Unified Combatant Command – India

anil chopra, air power asia, Theatre Commnads, India

India’s newly minted Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat has been driving quick changes to Indian military structures. The Kargil Review Committee set up immediately after the Kargil war had made many recommendations. Among them were issues related to National Security Council, intelligence, counter-terrorist operations, border management, defence budget and modernisation, National Security Management and Apex Decision Making. India’s Nuclear Policy, Media Relations and Information, Technology, Civil–Military Liaison. As part of the action was creation of Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) as part of MoD. Also created were Strategic Forces Command, Andaman and Nicobar Command, and more recently were the Defence Space Agency, Special Operations Division and Defence Cyber Agency. The things still awaiting action, is the genuine civil-military integration in MoD and higher defence reforms.

The creation of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is a start to that process. CDS heads the Department of Military Affairs. He also heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and is the chief military adviser to the government of India. The Defence Secretary, a civil servant, remains as the main defence adviser, whilst the CDS has been sanctioned the role of being the main military adviser. India was the only large democracy which did not have a single point military advisor among the major powers. Though his roles will evolve further in times to come, he should improve jointmanship in peacetime; however, joint wartime performance needs further reform and improvement.

Historically, India has lacked unified war-fighting strategy formulation at the apex military level. The service Chiefs though called Chiefs of Staff were having all the powers to run the service and take overall control of war-fighting. While the Commander’s in Chief had own geographical areas, but they were dependent to a large degree on advice and resources from the Service chiefs.  Each of the three services also had own systems of command structures and responsibility. The services trained to great extent with own troops and had peculiar service biases which they acquired during years of grooming. The Army being much larger service, for long felt that the other services (especially air force) were more for support of their main task. Things began to change as war methods change around the world. Genuine integration of the services became a high priority.

I am for Jointness, and open to creating a theatre like structure. As Lt Gen PR Shankar says, that before we create theatre commands, let us increase ‘jointness’ between the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force. Let us resolve certain fundamental issues pertaining to the chain of command, communications, operational guidance and training of officers. Let us understand India specific the assets and needs. Let be clear of what a theater should be like. Let us study and learn from how others are managing. As former DGMO Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia says, theaterisation must transform us into a regional power. There are issues related to chain of command, such as, relationship between the Theatre Commander, Chiefs of Services, the CDS, the RM and the PM.

US Theatre Command. Image Source: Wikipedia

U.S. Unified Combatant Commands and Theatres

In USA, the unified combatant commands (COCOM), are joint military command of the United States Department of Defense that is composed of units from two or more service branches of the United States Armed Forces, and conducts broad and continuing missions. There are currently 11 unified combatant commands and each are established as the highest echelons of military commands, in order to provide effective command and control of all U.S. military forces, regardless of branch of service, during peace or during war time. Unified combatant commands are organized either on a geographical basis (known as “area of responsibility”, AOR) or on a functional basis such as special operations, power projection, or transport. Currently, seven combatant commands are designated as geographical, and four are designated as functional. Unified combatant commands are “joint” commands and have specific badges denoting their affiliation. The current functional commands are Cyber, Special operations, Transport and Strategic Command. 

The Unified Command Plan (UCP) establishes the missions, command responsibilities, and geographic areas of responsibility of the combatant commands. Each time the Unified Command Plan is updated, the organization of the combatant commands is reviewed for military efficiency and efficacy, as well as alignment with national policy.

Each unified combatant command is led by a combatant commander (CCDR), who is a four-star officer. The combatant commanders are entrusted with a specific type of nontransferable command authority over assigned forces, regardless of branch of service. The chain of command for operational purposes (per the Goldwater–Nichols Act) goes from the president of the United States through the secretary of defense (Raksha Mantri) to the combatant commanders.

The USA has six global-scale theatres which they call unified combatant commands. These theatres are of continental size, literally dividing the earth into six unequal parts. A theatre commander is responsible for one section of the globe. Resources are placed at his disposal to execute military operations in the best interests of the USA in that region. The forces are allocated by the political authority and can only be transferred out or reinforced by that authority. The chain of command to a unified combatant command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense and from the Secretary of Defense to the Theatre Commander of the combatant command. The Theatre Commander has a direct one-to-one relationship with the political leadership – Secretary of Defence and C in C aka the President of USA, from whom he gets his operational directive, guidance and resources. The Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff and Service Chiefs support the Theatre Commander. They assist the Secretary of Defense and the President in their command duties, provide a communication link and may be given the responsibility for overseeing the activities of the combatant commands sans any command authority. The command authority is with the political leadership along with the command responsibility. If the theatre commander of a combatant command at any time considers forces assigned to him are insufficient or his authority, direction, or control is insufficient, he takes recourse to the Secretary of Defense.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may transmit communications to the Commanders of the combatant commands from the President and Secretary of Defense and advises both on potential courses of action, but the Chairman does not exercise military command over any combatant forces. Under Goldwater–Nichols, the service chiefs (also four stars in rank) are charged with the responsibility of the “strategic direction, unified operation of combatant commands, and the integration of all land, naval, and air forces in an efficient “unified combatant command” force. Furthermore, the Secretaries of the Military Departments (i.e. Secretary of the Army, Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of the Air Force) are legally responsible to “organize, train and equip” combatant forces and, as directed by the Secretary of Defense, assign their forces for use by the combatant commands. The Secretaries of the Military Departments thus exercise administrative control (ADCON) rather than operational control (OPCON—the prerogative of the combatant commander) over their forces. The primary responsibility of the service Chiefs is to ensure personnel readiness, policy, planning and training of their respective services for the combatant commanders to utilize.

