Indian Model of Theatre Commands: The Road Ahead!

Sharing an analysis of mine on implementation of  Indian model of Theatre Commands published as Strategic Perspective of USI of India . Highlighting Indian strategic compulsions, it endorses Air Defence Command, Defence Space Agency (DSA), Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) and recommends up gradation of Defence Cyber Agency (DCA) to “Information Warfare Command”.  The Maritime Command accruing advantage of unity of command, will have to be weighed against  manageability of increased span of control, as Indian definition of Indo-Pacific and area of maritime interest has grown from eastern coasts of Africa to northern Pacific, up to Japan. Overdrive to minimise cost of Defence, restructuring should not compromise operational effectiveness & span of control. To whom  theatre Commands report to during operations? With tri-service structure, reporting to  single Service Chief has its own  problems. Reporting to CDS may be difficult for him to manage them in operations, (unmanageable span of control), and he not tasked & organised for it. Surely  ongoing studies will settle these issues. (7min read).


In the history of restructuring of Indian Armed Forces, the Year 2020 started with a hopes and anxiety with long awaited appointment of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and creation of Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within Ministry of Defence (MoD) with a redistribution of duties, to further sharpen coordination and improve jointness and synergy between the Services. The charter defined for CDS settles long standing need for one point military advice and prioritisation of defence procurements within competing requirements of Services, to meet the current and future national security needs. The minor anomalies in Charter and turf pulling will soon settle down after initial teething problems, as the changes drive support and traction from highest decision making office.  One of the major expectation of such reforms, besides modernisation, continues to be restructuring of Defence Forces to bring down the overall defence expenditure. It seems to be one of the main logic to justify creation of fewer Theatre Commands from conversion of existing 17 Service specific Commands (seven each of Army and IAF, and three of Navy, which are not co-located) into Integrated Theatre Commands, with a hope that it will bring down the cost and improve jointness and synergy. The urgency seemed to be such in the first meeting after taking over, the newly appointed CDS spoke about creation of an Air Defence Command[i] with a timeline for its proposal, besides some other reforms. This was quickly followed up by announcement of proposals for Peninsular Command[ii] and some regional commands along with timelines. It is fair to assume that major restructuring like theatre commands will be preceded by major studies and deliberations at MoD for its long term impacts, an attempt is being made in this paper to objectively analyse the ideas reverberating in open domain, which may well serve as some inputs for the decision makers.  

Why Indianized Model of Theatre Commands is Needed?

As per media reports the proposals of future Theatre Commands like Peninsular Command, Air Defence (AD) Command, and two to five theatre commands[iii] along borders suggest that India is rightly looking at Indianized model of Theatre Command structures. Some oblique references made by few authors to US and Chinese model of theatre commands, do not suit India. Every nation needs to have a sound ‘National Security Strategy’ to achieve its national aims. The kind of command structure will be dictated by the national aim, roles assigned to military, its geography/terrain, threat envisaged, technological advancements and resources of the nation including economic resources. US has global strategic interest and needs an expeditionary military force capable of global deployment. It has no direct military threat to its mainland. Its five regional Unified Commands[iv] are expected to operate independently, away from the mainland and other Commands, on expeditionary role in designated areas of the globe, require integrated combat power of the three services, which justifies the need of unified commands. PLA intention of becoming a Superpower with world class military  by 2049, expeditionary design to increase its global footprints, and protect its SLOC and trade interests globally can easily be inferred from National Military Strategy[v]documents released in 2015. It is because of these expeditionary roles and the distances involved, PLA has adopted the model of Integrated Theatre Commands, because switching of combat resources from one theatre to another may be difficult in their case. China has been able to generate adequate numbers of military hardware required for theatre Commands. 

 Indian Compulsions       India’s National Interest is ‘peaceful inclusive growth’ and has indicated no expeditionary designs so far, nor does it have adequate military resources for the same. It needs a grand strategy to improve comprehensive national power, to be able protect its strategic interests/choices, sovereignty, and maintain peaceful periphery. Indian geography/terrain, border commitments, conventional and sub conventional challenges, counter insurgency/terrorism involvements, threat perception and military resources has led to formulation and location of Service Commands in the manner they are currently disposed on ground. While the current proposals being mooted follow Indianized pattern, but as the restructuring progresses some teething problems will appear, which will have to be realised and ironed out in next few years. With unsettled border with China and Pakistan and the need to physically hold the Line of Control (LC), Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) as well as Line of Actual Control (LAC), a manpower intensive deployment is necessary and it will require adequate number of Commands along the border as a compulsion. The need for existing separate Command for Union Territories of Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh is inescapable and should not be tampered with. Another Command to cover areas South of Jammu, both sides of Shakargarh bulge (a vulnerability of Pakistan) and plains of Punjab is also a must. I am sure various study groups in MoD will be workout the need of other Commands without compromising  operational efficiency.  

