Think Before You Leap

Theatre Commands: Need For Fresh Look

Air Marshal Amit Tiwari (retd)

After the Kargil War of 1999, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee set up the Kargil Review Committee to assess the events leading to the war and make recommendations for the future. However, the Kargil Review Committee or the GoM did not comment on the conduct of war, as it was a professional military matter. The three services were expected to conduct a joint review, identify shortcomings and implement necessary changes.

However, even after more than two decades since the Kargil War, there is no tri-service joint study document available in the public domain, addressing the conduct of the Kargil war, identifying its shortcomings and providing recommendations for improvement. In the absence of any such study, the government could not approve any reforms in the command and control structure of the Indian armed forces.

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had to highlight the necessity of achieving greater jointness within the armed forces. Yet, there was limited progress on the tri-service front. To expedite the process, the government created the post of chief of defence staff (CDS) and appointed General Bipin Rawat as the first CDS of India in 2019. General Rawat, within a short span of 34 days after his appointment, on 4 February 2020, announced the proposal for the formation of theatre commands. However, it seemed the announcement had been made without a comprehensive tri-service study and consensus among the services as frequent amendments to the original proposal started appearing in the media soon after and continue to do so.

The difference in perception of jointness amongst the three services became more apparent when a year and a half later, on 3 July 2021, General Rawat, during a conclave, stated, “Do not forget the IAF continues to remain a supporting arm just as artillery support or engineers support the combatant arm in the Army. They will be a supporting arm”. The next day, chief of air staff Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria responded by saying, “It is not a supporting role alone. The airpower has a huge role to play. In any of the integrated battle areas, it is not an issue of support alone.” The evident asperity of this exchange reflected the fundamental disconnect between the Army’s and IAF’s perceptions of airpower capabilities and utilisation in future joint warfighting. This partial understanding of airpower among the other services led to multiple changes and limited progress in the proposed structure of joint commands since 2021. To avoid settling for a least common denominator theatre command, it is crucial to understand underlying problems in the existing system and establish a shared understanding of each service’s strengths and weaknesses.


The Idea

The theatre command concept originated in the United States (US). The evolution of the present US armed forces’ command and control structure is a result of numerous iterations, each prompted by operational shortcomings, technological advancements, or shifts in the threat landscape. These iterations involved thorough deliberation on the identified issues before recommendations were made. The command structures were specifically tailored to suit the unique conditions characterised by limited threats to the continental US and the need for power projection through expeditionary forces. To better understand the process of evolution of theatre command in the US, it is imperative to delve a bit into its history.

On its independence on 4 July 1776, The US did not have a regular army. During the first 75 years of its existence, the United States fought the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Mexican War. In these wars, almost all fighting-age Americans took part. Therefore, the constitution framers felt that with limited threat from land and availability of all the citizens for war fighting, it was not imperative to have a large standing army for national defence. However, it was felt that a navy would be required as the main threat was likely to be from the sea and it was not possible to create a navy at short notice. Therefore, it was decided that Congress would raise and support an army as needed and provide and maintain a navy. The states were tasked to maintain militias which would be requisitioned as the federal. Two separate departments were created to run the army and navy. It was done to avoid the problems faced by other nations where naval operations were subordinated to land warfare and in the process sea power objectives suffered. The command and control of both the army and navy was with the president through respective departments. The division of labour was clear—the army and navy both were to focus on their objectives and domain of operations.

The next change in the US defence force’s structure took place during War of 1812 with Britain. At the beginning of the war, a few states refused to provide militias for the federal army. Thus, British forces were able to occupy Washington almost without any resistance. Subsequently, after winning the war, Congress decided to have a standing army with proper command and staff structures.

The US entered World War I with its army and navy being controlled by two different departments and service autonomy was based on division of labour. The introduction of airpower during the war years disturbed this carefully maintained balance. The airpower could transcend into the domain of the army and navy with equal ease. Both the services wanted the airpower for themselves but had doctrinal problems in accommodating it. The doctrines of the army and navy both were defensive in nature and aimed at the defence of the continental US, whereas the airpower was inherently offensive in nature.

Mitchell, Douhet and Trenchard, prominent airpower theorists from both sides of the Atlantic, argued that the devastating loss of millions in trench warfare during World War I could be avoided in future conflicts with the utilisation of airpower. They highlighted that land power, by its nature and mode of operation, relied heavily on formidable defensive lines, resulting in futile and prolonged casualties and carnage for both opposing sides during wars. In contrast, airpower stood out as the key element capable of expediting outcomes due to its unparalleled freedom of movement and inherent flexibility. However, for airpower to be effective, it would be imperative that its basic tenets of being independent, not being used in a piecemeal manner, and attaining command of air before any other operation were followed. Almost 100 years later, the same lessons are being learnt in the Russian-Ukrainian war where airpower was not used as per its basic tenets.

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