A sub-unified command, or, subordinate unified command, may be established by combatant commanders when authorized to do so by the Secretary of Defense or the president. They are created to conduct a portion of the mission or tasking of their parent geographic or functional command. Sub-unified commands may be either functional or geographic, and the commanders of sub-unified commands exercise authority similar to that of combatant commanders. Examples of current and former sub-unified commands are the Alaskan Command (ALCOM) under USNORTHCOM, the United States Forces Korea (USFK) under USINDOPACOM, and United States Forces—Afghanistan (USFOR-A) under USCENTCOM.

Chinese Theatre Commands

As part of the 2015 People’s Republic of China military reform, China established five joint theatres. The five theatres are Eastern Theater Command with headquarters in Nanjing, Southern Theater Command with headquarters in Guangzhou, Western Theater Command with headquarters in Chengdu, Northern Theater Command with headquarters in Shenyang, and Central Theater Command with headquarters in Beijing. All are within China. A model typical of a regional power.

China’s Five Theatre Commands. Image Source: Wikipedia

The theatre commander is responsible to the Central Military Commission which is headed by Xi Jinping. The chain of command is direct – between the theatre and the Chairman of the Military Commission, in this case also the Head of the State. It is a one-to-one relationship. Similar to the US system, resources allocated to each theatre enable it to carry out assigned tasks. Each service HQ also reports directly to the CMC.

From both the Chinese and US models it is clear that the Theatre Commands are huge territorial areas. In case of USA, it covers the entire globe. In case of China it covers large territory. China is over three times India’s geographical size. It has global ambitions and may one day have theater commands outside its homeland.

China’s Western Theatre Command’s (WTC), which covers entire India border, has its jurisdiction covering China’s Sichuan, Tibet, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Shaanxi, Yunnan, and Chongqing provinces or regions. It covers whole of Indian border, Bhutan, part of Myanmar, Pakistan occupied Kashmir, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Magnolia. Its jurisdiction runs over area larger than India.

Russian Military Districts

Russian Military Districts

Russian Federation follows a system of Military Districts. It is a territorial association of military units, formations, military schools, and various local military establishments. This territorial division type was historically adopted, originally by Imperial Russia, to provide a more efficient management of army units, their training and other operations activities related to combat readiness. As of 2016, the five Military Districts are comprised of regional Joint Strategic Commands. These are Western Military District with headquarters in Saint Petersburg (In Red Colour), Southern Military District with headquarters in Rostov-on-Don (Brown), Central Military District with headquarters in Ekaterinburg (green), Eastern Military District with headquarters in Khabarovsk (mustard), and Northern Fleet with headquarters in Severomorsk (blue). It can be seen that area jurisdiction is huge.

Inferences for Geographical area and Assets

          As on date India has no global ambitions nor the political and military wherewithal. India’s strategic priorities are defence of India, and prevent an outside power the ability to drive its narrative in its neighbourhood. India’s major military challenge is from China. There is a single Chinese Theatre Command (Western) overseeing the entire Indian border. Does India want to break up the country into smaller theatres for individual commanders to face a single Chinese Theater? As can be seen from the Theater command concept, the commander must have all assets under its direct control. India is still a developing country with minimal defence budget and not even regional assets. Numbers are low. Can India distribute assets under different commands, knowing fully well that they will have to move inter-theater frequently? Will it be more interesting to have a single theatre for India?

What ails the current system?

          Generally it has worked well within the general constraints of high-threat-low-resource scenario. Yes jointmanship needs improvement. During 1947-48 Kashmir crisis, there was very close coordination between the Army and Air Force.  The British were still holding most command posts. In 1962 China war, the IAF and Navy were very sparingly used. In 1965 Indo-Pak War Indian Army plans were initially not known to IAF. Later the coordination improved. 1971 Indo-Pak War saw great jointmanship on both the fronts at all levels. In 1999, Kargil war, there was initial confusion between Army and Air Force, but once IAF was brought in, then there was very smooth coordination. Yes undoubtedly jointmanship needs to improve. We continue to service centric in our training and planning. So some kind of change is highly desirable.

