the first lot of 102 officers (40, 30, and 32 respectively from Army, Navy and Air Force) of Major and Lieutenant Colonel rank have already been cross-posted to other services. 

Media reports further said that the government has decided to ensure other verticals like cyber, space, intelligence, missiles, drones, National Defence University (NDU) and logistics command are created to ensure no loss of jobs at three-star, two star or one star level after theatre commands are created. The mention of “creating” the NDU was “misleading” because a former police establishment in Gujarat has already been converted into Rashtriya  Raksha University.

The idea of ITC (North) responsible for the entire border with China is perhaps derived from China’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) which looks after China’s border with Myanmar, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Western Mongolia. However, three factors need to be acknowledged: first, no neighbouring country is likely to attack China – India has only lost territory to China from 1947 to-date, including under the present government;  second, Chinese advancements in military technology and the quantum, potency and placement of support for its five theatre commands; third, all border forces in China are directly under command of the PLA, representing a fully integrated front, which is not the case in India because of petty politics to keep the Army at arms length. 

With one ITC each responsible for China and Pakistan, how will we address the following: central reserves of the Army for influencing outcome in any theatre; central military reserves under the CDS; the CDS is merely Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) – not heading an ITC as he doesn’t have the resources, and; if the CDS is to command all theatre commands, how would he influence the outcome when criticalities arise? Paucity of resources and simultaneous activation of multiple fronts was behind IAFs reservations in theaterisation. But the same is applicable to Army’s dual-tasked formations – the Army’s ‘limited’ flexibility must be examined in establishing new ITCs.

Moreover, the land-based ITCs can’t be simply geographically dividing areas east and west of Siachen where the Siachen Brigade facing both Pakistan and China, which is why the earlier idea of theaterisation talked of a Northern Land Theatre Command comprising J&K, Ladakh and the Central  Sector.

Recent news reports of October 4, 2023 now say that theaterisation is back on the drawing board of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) to include; defining geographical and operational limits of the proposed IRCs, consensus on the rank of theatre commanders and integrating logistics, maintenance, training and supply lines of the three forces. Media has quoted an unnamed DMA source saying that “the DMA has sought a feedback from the government on what kind of structure would be acceptable”. What can be more absurd than this? Isn’t the DMA in the MoD part of the government or is it a mere puppet?

If the DMA is to seek something from the government, it should be the National Security Strategy although there is an impression that the government is deliberately sitting on the issue because defining the NSS will bring accountability which the government wants to avoid at all costs; in order to continue subterfuge like denying loss of territory to China in eastern Ladakh during 2020. In fact, the DMA itself can work out the draft NSS. As for the theaterisation, it is the DMA that should work out the theaterisation plan in conjunction with the Service Chiefs and send firm proposals for approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). 

The government has already announced setting up an Integrated Rocket Force (IRF). But the immense operational advantage of China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), which combines functions of intelligence, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, cyber warfare and space warfare, must also be seriously examined. Keeping these verticals separate to ensure no loss of jobs at the three-two-one star ranks is absurd. Surely there are ways to adjust them in the overall reorganization. 

Finally, theaterisation appears to be on hold for the time being but the immediate need is to address future threats holistically; for which, defining the NSS and undertaking comprehensive defence review are essential. The Raksha Mantri’s Annual Directive is a generic document which hardly meets the requirement. The threat assessment must also take into account threats across our borders with Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh (not China-Pakistan only) considering the dynamics of the region and future portends. Making hasty decisions on theaterisation for political benefits will be naïve.

The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.

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