Integrated theatre commands: India to have a Chief of Defence Staff?

By Anushree Jois

It was recently reported that the government is finally moving towards implementation of the much-debated integrated theatre commands (ITCs). Under the new mechanism, a single commander will have at his disposal the resources and personnel of all the three services, namely, the army, air force and navy. The news has garnered much attention as it is being considered as the ‘first step’ towards having a Chief of Defence Staff and facilitating operational integration.

Combatting security threats

India often witnesses security threats along its borders. It is believed that a more streamlined approach that combines the strengths of all three services will benefit countering such threats than one of the services operating on a stand-alone basis. Carrying out a combined operation would necessitate combined training under a single theatre commander. Such a commander should have at his disposal, all the resources unique to all the services, to carry out operations effectively.

As early as 2001, the Kargil Review Committee had recommended the implementation of greater integration and the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as a single point of contact for the government instead of the existing three different heads for individual services. During May 2017, a committee headed by Lieutenant General D. B. Shekatkar had once again made the same suggestions and also had suggested to the Defence Ministry that the existing seventeen service theatre commands be reorganised into three ITCs namely, the northern, western and southern. The ministry, however, had not formed an opinion at that time. It is now recently being reported that the government may actually implement ITCs.

Why Integrated theatre commands?

The common aim of the armed forces is undoubted to secure India from external aggression and protect its sovereignty at all costs. While each of our services has different approach, resources and strengths to achieve this, it is seen that the most optimum results and utilisation of resources occur when services perform joint combats than act separately. Gone are the days where the army alone could win battles. Across the globe, battles are now fought and won in air and water. This necessitates a combined and joint operation of all the services to not only address security issues of the nation but also to avoid reduplication of resources and technologies and synergising their strengths.

Over the years, there has been much stress laid on the necessity of having more integrated commands. In an article published by the Indian Defence Review, Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch has observed that “The truth is that single Service Commands are antiquated structures which violate the basic principle of operational art which stipulates single-point command of military resources to attain the desired objectives. Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) need to be established encompassing the entire operational spectrum with two to three Integrated Functional Commands (IFC) that may be Bi-service or Tri-service under each ITC.”

Existing commands in India

The existing seventeen service theatre commands are located strategically to defend potential security threats. Army and air force have seven commands each under their autonomy, while Navy has three commands. None of these commands shares the same location. Additionally, there are two joint service commands, namely, the Strategic Forces Command (SFC)] and Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). The former is headed by their respective service heads, while the latter is headed by officers from each of the services, on a rotational basis. Clearly, the seventeen service commands, due to lack of commonality, cannot be termed as ITCs in its true sense. The same goes for SFC as it is more so seen as an integrated functional command rather than an ITC. The only true ‘integration’ of the services can be seen is in the functioning of the ANC.

The operations of service commands are presently overseen and coordinated by the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). The committee consists of senior-most officers of the three services and is headed by a Chairman, who is the senior most member. The committee functions in principle of consensus. The functioning of the COSC has however revealed serious weaknesses in its ability to provide single point military advice to the government and resolve substantive inter-service issues.

Resource utilisation and maximum combat

India is facing security threats on its western and northwestern frontiers. Out of the seventeen service commands, a total of seven commands are dedicated for operations against a one Pakistan, which includes four army commands, two air force commands and one naval command. And each of these commands operates individually to fight a common enemy, is indeed disadvantageous.

A joint approach could lead to optimum utilisation of resources, knowledge and technology to achieve the maximum combat. Once again, modern warfare is evolving towards ‘jointness’, i.e. an optimum combination of all services to defeat an enemy and not just jointly conducting an operation. As such, India cannot fall behind as she continues to face security threats.

Lack of sufficient resources and fear of army dominance

The idea of having an integrated approach suffers from lack of sufficient resources. For instance, the air force has a limited number of fighter aircraft. To divide and allocate these limited resources to different ITCs is not feasible. Also, moving these resources from one location to another location in times of emergency is hardly a sweat considering India’s geographical size. The Navy also considers that the current model of operations ideal for the strategic role played by it.

Fears of the air force and navy being sidelined and losing their identity, importance and autonomy under the joint and integrated theatres are largely prevalent. Experts argue that the ITCs are nothing but a mechanism to perpetuate army dominance over the other services. According to an article published in the Business Standard, the author, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a defence analyst, observes that if the purpose of ITC was to imitate the US or the China style, then the Army should have agreed to reduce their commands along the northern borders so that their assets could be moved around, but instead it wants to further allocate the already numerically challenged air assets. Such a move would take us further 80 years back to when the US Air Force was a part of the  US Army-Air Force whose actions were directed and commanded entirely by the army.

The way forward

Implementation of ITCs has been under debate for decades now, especially after the Kargil war. However, the many issues that surround the implementation are not unfounded and need to be first resolved. While many countries have adopted the ITCs based on certain military or political reasons, India should identify its own purpose and come up with its own model for implementation. The US, for instance, has never fought a war on its soil, forcing itself to integrate its services into a cohesive one to carry out their operations on foreign land. China also is seen to have been largely politically motivated to restructure its military and maximise its combat experience.

There is a lot of pre-work that needs to done before implementation. Identification of strategic locations, suitability of a bi-service or tri-service approach for each of the location, an amendment to service rules and creating a post of CDS, amongst many others need to be first carried out. Failure to do so would only lead to more complications. As such, India has a lot of pre-work to do before fully operational ITCs become a reality.