Some of the Proposals

Image Source: Takshashila Institution

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon of Takshashila Institution, like some others have, suggested that India be divided into four geographical Theater commands (Image Above). He rightly brings out the complexity of creating the Air Defence Command because the Air Defence assets and offensive assets could be same. Rafale, SU-30 MKI, Mirage 2000 will all do both roles. Divide these assets could be fundamentally flawed. Creating an air defence command which will sit atop all theatres would be problematic. Theaterisation requires jointness right from planning to execution. The proposed theatres in the image above also have their complexities. China will be handled by two theatres. Airbases in Punjab will be required for both the theatre against China and Pakistan. Airbases in Gujarat will all be required against Pakistan. Does India have assets to divide in four theaters?

Why divide the India peninsula into two? Why leave Kolkata region with a land based theater and not give it to the south eastern theatre. Won’t both naval theatres be required to fight in Indian Ocean together? There are some who have suggested have only three theaters, one for China, One for Pakistan and One for the Peninsula. The physical lines can be worked out. With China getting set to overtake USA in total number of naval ships and targeting six aircraft carriers, it may be better to have all naval assets together. As far as the Navy is concerned, its ability to operate away from the shores depends upon air-cover which you’re able to provide it. Either from the shores itself, or through an aircraft carrier which can accompany it because that will make a lot of difference. We have to factor in a two front war.

Some others have suggested Integrated Aerospace Defence Theatre, North Western Theatre, North Eastern Theatre, Western Theatre and Peninsular/Maritime Theatre. Joint areas of responsibility could also be assigned to Joint Logistic Command and Joint Training Command in addition to the already existing Defence Cyber Agency, and Special Operations Division. Integrated Theatres and Joint Commands could be formed out of existing resources to optimize combat effectiveness in the Indian context, with minimum relocation/ redeployment of resources. Resources is the first issue. Practically the number of proposals floating are many.

Overlapping Areas and Responsibilities

Each model has to be seen in entirety from top to bottom. The model adopted must increase operational efficiency. It is not just demarcated geographical boundaries. Do we want to have a Theater North for China? Will it also look after other neighbours in the north and east, including Bangladesh for military operations? Most IAF airbases in Punjab, Haryana and J&K will be required for both China and Pakistan front. Will air assets of two separate theatres be placed there? Dual control? ‘Theatre commands’ are best suited when low threat to own territory, and have to tackle enemies in far of lands. Theatres are usually large in size. Huge assets are required. China went into theatres only when they had significant investments in their armed forces and started developing global ambitions. India has direct territorial threats from all directions and on all borders. India lacks resources for even a single front war, leave alone two fronts. IAF is down to 30 combat squadrons. If scarce resources are parceled and given to various ‘theatre commands’ then their utilisation will be sub-optimal.

Apprehensions of Losing Senior Posts and Senior Ranks

Presently there are 14 Geographical Cs-in-C. Six (Army), Three (Navy), and five (Air Force). Plus three Functional Cs-in-C (two IAF, one Army). Once the new structure is finalised more three star posts can come up without losing 3 star numbers. Irrespective of how the theatres are formed, this is something of no consequence at all. It will be an unfounded apprehension, if at all. All the services will lose Commands and surely some new ones will be formed. Theatre Commanders could be four stars. If we have a single “Theatre India”, C-in-C India should be a five star, and so should the CDS be. The service Chiefs could remain four star and the CDS can be five star. These modalities can be worked out. There will enough slots for three stars. It is not an issue of goodies but operational effect.  

Who Will Theatre Commander Report to?

Who will the Theatre Commander report to? Through RM to PM? Or like China to a CMC which will be formed under the PM? Will the CDS be back to permanent boss of Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC)? Will the Theatre commander by under COSC? So much more clarity is required. In none of the models above, there is any role for bureaucracy. Their role will have to be decided and defined.

Wherewithal at Political Level

          It theater commander has to report directly to the RM and then to PM, the political leadership would have to mesh much more closely with military and understand the military strategy and intricacies, and have wherewithal for doing so in their HQs. Political awareness of the military operations would have to go up.

Sharpen Jointness First – Get Base Integration Right

          Let us first start integrating the three services for everything. Communication networks to begin with. Integrate all radars where ever they are. Stop this is my service, your service equipment. Integrate general purpose or common equipment logistics, including helicopter spares.  Let us integrate all helicopters in J&K first. Let us concentrate on training staffing first. Begin with, make all Division and above level exercises mandatorily joint. That means for every naval exercise there will be an IAF and Army element. Same for Army and Air Force exercises. Why only IAF AVMs sit with the Army and Navy Commands, why not other way around also. Let us increase inter service postings by three to four times the current slots. Make them mandatory for higher ranks. Make common syllabi and curriculum for all the tri-service training institutions. Get the ACR system at same level. Currently everyone wants to serve under an Army Officer so as to get all ‘9s’. Serve under Naval Officer and get the more real ‘7.5’. Service and may lose out in a joint system. Regiment/Squadron boy loyalties must go. Tri-Service (India) loyalty starts.

