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Theatre Commands: Understanding its Concepts and Implications ; By Gp Capt (Dr) R Srinivasan VSM

Updated: Feb 21, 2023


Image Courtesy: Bharathi Shakthi


Article 51/2021

India’s strategic community is abuzz with incisive discourses concerning the announcement by the Chief of Defence Staff, the formation of theatre commands. The host of papers, opinions, and discussions seem to indicate theatre commands as an end product of the concept of joint operations that originated when Integrated Defence Staff was formed in November 2001. The line of thoughts emanating from India’s first CDS, General Bipin Rawat, appears to be hinting at the dissolution of existing Army, Navy, and Air Force Commands in order to create three or four theatre commands under a single commander each. As anticipated, this prospect has also generated contestations and concerns over turf control.


Some of the prominent thoughts in circulation with respect to theatre commands that place joint operations as its core philosophy are from CLAWS[i], ORF[ii] and in two of India’s prominent newspapers, The Print[iii] and Indian Express[iv]. Stepping aside from these discourses in academia and media, it is necessary to explore the concept of theatre commands first, before assessing its conceptual basis as well as its implications.


The concept of theatre command originated obviously from the US. Till the time it was attacked on the 7th of December 1941 by Japan at Pearl Harbor, the USA was merely watching the Nazi war machine sweep through Europe. However, after the Japanese attack, the USA stepped into the war to avenge Japan by opening the Pacific Theatre under General McArthur. In about three years’ time, it also landed troops on the beaches of Normandy under General Eisenhower at the head of the Allied Forces (SHAEF). When the war ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, America was already on its early stages of the Cold War with the USSR, prompting it to form Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) or more popularly, the NATO. In due course of time, other parts of the world increasingly came within the ambit of America’s interests propelling it to form theatre commands. Today, US has 11 combined combat commands covering every region or country in the world within their sphere of operations. For example, the US Africa Command ‘with partners, counters transnational threats and malign actors, strengthen security forces, and responds to crises in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity[v]. This brief historical understanding provides the following key elements that necessitate combined combat commands or theatre commands:

  1. Locating and promoting substantial assets in national interest across vast and geographically separated areas across the globe.

  2. Explicit intent to use armed intervention when such interests are threatened.

  3. Creating partnerships with host countries where such interests and assets are located, including substantial military aid, training and joint-operational ethos.

For example, apart from addressing threats to the USA emanating from the Pacific Ocean Region, protecting US interests and alliances with Japan, Singapore, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan are embedded as the core objectives of its Pacific Command located at Hawaii. The nature of potential threats to its interests and geographical factors defining its allies or enemies necessitate that its Army, Navy and Air Force must operate under a unified command structure. In no small measure is the patently expeditionary philosophy by which US Armed Forces are trained to operate and are deployed across the globe. It is also important to note that executive decision from none other than the President of the United States backed by the Senate authorizes the permanent deployment of American Forces all across the world.


When we look at India, we find that neither such philosophy nor any of the other factors necessitating theatre commands are present. India is surrounded by two inimical countries covering most of its land borders. Its sea borders are more threatened by conventional war from one of its neighbors. As for the other neighbors in its vicinity, except for demographic influxes, no credible threats emanate warranting the permanent presence of its armed forces or even forays into their territory for specific tasks frequently. In any case, India strongly abides by the policy of negotiations than armed interventions to protect its interests in the neighborhood. Even the Indian Army’s surgical strikes at Balakot or across Myanmar’s borders were more due to the circumstances and national mood specifically attending on them than on account of a patented national policy.


Unlike America, India has dual control mechanism for its armed forces. The President remains its Supreme Commander. He comes into the picture only when a state of war needs to be declared officially. The executive control rests with the Prime Minister through the Ministry of Defence. The Parliament of India plays a very little direct role in so far the deployment of armed forces is concerned, internally or otherwise. The executive control mechanism specifically keeps the armed forces away from internal as well as foreign policymaking, unlike the Pentagon which works in conjunction with the Department of State or the President of the USA.


Again unlike America, Indian interests abroad like ONGC, VSNL, L&T investments have no negotiated clause where either military contractors or the military are present in those areas for the protection of Indian personnel or assets. They remain within the ambit of the MEA and its diplomatic framework in the host country. Even where diaspora is concerned, Americans working or residing abroad have a direct connection with their embassy which periodically reviews the security situation locally and employs forces when needed, to protect them or extract them through a bilateral arrangement with the host country. The Tehran Embassy crisis in 1979-81 and America’s response and the case of Daniel Pearl, an American journalist killed by Al Qaeda, shaping America’s policy towards Al Qaeda are well known.


