Idea of carving theatre commands is flawed

FOLLOWING the decision on the appointment of a CDS, there is buzz that the restructuring of the armed forces into theatre commands would follow, seemingly for integration and operational benefits. Three theatre commands are being spoken of.

Idea of carving theatre commands is flawed

INDIA AS ONE THEATRE: We cannot afford to divide our air and space forces, for there just aren’t enough numbers.

Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)

Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)
Former Commander-in-Chief, Training Command, IAF

FOLLOWING the decision on the appointment of a CDS, there is buzz that the restructuring of the armed forces into theatre commands would follow, seemingly for integration and operational benefits. Three theatre commands are being spoken of. The Second World War, with 98 million square kilometre of geographical war space had primarily two theatres of war and India measuring 3.3 million square kilometre aspires for three. Such variance obliges that the definition and operational connotations of a theatre is revisited. As per Carl Von Clausewitz’s definition in his book On War, a theatre is a portion of space over which war prevails and has its boundaries protected and possesses a kind of independence. The protection may consist in an important natural obstacle, presented by the country, or even it being separated by a considerable distance from the rest of the space embraced in war.

Such a portion is not a piece of the whole, but a small whole complete and, consequently, in such a condition that changes which take place to other points in the seat of war have only an indirect or no direct influence at all.

The key characteristics of a theatre that emerge are: (a) independence; (b) demarcation by natural boundaries; (c) large distance between theatres and no direct influence; (d) serve as a complete whole. The European and Pacific theatres of WW-II were over 1,000 miles removed, independent, coastlines served as natural boundaries, served as a composite whole.

In the Indian context, theatres would be within our homeland, adjacent, with no natural demarcation. Being adjacent implies operational influence on each other, entailing them to be under one commander, to weigh influences and accord priority. During WW-II, theatres were carved with integral resources since forces could not be quickly relocated as wars were being fought away from homeland. Such is not the case with India. Ours is a small-sized country, with smaller lines of communication, relocation of forces is quickly feasible, and hence, carving theatres is making pieces of our composite whole, a contradiction of the very basic definition. 

India needs to be seen as one theatre, much like the entire US landmass which is three times larger than India and organised under one single theatre called United States Northern Command. For Russia and China, which are six and three times our size, the key enablers for theatre commands are their size and extra-regional expeditionary national interests. Russia has four regional commands, but with an independent air and space command. Clearly, the air defence of the country hasn't been divided. The Chinese theatre commands are still evolving and while some benefits may accrue, so would new vulnerabilities. 

But in our case, neither is the size compelling nor the need for out-of-homeland contingencies or the stretch of our regional or global interests and, above all, we cannot afford to divide our air and space forces, for there just aren’t enough numbers.

The IAF's current force levels are at 30 fighter squadrons, three airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), six flight refueller aircraft (FRA), 10 C-17s, radars and surface-to-air missiles (SAM)s. On being divided, each theatre would at best have 10-12 fighter squadrons, two FRA sand one AWACS. Such a division would render the Air Force weak in every theatre. The fielding of 10 squadrons against Pakistan’s 22 in the western theatre and 10 against China’s 25 would be a sure recipe for disaster as the Air Force would not be able to provide the requisite air defence and support to the ground forces. Only central orchestration with a multiplexed use of air assets across the entire battle space of our country/theatres can get us victory. The concept of centrality in the use of air power needs to be understood by those propagating the idea of theatre commands.  

It is heresy that a theatre structure would ensure integration. Differences between Gen Wesley K Clarke, Commander, Allied Force, and Lt-Gen Micheal C. Short, Joint Air Force Component Commander, affected the campaign planning in the Kosovo operations even while under an integrated command structure. In Operation Anaconda, senior army commanders were widely criticised by their naval and air counterparts for not coordinating with them effectively even while under one command. During the IPKF operations in 1987, the army commander of the IPKF Unified Command elected to make a helicopter drop at Jaffna University, overruling the air force advice of it being risky. Consequently, all helicopters were damaged, and several lives lost. These examples pointedly confirm that jointness is not implicit in an integrated command structure. 

Certainly, future wars need to be fought in an integrated manner, to combine the destructive power and reach of each weapon system. This synergy must be achieved by joint planning which serves as the start point for integrated war plans/synergistic application of military power and is necessitated, irrespective of the military structure that a nation adopts. Integration does not imply merging of the armed forces, but demands activities for integrated operations to be done jointly evolved by understanding concepts of integrated war fighting, resolving doctrinal issues, clarity on roles and missions, working closely in a cooperative mode with knowledge of the core competencies of the other service and with an overriding perception of what is best for the nation and not necessarily for the individual service. The institution of the CDS will have to ensure this.

Conceptually speaking, the inherent idea of a theatre relates to vast land and sea areas with stretched lines of communication, requiring integral forces, spaced out from adjoining theatres so as not to be influenced and emerge as a complete whole. Ours is a small-sized country, with smaller lines of communication, making relocation of forces feasible, adjoining theatres would bear operational influence on each other, robbing them of operational independence. In this perspective and owing to lesser numbers in the Air Force, the idea of carving theatres is fundamentally flawed. Our size, indivisibility of the Air Force, limited conventional and sub-conventional wars and disposition of our enemies compel us to be structured and viewed as one theatre, a complete whole employing one strategy against enemies in collusion or support. 

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