The new buzzword doing the rounds of the military establishment is “integration” which has been manifested in the form of theatre commands. A theatre command is an organisational structure designed to control all military assets in a theatre of war to achieve military effects. The proponents of this concept liberally quote the US Gold Water Nichols Act and similar pieces of legislation in the UK and Australia. Concepts such as synergy, holistic integration of logistics, and increased systemic effectiveness are often quoted in such arguments.
However, interestingly, no one can quote actual instances from any of the wars fought by our defence forces after 1965, on our own territory or on foreign land, to show how the present system was found lacking.
It is uncanny how so many consider theatre commands as an inescapable necessity during peacetime, but can quote no incident from a war, fought by independent India, where the absence of such an organisation came in the way of the effectiveness of the forces. There has been no occasion, during actual warfare, when the three services have not operated with commendable cooperation. It is another matter that as soon as the war is over and peace obtains, the clamour for organisational changes starts again.
The one occasion when we flirted with the idea of a theatre commander was in the initial stage of the operations in Sri Lanka by the Indian Peace Keeping Force. In the early days of the operation, helicopters were tasked without proper air force advice leading to avoidable damage to the machines and an unnecessary loss of lives. Almost immediately thereafter, an air component commander and a naval counterpart were positioned to take charge of air and naval assets. Aircraft continued to support operations but henceforth, the control and tasking was under the air commander. Professionalism trumped adhocism. That will always be the case.
The questions we must ask ourselves is why we need a theatre command system now when no real need has been felt in war? What is the type of warfare we envisage we may be involved in? Would it be vastly different from previous occasions? What has changed? More importantly, what benefits, if any, will accrue and what are the disadvantages that we will have to overcome? Emotions should not cloud our judgement.
We are unlikely to fight a war in faraway lands. Nor are we likely to be involved in a medium to high-intensity conflict for long durations. Resources available to the armed forces will always be scarce; this is particularly true in the case of air power assets. Unity of control is a byword in the employment of air power as, inter alia, the limited resources may have to be concentrated for the desired effect. Division of resources in different theatres will imply that finite and avoidable time will be required for the needed concentration of air assets.
It is now a well accepted fact that air power will be in the vanguard of military actions in most scenarios where a sizeable force is to be used. More importantly, it is air power that can go to war almost immediately. That requires training together of air force elements to foster understanding amongst pilots and support systems, so that the missions in war are but an extension of the training schedules. We also need an organisation that can concentrate forces at the earliest. Theatre commands will increase the crucial time element and joint training issues may also hamper operational efficiency.
It is true that conventional wars, even of short durations, are unlikely and we will have to increasingly deal with low-intensity and sub-conventional warfare. To prosecute such operations, do we really need a mammoth organisation like a theatre command? Will not the present system suffice, as it has stood by us in the past and continues to do so? We certainly do not need a theatre command to prosecute such low-key operations.
It is often argued that theatre commands will come into their own in case of a major conflagration. The issue requires examination: The starting point must be an assessment of the type of wars that could be imposed on us and the type of wars that we are capable of prosecuting. The second aspect is more challenging and more significant. Our military capabilities must be examined in some detail, with each service bringing to the table, de novo, what the service is capable of in war, either individually or in consonance with the other service(s). Does such an analysis require a theatre command? It does not, and an honest approach is essential.
Thereafter, planning for the type of operations we can undertake can be determined and joint plan(s) arrived at. The type of organisation that will best meet the requirements will then automatically suggest itself. The great advantage will be that all three services will be on board and there will be no need to impose any new organisation. Communication systems have improved considerably over the years and now, communication of thoughts amongst military practitioners must also rise above parochial interests. The more that the services carry out joint planning, the better will be mutual understanding of individual strengths and weaknesses. That will lead us to the type of organisation that is best suited to meet the need for optimising military capabilities. Strengthening our time-tested joint institutions is the way ahead to build a modern defence organisation.