It may be of interest to look at how India handled its crises abroad to appreciate whether boots-on-ground policy goes with national policy. To cite few examples:

  1. In 1972, Dictator Idi Amin specifically targeted Indians in Uganda. Nearly 75000 Indians, including 25000 who were bonafide citizens of Uganda were threatened to leave the country. The crisis had started way back in 1967-68 and even as India was winning the war in East Pakistan in December 1971, it became acute. As of 1971, the Indian Armed Forces were at their prime and Indira Gandhi was not seen as a weak leader either. Yet, India kept a lukewarm silence and eventually ended up appealing to the African nations to prevail over Idi Amin. Fearing backlash from Idi Amin, neighbors like Tanzania with which India purportedly had good relations, closed their borders to Indians fleeing Uganda. The summary expulsions, harassment, detentions, disappearances, and deaths combined with lack of any compensation in the post-Amin era is indeed a tragic story.[vi]

  2. Fiji, a small island nation in the Pacific, experienced four coups between 1986 and 2000. At the heart of the reasons for the coups were high decibel anti-Indian sentiments that resulted in extraordinary oppression of the Indian diaspora. It took nearly fifteen more years for India-Fiji relations to turn around. Realizing that Fiji would remain isolated internationally, the Fijian regime warmed up to India through constructive agreements in 2015 like establishing the Institute for Sustainable Coastal and Ocean Research in the region and a network of marine biology research stations in various island nations and the offer to carry out hydrographic surveys by Indian Navy to help Fiji exploit its marine resources responsibly. For once and for peaceful purposes, India’s naval presence became part of national strategy in the Pacific[vii], although limited in its tenure.

  3. The Iraq (Kuwait) crisis of 1990 again saw the Indian government indulging in fantastic diplomatic footwork with Saddam Husain to repatriate nearly 17000 Indians[viii]. In many ways when compared with the Ugandan experience, Kuwait spelt a turning point in the way India responded to crisis abroad concerning its diaspora or interests. Analysts point as to how ‘the Kuwait crisis resulted in India making two critical steps that shaped its post-Cold War policy toward the region: diminishing influence of the Palestinian cause in its engagements with the Arab world and economic substance replacing political rhetoric’[ix].

  4. The IC 814 hijack crisis of 1999 is another example when India hesitated to use its armed forces even on its own soil, handing the Taliban and Pakistan their prized terrorists. The fallout of that hesitation visited India in varied forms in the years thereafter.

These examples point to the need to evaluate India’s options in multifarious dimensions before putting together its theatre commands. The aspects meriting consideration are:

  1. Need to have a stated policy that armed forces will be deployed in national interest wherever across the globe those interests are threatened. Even though the use of force will be the last of the options, their presence in the theatre should be a matter of policy. An important case study that merits detailed appreciation is India’s hesitation to accept the offer of Tajikistan to develop its international airport and house up to two squadrons of Indian Air Force there. The strategic advantage to India in Central Asia notwithstanding, a lukewarm policy let the opportunity slip away. In the current scenario in the Indo-Pacific, for example, to protect India’s maritime and trade interests, will India deploy its navy or amphibious forces in conjunction with SCS littoral countries? Answers to such questions rest on the policy framework more than the capability of its armed forces.

  2. Building capabilities the armed forces need to sustain such overseas operations over a prolonged period of time. With experiences like decades of indecisiveness over procuring or producing a couple of aircraft carriers or indigenous aerial platforms/engines, India needs to look at the concept of Atma Nirbhar more closely and pursue its proceeds in a stricter time frame. The Chinese incursion of 1962 should serve as a good example for self-sufficiency in defense production and application of innovative homegrown and sustainable technologies, not to mention the recent off-the-shelf procurements to deter the Chinese in Ladakh. In the United States as well as China, it is well known that the military is deeply involved with government and private agencies to develop and modernize its weapons and platforms through R&D collaboration.

  3. Bilateral arrangements with countries of interest where such operations are envisaged. Bilateral agreements play an important role in shaping and preserving India’s interests. It is important to identify what India can constructively offer that the host countries would be hard put to resist.

  4. Changes are needed in the command and control structure. The current command and control structure, particularly in higher defense management needs a complete revamp. The Goldwater-Nichols Act 1986[x] of the United States and the restructuring of the Armed Forces higher command structure must be evaluated in the Indian context and with necessary modifications, adopted by an act of the Parliament.

  5. Educating the political and bureaucratic elite on the concept of military deployment. While the military is an expression of political will that expression needs to be born out of concise understanding in the minds of the political and bureaucratic elite as to its application. Israel’s daring 90 minutes at Entebbe is a classic example of the conceptual clarity and firmness of resolve while using armed forces outside the borders in the national interest. It is also an important lesson in the combined command structure. It is no coincidence that America’s use of military power finds its expression from its highest office the occupants of which have served directly or indirectly in uniform.

