In a strategic decision deliberated for some time, the Indian Government has decided on the theaterisation of its armed forces. India plans to raise three integrated commands from its existing regional commands. The theater of war refers to the land, sea, and air areas where war is fought. The concept of the theater of war was introduced during World War 2 when battles were fought across continents and in different countries. Examples include the Southeast Asian theater, Mediterranean theater, Middle Eastern theater, European theater, Pacific theater, Nordic theater, and African theater, among others.
The USA was the first country to have theater commands, and at present, it has eleven combat commands with geographical or functional missions. Russia has four integrated tri-service commands, and China has 5 integrated commands. The Chinese Western theater command is responsible for Ladakh (IIOJK) and Arunachal Pradesh (South Tibet). In the case of India, it currently has two integrated tri-services commands: the Andaman and Nicobar command established in 2001, responsible for Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, and the Strategic Forces command established in 2003, which controls nuclear weapons and missiles.
After the Kargil war debacle, resulting from intelligence failures and the slow mobilization of the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Kargil Review Committee recommended the creation of theater commands. This recommendation was followed by the Shekatkar Committee, headed by Lt Gen Shekatkar (Retired), who recommended the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Services (CDS) and also the establishment of theater commands for better command and control. The creation of the CDS appointment is considered the first step towards the creation of theater commands. The process was stalled after the death of General Bapin, the CDS, in a helicopter crash.
At present, the Indian armed forces have 17 commands, which include seven army commands, seven air force commands, and three naval commands. The process, which was stalled after the death of General Bapin, has been revitalized by introducing the Inter-Services Organization Bill 2023 in March of this year. This bill sets the stage for the creation of theater commands. It has been decided in principle to have three theater commands by merging all commands for better planning and coordination.
The first integrated theater command will be in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan in Northern India. The army’s South Western command in Jaipur will serve as the headquarters of the integrated theater command to counter Pakistan. This theater includes the South Western command, Western command, Southern command, and also some elements of the Northern command. The second integrated command will be based in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, to counter China along the borders of IIOJK, LOC with Pakistan, and LAC with China. This theater includes the Eastern command, Central command, and some elements of the Northern command. Some elements of the Northern command will be divided between the Jaipur and Lucknow theater commands.
The third integrated theater command will be the Maritime command based in Karwar, Karnataka. It has been decided that the command of the theater will be rotated between the army and air force, while the Maritime command will remain with the navy. The theater command will be commanded by the most senior three-star general. There will be a new office or headquarters for the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), where the Chief of Defence Services will sit as the highest-ranking military officer in India.
In the US, theater commanders report to the Secretary of Defense, not to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. In the case of China, the theater commanders report to the Central Military Commission (CMC). In the case of India, the theater commanders will report to the Chief of Defence Services. The advantage of theater command will facilitate the more efficient employment of military assets and unify all the resources of the three services under a single command. This unified command will consolidate all efforts, providing clarity in terms of operational response and synergy.
However, this is a costly concept that will take considerable time to mature and is likely to face training and asset-sharing issues. Another observation is that the concept will further narrow down promotion opportunities for general officers. The Pakistan military must be in the process of evaluating the new developments in the region and formulating a response. The role of Joint Service Headquarters will be crucial in coordinating efforts to address these strategic changes in the Indian armed forces.