Why "Theatre Command" is a Whole Lot of Hot Air for India

IndraStra Global

Why "Theatre Command" is a Whole Lot of Hot Air for India

By Group Captain Murli Menon (Retd.)
Indian Air Force

Image Attribute:  Digital rendering of the satellite view of India. This globe rendering is a screenshot from the Globe Master geography game, shared by the game authors. For the globe texture, Whole world - land, and oceans composite image were used, created by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center (public domain). / Przemek Pietrak / Wikimedia Commons

Image Attribute:  Digital rendering of the satellite view of India. This globe rendering is a screenshot from the Globe Master geography game, shared by the game authors. For the globe texture, Whole world - land, and oceans composite image were used, created by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center (public domain). / Przemek Pietrak / Wikimedia Commons

There has been some media frenzy of late about the need for India to replace its existing single service sectoral command structure with two theatre commands, west for the Pakistan threat and East for the China front. Before analyzing the pros and cons of this proposal, we need to clearly understand the distinctly traditional war waging mindset of the three services. The Indian Army (IA) generally has a battle horizon of  "one day’s march". General Krishnaswamy Sundarji attempted to widen this scope to around a 100 km, with his mechanized aspirations. The Indian Navy (IN) operates in a few knots per hour domain, even gunboat diplomacy taking protracted numbers of days to manifest. The Indian Air Force (IAF), on the other hand, is the truly a "strategic service". A fighter-bomber on a tactical mission is capable of achieving strategic goals a la the IAF air strike on the East Pakistan Governor's palace in December 1971, which led to the capitulation of the entire Eastern Military High Command of the Pakistan Armed Forces. Air Forces have the ability to strike across the targeting cycle, directly at the enemy's military and political leadership, something the other two services cannot easily do. For these reasons of domain orientation, the three services would never agree on a fancy idea such as "theaterisation". Now a veiled attempt is being made to make the IAF a tactical entity, whereas it is the only service capable of prosecuting war at all three levels- tactical, operational and strategic — via any air campaign — seamlessly.

For these above-mentioned reasons, all three services have their own priorities set for warfighting, with their own predefined/distinguished war doctrines. The IAF was the first to articulate an Air Power Doctrine, in the early nineties. The Navy followed up with its own doctrine and finally the Army too. An attempt to articulate a "Joint Doctrine" for the three services a while later had to be shelved owing to yawning gaps in the strategic mindsets of the respective leaderships. To put it bluntly, the Army only thinks "close air support", wants air assets "under command (with singular characteristics)" and does not fathom the need for counter-air, strategic-air or combat-support air operations. They generally are unable to understand the nuances of the "Counter-surface" force campaign which is equally important for the IAF, as are the strategic-air, counter-air, and combat-support air. The inter se priority of its different air operations for the IAF would vary depending on the stage and tenor of the battle. Be that as it may, joint warfighting procedures and norms have evolved over the years, functioning very well indeed at the Command or operational levels. There is no need now to try and fix a system that is not broken. Every nation needs to adopt military organizations which suit its national ethos. The politicians have fought shy of creating five-star Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff, so talking of "theatre commands" at this juncture is asking for big trouble. We need to concentrate on beefing up our inventories and effecting suitable cadre reviews to achieve healthier teeth-to-tail ratios. Bringing in another level of operational command in the guise of a theatre commander is an exercise in futility, with serious attendant handicaps of inadequate domain expertise by a different service theater commander and suboptimal parceling out of expensive military air assets, especially where dynamic and versatile air power capabilities come into play. And let us not forget that a nation has only "ONE" Air Force. Army Aviation and Naval Aviation have merely extended aired arms of these two services. They can never aspire to orchestrate a nation's air power in an air campaign as only an air force can.

This valuable hard kill and other command and control tools such as Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and other force multipliers are meant to be switched from zone to zone depending on the appreciation of the IAF commander as tasked strategically by the Air Chief  and not sought to be brought "under command (with singular characteristics)" of a non-expert military leader. There is a danger in blindly aping the United States, Israel or China here, given the prevalent career profiles in the three services, where  "maroon" tenures in the upward hierarchy are not yet mandatory. India is not yet ready to experiment with theaterisation because we still need to give it another couple of decades of attempted "maroonisation" and, possibly then we may be mature to transmute into an integrated warfighting organization such as the  "Theater Command".

So making a humble request in this closing statement to our honorable union minister of defence, — "Kindly don't attempt to fix something that ain't broken at the first place itself."

About the Author:

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon
Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting its tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India's Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000-2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008-2011.

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank – "Air War Strategy Cell" that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and post-retirement, he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India. 

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.