  6. Restructuring Military Training. A firm grounding in international law of war, bilateral and multilateral process of international relations and country-specific interests of India is required to be imparted to appropriate higher level of military leadership for them to work in sync with political objectives. In the same manner, civil servants and diplomatic corps need to work with the highest military formations to understand and evolve joint-ness of operations at all levels. They must also be in sync at field levels wherever across the globe a need for military expression emanates.

  7. Reforming and re-structuring the intelligence agencies. In the present scheme of things, though NSA heads the complete fraternity, multiple agencies involved in the network report to as many ministries, giving rise to a tendency to play for individual turfs. Importantly, intelligence gathering abroad remains outside the domain of the military, except in an incidental manner. Smooth coordination and working together of military intelligence and civil counterparts in real-time would be vital to obtain results on the ground where operations are envisaged in foreign shores.

From independence onwards, India has followed its policy of non-interference instilling a paramount defensive outlook towards its military operations. The political decision makers also have played the military card only under the most compelling circumstances, that too with as many restraints as possible. India’s experience of deploying IPKF in Sri Lanka is yet to be studied in detail by the strategic community to truly understand the import of theatre level operations in conjunction with policy makers, both walking side by side. Similarly, India’s assistance to the Maldives in times of its crisis also needs to be studied exhaustively to work out the modalities for theatre level operations.


Another country that is developing and testing its theatre command concept in India’s neighborhood is China. The case of China trapping Djibouti with its Cheque book has been largely discussed within the parameters of ‘String of Pearls’ and ‘BRI’. When we look beyond, we find that China has made investments surpassing USD 4.7 billion in Africa[xi]. It even instituted a China-Africa Development Fund in 2007[xii] before embarking upon a military station at Djibouti in 2017, good ten years later. Seen from the stated policy of China to protect its overseas interests arising from its ambitious BRI project, entering into Djibouti through bilateral arrangements exemplifies how the concept of theatre commands will portray power projection in the national interest.


Keeping these factors in mind, it is necessary for the Indian policy establishment first to identify what are the national interests that would be served by commissioning the theatre commands to replace the internal geographical service commands that have served the nation’s interest well so far. The existing command structure have also yielded substantial results in the 1971 war as well as in the Kargil conflict. Given the essentially defensive philosophy that cocoons India’s national security policy, explicitly excluding the military from its economic and other strategic national interests beyond its borders, critical re-appraisal of its national security policy should precede the formation of theatre commands.


It is more important that India re-calibrates its policy making structures before instituting the theatre commands if they are to serve the nation well in the emerging world order. At a time when India’s growth is on the right path and the process of globalization seems to nudge it ever forward, any major shift in re-structuring its only guarantee for territorial sovereignty should be undertaken only through exhaustive and discerning evaluation. To merely treat it as a matter for the military to decide would serve little purpose towards larger national interest.


In the absence of a clear external, economic and military policy demanding explicit application of military might to protect its interests globally, disbanding the internal geographical commands will only accentuate contestations for turf control between the three forces, rendering India susceptible at a moment when geopolitical vulnerabilities in the subcontinent appear to be not in its favour.


(Dr R Srinivasan is an independent researcher and the Managing Editor of Electronic Journal of Social and Strategic Studies (www.ejsss.net.in) He can be contacted at srinivasan.r961@gmail.com. The views expressed are personal.)


References:

[vi] Patel, H. (1972). General Amin and the Indian Exodus from Uganda. Issue: A Journal of Opinion, 2(4), 12-22. doi:10.2307/1166488

[vii] Weber, E. (2017). Looking north or looking anywhere? Indo-Fijian international relations after the coups of May 2000 and December 2006. Bandung J of Global South 4, 2 (2017), P 04. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40728-017-0039-4

[viii] Fabian, K., & Indian Foreign Affairs Journal. (2012). Biggest Ever Air Evacuation in History. Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, 7(1), 93-107. Retrieved August 17, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/45341807

[ix] Quamar, M. M., & Kumaraswamy, P. R. (2019). The Kuwait Crisis of 1990–1991: The Turning Point in India’s Middle East Policy. Contemporary Review of the Middle East, 6(1), 75–87. https://doi.org/10.1177/2347798918812287

[x] Locher, James R. (2017). Transformative Leadership on Capitol Hill: The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act, in Bradley Lynn Coleman, Kyle Longley , eds. Reagan and the World: Leadership and National Security, ch 4, Pp. 81-110.

[xi] Park, Yoon Jung (April 17, 2021). Chinese investment in Africa involves more than megaprojects. Private enterprises also are making their mark, Washington Post (online). Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/04/17/chinese-investment-africa-involves-more-than-megaprojects-private-enterprises-also-are-making-their-mark/

[xii] Chen, James (May 09, 2021). China-Africa Development Fund (CADFund), Investopedia (online). Retrieved from: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/china-africa-development-fund.asp

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