An idea whose time has come

CDS and Theatre Commands: An idea whose time has come

Ideally, the CDS should be an overall commander-in-chief and from him command should flow to individual theatre commanders.

General Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), has said that the first few theatre commands will be raised in three years. While the intention is laudable, there is obviously a great deal to be thought through. A few issues are considered here.

Ideally, the CDS should be an overall commander-in-chief and from him command should flow to individual theatre commanders. Given India’s long land borders with a varied terrain configuration and two major seaboards, as also adversaries who are geographically separated, a "theatre" system of tri-service command is best suited for the optimum management of both external and internal security challenges. Many mistakenly believe that only the US needs a theatre system because of its wider geopolitical interests and involvement in security issues all over the globe. With its inimical neighbours and peculiar national security threats and challenges, India, too, needs a theatre system for integrated functioning to achieve synergy of operations with limited resources. The Chinese, with similar needs, have established a theatre system.

At the stage of inception of CDS, it would be appropriate to make the CDS "first among equals" and let the three Chiefs of Staff retain operational command and administrative control over their Services as change should be evolutionary and not revolutionary. Once the system matures and theatre commanders are appointed, the Chiefs of Staff of the three Services should have responsibility primarily for force structure and drawing up perspective plans. They should oversee the development and acquisition of weapons and equipment, plan recruitment, guide and coordinate training at specialised training establishments and control administrative matters such as the annual budget, pay and allowances, maintenance support and medical services, etc.

Each theatre command should be headed by a four-star General, Admiral or Air Chief Marshal. The union territories of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Ladakh would naturally form the ‘Northern Theatre’ for both conventional and low-intensity conflict operations (LIC). In view of the ongoing operations and the possibility of continuing conflict, this command should be headed by an army General as the operations are by and large land forces-centric.

The ‘Western Theatre’, comprising the plains of Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, could be led alternately by an army General and an Air Chief Marshal, both of whom would be adequately schooled in the complexities of the AirLand battle doctrine at the operational and strategic levels.

The ‘Central Theatre’, with its area of responsibility lying along the borders of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim with Tibet and India’s borders with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, could also be placed under an Air Chief Marshal.

The ‘Eastern Theatre’ should have its HQ near Guwahati and not at Kolkata. It should be given the responsibility for all national security interests, external and internal, in the seven North-East states and should be headed by a General due to the ongoing LIC situation and the fact that the predominant component of the force would continue to be drawn from the army. It will be a long time before the “seven sisters” are well and truly integrated into the national mainstream. Till then, some form of LIC can be expected to continue.

The ‘Arabian Sea Coastal and Maritime Security Zone’, including the Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands, should naturally be an Admiral’s domain. The ‘Bay of Bengal Coastal and Maritime Security Zone’, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, at present called the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), could be headed alternately by a General, an Admiral or an Air Chief Marshal.

Each theatre commander should have under him forces from all three Services, based on the requirement. The initial grouping and allocation of forces would not be permanent and could be varied during the preparatory stage as well as during war on an ‘as required’ basis. There should be a joint planning staff in each of the Theatre HQ. The staff officers and even the Other Ranks should be drawn from all the three Services. In fact, it should be made compulsory for officers of the rank of Colonel/ Captain (IN)/Group Captain and above looking for further promotion to have served at least one full tenure (minimum two years) in one of the joint HQ. The officer should have completed the tenure successfully. Only then will it be possible to inculcate a culture of genuine “jointmanship” that is so necessary to fight and win today’s wars.

During peace time, turf battles and inter-Service rivalries rule the roost and minor, inconsequential issues take up most of the time available for discussion. War-time decisions require professional understanding, a bi-partisan approach and, often, hard compromises. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Committees cannot fight wars.”

Often during war, the fate of an entire campaign can hinge on a single decision. Such a decision can only be made by a specially selected defence chief and not by a committee like the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) that operates on the principle of the least common denominator. Military history is replete with examples of how such decisions changed the course of a war. Eisenhower’s decision to launch the Normandy landings in the face of continuing rough weather and MacArthur’s decision to land at Inchon against stiff opposition from virtually his entire staff could not have been made by committees.

The pragmatic government decision to appoint a CDS is but one step further in the quest for synergy in operations. It should be a short step, but the way the Indian system works, it is likely to be a very long one indeed. In the prevailing battlefield milieu of joint operations, combined operations and even coalition operations, modern armed forces cannot be successful without a well-developed and deeply ingrained culture of jointmanship. While the colour of the uniform may be olive green, white or blue, the colour of the heart should be purple. The appointment of a CDS is a good beginning, but there is a long and winding road ahead.

(The writer is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi)

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