Theatre commands and the national security strategy

Harsha Kakar
Speaking at the 4th General K V Krishna Rao Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, General Naravane, the former army chief, said, ‘Theaterization is not an end, it is only a means to an end and that end has to be specified first in the form of a national defence strategy and that defence strategy has in turn to flow out of a National Security Strategy (NSS).’ Speaking at the same seminar, General Manoj Pande, the current army chief stating that the army was committed to theaterization, mentioned, ‘We are also looking at how best you can integrate it, aggregate the capabilities of the three services both in terms of jointness, integration and finally in terms of achieving the integrated theatre command models.’
The two views are different, one suggesting a top-down approach while the other adopting a median path by stating that jointness and integration are essential elements of warfare and must come through in the form of theatre commands. The aim of theatre commands was very simply spelt out by General Bipin Rawat when he mentioned, ‘We are looking at how to synergise the services so that we don’t look at each other as an individual service, but as the armed forces of the union.’ In nations, where services operate in silos, they compete with each other for a share of the budget pie and protecting their turfs. India is no different.
On another occasion General Rawat mentioned, ‘Theatre Commands are being created to achieve strategic objectives. The system that we are adopting is best suited for the optimum management of both external and internal security challenges. Theatres would have tailor made components from the three services and are based on geography, threat and envisaged roles.’ In India, despite claims to the contrary, theatres commands are being designed to suit our context, not copying any western model of force projection or global domination. The only guidelines which appear to have been given are that India has no territorial ambitions.
There is no doubt that India needs a NSS to define its end goals and intent as also that it will form the basis of an armed forces strategy. The NSS will also convey globally, as also to neighbours, India’s red lines. At the same time it will not be a defining document, nor will it change the tasking, employment and deployment of forces along each front as these have evolved over time based on national security interests and the need to secure our borders. The latest realignment of a strike corps from the western front to northern borders was not done on any directive but on India’s changed intent of taking the battle across the LAC. It was determined by assessed threat conducted by the senior military hierarchy and accepted by the government.
Evidently, India’s threats are well known by the military hierarchy as they have sought to develop capabilities to counter them. However, there is no joint capability development alongside lack of trust between the services. The navy seeks a third carrier while the air force desires to build up its squadron strength from the existing 30 to around 42. With the defence budget being near constant, additional allocation to one service would impact availability and capability development plans of another. The air force thus announces that it can support naval operations from shore-based aircraft denuding the need for a third carrier, to which the navy disagrees.
Another major internal concern is the misguided belief that resources allocated to theatres would be unavailable for other tasks, which could be of strategically higher significance. In addition is the perception that senior commanders do not comprehend nuances of sister services which could lead to under or misutilization of resources. These are lame excuses to protect current turfs and fears of being dominated by the larger army cadre. India’s theatres are being created within and not outside, as is the case of the US. Hence, reallocation and sidestepping will remain possible and in very short time frames.
Simultaneously, it has been accepted by all that integrated application of force is a prerequisite in any future war. Hence, jointness is essential. What remains disputed is the manner in which this can be achieved. Currently, while the air force concept iscentralised command, distributed control and decentralised execution, the navy and the army allocate resources to commanders who are then expected to fulfil their tasks. Coordination between different army and naval commands is done in Delhi.
If the current system continues, guaranteed resources would never be known to enable planning of operations, thereby leaving gaps in planning and shortfalls in execution. This makes creation of theatre commands all the more essential, enabling a commander to plan operations with known resources. In case, a sector is silent the controlling agency, the Chiefs of Staff Committee, under the CDS would order sidestepping of resources.
Creating theatres of operations will also ensure that all force deployment in a sector, irrespective of the ministry they serve under,must operate within the gambit of the theatre. Nominating a commander and deploying forces not under his command and control within his region, is mocking the institution while displaying poor understanding of national security.The logic of ‘one border, one commander, one force’ must be implemented.
The NSS will remain a guiding document for those responsible for ensuring national security and not a rule book. It also does not imply that in its absence there is no defence planning nor directions for the forces. Tasking at each level is specific and based on national security concerns, whether written in black and white or not. Integrating the forces and creating theatre commands is not hampered by the lack of a NSS, though having one would be ideal. What is more essential is to create structures for integrated employment of full combat potential. Demanding an NSS, as a prerequisite, is only an excuse to prolong creating what India has needed for decades.
The author is Major General (Retd)