Analysis of Proposals related to Theatre Commands

The proposal of Air Defence Command by combining the air defence assets of the Army, IAF and Navy[vi] is practical and easily implementable, because the overall responsibility of protecting the air space of India is already with Air Force, and raising such Command will essentially involve integrating the Command, Control and Communication set up of all air defence assets of the services. The proposed timeline for rolling it out by mid-2021 seems to be little ambitious. The upgradation of existing Defence Information Assurance and Research Agency to form the new Defence Cyber Agency (DCA) was a welcome step, but it needs to be upgraded to an “Information Warfare Command”, especially after gaining the experience of comprehensive information warfare launched by Indian adversaries, post abrogation of Article 370. The creation of the Defence Space Agency (DSA) is also a good beginning to meet future warfare challenges and creation of  the Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) under Integrated Defence staff is a force multiplier for Integrated battle.  

Analysing two of the  the laid down functions of CDS[vii], namely ‘To bring about jointness in operation, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, etc of the three Services’ and ‘To ensure optimal utilisation of infrastructure and rationalise it through jointness among the Services’, the idea of separate “Training and Doctrinal Command” is welcomed to foster jointness in planning, training and doctrinal issues. The level, scale and magnitude of joint training in Indian Military needs to be enhanced.  Except for Defence Services Staff College and a small capsule at Army War College, there is very little joint training being conducted in Services. We need to expand and utilise Tri-Service organisations like CENJOS, USI of India and proposed Indian Defence University (IDU) to organise more Joint Training Courses for all Services to promote integration and jointness. A case for ‘Joint Logistics Command’, proposed few decades earlier and need for joint logistics system, to avoid duplicity and economise resources, needs serious consideration. Major military powers across the world have steadily integrated their military logistics and infrastructure development for enhancing efficiency and rationalizing defence spending. China has adopted it successfully, where almost 80 percent of PLA logistics is joint, and only 20 percent is Service specific[viii], which has proved to be quite cost effective. Indian Military has majority of logistics as Service specific component, and a very limited component on Joint logistics model like Medical services, MES, DGQA, DRDO and few more organisations, being controlled directly by MoD. This is not a cost-effective model. The joint logistics model can be implemented at theatre level as well, as in case of China to avoid duplicity of supply chains.

Operational Effectiveness and Span of Control 

In the overdrive to minimise the cost of Defence Forces, the restructuring should not compromise on operational effectiveness and span of control of the Defence Forces. It needs to be recalled that post Operation PARAKRAM, it was realised that the span of control of erstwhile Northern Command had become unmanageable; hence India had raise a new corps and create South Western Command to right size the span of control. The proposal of Peninsular Command[ix] to have Indian coastline spreading from the Sir Creek near the Arabian Sea to the Sundarbans in the in the Bay of Bengal under one theatre, by merging the Navy’s western and eastern commands has pros and cons. The proposal involves placing necessary air assets and Army’s support system under a Navy commander to bring the unity of command in managing the security of Indian Ocean Region in a reasonably independent manner. The advantage of unity of command  will have to be weighed against the manageability of increased span of control, in light of the fact that Indian definition of Indo-Pacific and area of maritime interest has grown much more to include eastern coasts of Africa to northern Pacific, at least up to Japan.  In case of littorals, a major responsibility of Andaman and Nicobar and islands in Bay of Bengal has been taken away by correctly raising the Integrated Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), which is essential in view of recent development of China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.  It needs to be noted that amongst Army Commands, except for Southern Command, not many operations with Navy are visualised, unless some formation is picked up for Out of Area Contingency Tasks, amphibious operations and MOOTW including disaster relief. 

