India’s rocky path to establishing joint theatre commands
13 Jul 2023|

The Indian military has been seeking to build jointness among its services for decades, including through proposals to establish regional joint theatre commands with responsibility for different areas of the subcontinent and beyond. But those efforts hit a roadblock earlier this year when the Indian Air Force (IAF) objected to its capabilities being split across commands and relegated to providing tactical support to land operations. A truly joint Indian military may still be a long way off.

For around a decade, Indian military leaders have been touting theatre commands as a way to bring together the army, air force and navy under joint command in defined regions. The proposed structure is broadly modelled on the US theatre command system, although on a much smaller geographic scale.

The initiative gathered pace in 2020 with the appointment of India’s first chief of defence staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat. Under one proposal, the three services’ 17 regional commands would be replaced with five theatre commands—one each in the west, north and east, plus an Indian Ocean command and an air defence command. That arrangement, it was hoped, would reduce duplication and promote jointness in planning, strategy and operations (though some have argued that the government’s approach is driven more by financial considerations than by operational goals).

While all three services have shown a willingness to consider the plan, they are yet to agree on the details. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged them to reach a consensus on proposals earlier this year, the new CDS, General Anil Chauhan, set about the task of resolving the individual services’ concerns. He has now been directed to implement jointness through a ‘bottom-up’ approach that focuses first on logistics, human resources, weapons procurement and communications before addressing other areas. In contrast to past hurried efforts, the new CDS has displayed a mature and measured approach to the task.

The IAF is the most apprehensive about the change. Its leaders say the proposal weakens the IAF’s force structure, undermines its doctrinal approach and affects its operational capabilities. For them, it seems like a plan to parcel out the air force to theatre commands. Fundamentally, the IAF’s reservations are that the model is too army-centric. The Indian Army’s huge size and leading role in domestic counterinsurgency and land-based border disputes have given it a disproportionately large role in India’s military strategy.

Yet every recent Indian prime minister has articulated the nation’s strategic interests as extending beyond its land borders, from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Straits. Except for a brief period in the 1980s, India has rarely demonstrated the will to defend those interests through power-projection capabilities, which critically include airpower. Paradoxically, India’s political leadership has generally limited itself to defensive and reactive military responses.

The IAF has said that while it’s not against theatre commands in principle, its core strengths shouldn’t be compromised by such a change. The feeling seems to be that the army is out of sync with the realities of modern warfare and has an archaic, land-centric mindset. That concern was reinforced in 2021 by Rawat, who said that the IAF is only a supporting arm for the ground forces, much like artillery and engineers. That statement betrayed a deeply held belief within the army that the IAF’s role is subordinate to the army’s.

There are concerns that the proposed air defence command would effectively reduce the IAF to playing such a supporting role. Limiting the IAF to air defence would ignore the multidimensional nuances at play in the air domain, including offensive and defensive counter-air, strategic strike, air transport, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, has said that this makes the proposal unacceptable and counterproductive, noting that strong air defence is inextricably linked to counter-air and all other offensive air operations.

The IAF has also argued that the distribution of air assets to theatre commands would go against the principle of unity of airpower. Its fighter aircraft are all multirole platforms, which allows considerable flexibility in their usage. Assigning dedicated forces to a theatre could hamper that flexibility, particularly when resources are limited. The IAF is down to 32fighter squadrons and may touch a low of 30 by 2025–26, compared with its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. Chaudhari estimates that the IAF may, at best, increase to 36 squadrons by 2035–36 . This low strength doesn’t offer the luxury of allocating dedicated airpower resources to each of the theatre commands.

Despite its reduced fighter squadron strength, the IAF has kept modernisation on track and possesses a growing expeditionary capability (as was demonstrated in its participation in Exercise Pitch Black 2022). Due to limited resources, control of these capabilities needs to be centralised and execution needs to be decentralised.

For fixed air force deployments to theatre commands to be viable, the IAF would need a force of at least 42 fighter squadrons. Even when integrated theatre commands finally replace the IAF’s geographical operational commands, it would need to have functional commands (such as an air combat command and an air transport command, and ) to train and maintain the forces to be provided to the theatre commands. These functional commands would be especially important for executing specialist airpower missions, although the tasking may flow from the CDS.

The IAF’s updated doctrine, released early this year, should also be taken into consideration. It reflects a strategic shift that should influence the restructuring. It divides the conflict spectrum into ‘war’, ‘peace’, and ‘no war, no peace’, and stresses that airpower is a key component of joint military strategy. It also emphasises the importance of expeditionary capability, punitive strikes, civil–military fusion and air diplomacy. It postulates a larger regional role for the IAF, particularly in the Indian Ocean, including airborne early warning and control; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and strike and airlift capabilities.

The theatre command concept should be tested before it is fully implemented. The Andaman and Nicobar Command, set up in 2001 as India’s first real joint theatre command, provides a great opportunity to validate and finetune all elements of a theatre command, but, to date, interservice rivalry has prevented it from reaching to its full strategic potential.

Theatre commands should also reflect a national security strategy, which India currently lacks. As former army chief General M.M. Naravane recently commented, moving to theatre commands without an overarching strategy is like ‘putting the cart before the horse’.

Finally,  radical changes in operational and administrative chains of command can’t just be left to the military to decide. It will be difficult given the entrenched jostling in India’s chain of command, but for a theatre command concept to work, decision-makers need to sit within a clear and consistent command structure. That could mean developing a joint chiefs of staff system like in the US, fully integrating service headquarters with the Ministry of Defence, and removing the operational roles of the service chiefs. Without clear structures, newly appointed joint theatre commanders could be simply sidelined in practice.

Since the government isn’t interested in biting that bullet, those crucial reforms may need to be driven by a parliament-mandated committee that involves all major stakeholders. India needs its own Goldwater–Nichols moment to produce lasting and effective military reforms.

This article was written as part of the Australia India Institute’s defence program undertaken with the support of the Australian Department of Defence. All views expressed in this article are those of the author only.