Command and Control  

There seems to be an inherent dichotomy as to whom the tri-service theatre Commands report to, during operations and who manages their operations? With tri-service structure, reporting to any single Service Chief will have its own set of problems. If they report to CDS, it will not be possible for CDS to manage them in operations, because of unmanageable span of control and his headquarters not being organised for it. The functions of CDS also indicates administering these organisations and not operational control. During creation of CDS, it was publicised that the role of Service Chiefs will not be disturbed, but it will get affected with creation of theatre commands, as they will not have operational control over their resources, because the theatre commander will have the priority right over resources allotted to him, which is an operational requirement, as Command Headquarters are the operational headquarters in all Defence Forces. The glaring problem is visualised in allocation of air resources for variety of reasons. Firstly The IAF has grossly inadequate air resources (approximately 31 Squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons and would be needing more in case of two front war). India does not have the luxury of adequate IAF resources to be allocated to Joint/Theatre Commands ab initio; hence switching IAF resources from one theatre to another is an operational compulsion. Secondly the IAF has the flexibility to mobilise the required No of aircrafts at the point of application, which is more relevant than the co-location of air assets with fighting formations. 

Looking Beyond Services for National Security 

There being no structured National Security Strategy in public domain, there are many contradictions in decision making for security for the country. As per Ministry of Defence website[x], the responsibility for national defence rests with the Cabinet, discharged through MoD, providing policy framework and wherewithal to the Armed Forces for the defence of the country. The contradiction starts from the fact that except for LC and AGPL with Pakistan, the entire land borders of the country are being manned by Para Military Forces, operating directly under Home Ministry and not MoD/Armed Forces. The Home Ministry, directly responsible for internal security, is increasingly involved in borders, conversely the Military is getting increasingly involved in internal security. 

It is often seen that whenever it comes to economizing the defence expenditure, the brunt of shortages is suffered by modernization and heavy outlay of pay and allowances of Defence is considered as major load. Having seen many reorganisations in last four decades, I am yet to see any serious effort of cutting down numbers of approximately four lakh defence civilians spending almost 23 percent of the defence expenditure, as they retire at 60 years of age. We need to reduce this tail to optimize defence expenditure, besides rightsizing some old models/structures. No military in the world can afford to have organisations like MES or some ordnance factories performing tasks/producing clothes, which can easily be outsourced.


Reading the context of restructuring, the idea of Integrated Theatre Commands seems to be driven more by economic considerations and less by operational inadequacies.  India should adopt only those changes which do not bring down the operational effectiveness of the existing system, in light of our peculiar geography/terrain, threat perception, peculiar challenges, resources and technological threshold. With no major change in geography, border commitments, counterinsurgency/terrorism involvements, threat and military resources we should incorporate only essential changes in the existing structures to improve jointness and integration. The paper recommends minimum turbulence/changes in existing Service Commands for the time being. One major factor which is changing rapidly is technology; hence the paper supports the proposal of Information Warfare Command by upgrading the newly announced Defence Cyber Agency and supports the proposal of DSA and AFSOD under IDS. The expectation of theatre commands to be ready by 2022 seems to be ambitious. We should be deliberate in executing these changes, because the current system has not failed so far and India does not have the economic luxury of trying out new system for the sake of cost cutting and reverting back, if it is found operationally inadequate.  

Major General S B Asthana

(The views expressed are personal views of the author, who retains the copy right). The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel site shashiasthana29@gmail.comLinkedIn  YouTubelink


[i]        Gurung Shourya K (2020), CDS Bipin Rawat focuses on preparing roadmap for creation of an air defence command, The Economic Times, January 02, 2020.

[ii]       Gurung (2020), India may have 5 theatre commands along borders with Pakistan, China: CDS, The Economic Times, February 18, 2020.

[iii]        Ibid. 

[iv]         Gokhale Nitin (2016), Theatre Command and CDS: The debate continues, NewsWarrior, April 24, 2016.

[v]         The Information Office of the State Council, China (2015), Full text: China’s Military Strategy, (Xinhua), May26, 2015, CHINADAILY.COM.CN

[vi]       Gurung, Op Cit, The Economic Times, January 02, 2020.

[vii]       Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Defence, Functions of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), February 03, 2020.

[viii]      Asthana S B (2017), Does Indian Military Requires Apex Level Restructuring and Integrated Theatre Commands like US and PLA, Synergy, Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, March 2017 Issue.

[ix]     Gurung, Op Cit, The Economic Times, January 02, 2020.

[x]      Ministry of Defence website, About the Ministry, Accessed on March 23, 2020.–ministry

One thought on “Indian Model of Theatre Commands: The Road Ahead!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s