Switch ability of Air Assets

Armies permanently allocate assets to commanders at every level. Air forces rapidly switched switch assets whosoever needs them the most. Armies decentralise control, while air forces exercise control at fairly high level. Army strategy is relatively long term, while air forces operate on a short-timed tempo and so, switch emphasis in roles or geographical application of force rapidly. Navies fall between these two contrasting poles. The challenge is to preserve core strengths of each service while bridging differences in doctrine and structure; and the solution is not to make each service’s doctrine or organisation mirror the others’. Challenge is work with synergy.

Higher Defence Reforms and Unified Strategy First

Historical lack of unified war-fighting strategy formulation at the apex military level in India needs addressing. Currently no structure for joint solution for combined war-fighting as things remain still compartmentalised. The diversity of strategic options are neither evaluated nor jointly tabled as strategy options. Differing natures of command and control between the three services, differences in structural organisations have not been resolved for years. Do we first need higher defence command reform before theaterisation? I think yes. Let us first sort out central unification. Indian armed forces need a unified strategy. 1962 IAF did not know Army plan, not used offensively. Build-up to the 1965 war, the IAF and the Indian Navy (IN) were excluded from army-driven strategy, until the army asked for help. The fighter aircraft of the Navy were left out of the land and air battles, despite the fact that the carrier was undergoing repairs. During Kargil IAF learnt from other sources before Army informed IAF. All this because of no common strategy flowing down from any joint HQ apex level. The only exception was the 1971 war. This was the only war where we were proactive rather than reactive. Joint political and military strategy was in place to some extent. So things were different. There will be wasteful air effort if big picture not clearly evolved at higher level and left to the air support demand system. Can there be Jointness in war history records. There are different versions of what happened in Karachi and in Longewala.

Individual Service Reorganise First

The Indian Army itself is evolving their combat structure with things like Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs). These are more like the IAF and the IN, with a two-level structure, following centralised control (of strategy) and decentralised execution (at the tactical level). Let us first get the structures of each service become similar before side stepping into Theater Commands. Like China, does India also Brigadise the IAF? Should IAF separate squadrons from airbase structure, with squadron going to the Theater Commander and airbases with administrative structure remaining with the Chief of Air Staff? Like this let us first reorganise each service so that final structure can evolve.

Standardise Basic Issues First

Currently Armed Forces are not on same wicket on many routine issues. We oppose each other on many basic issues. Does IAF have to change to Brigade structure? Why only IAF AVMs sit with the Army and Navy Commands, why not other way around also. Who all should be PSOs, the ACR system, the promotion systems, whether JWO is an SNCO, can a Sergeant of the IAF use a JCO mess, there are hundreds of issues that need to be first brought to same level by give and take, before establishing theatre commands. 

How big should be the Theatre?

Big enough to be able to freely exercise the form of power with maximum reach and flexibility. The CBI Theatre in the Second World War included the combined area of China, Burma and India. Even in that time when aircraft as well as surface transport had ‘shorter legs’, theatres were bigger than today’s India. So, today, the US Pacific Command (PACOM) (renamed United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) is even bigger than CBI. Large enough to contain 36 countries. USINDOPACOM controls 200 ships (five carrier battle groups [CBGs] and approximately 30 submarines), between 1,100–1,360 aircraft and 375,000 personnel in normal times. The numbers, sophistication and combat power of air and maritime power is larger than entire Indian Armed Forces. Do we want to divide India for getting more Cs-in-C? Why not India be a single theatre under on C-in-C India. China’s Western Theatre Command is bigger than India. Pakistan does not have separate theatres. 

Single Theater India

I believe that let us create a single theatre. Call it “Theatre India’. Creation of a full joint structure for strategy formulation at the apex level, resulting in one national strategy to guide subordinate strategy. Give ownership of all war-fighting assets to a single commander. Call him “C-in-C India”. Joint war-fighting organisation with HQ in New Delhi. Let him report directly to RM and through him to the PM. The three service Chiefs remain as they are. They head individual service. They handle training, maintenance of assets, procurements, promotions and postings, army cantonments, airbases, repair depots, hospitals, and many such things are with the Service Chiefs, who will provide the wherewithal for fighting to the single theatre commander, like they have been doing to their respect C-in-Cs till now.  The service Chiefs report to the CDS who acts as the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. CDS is the boss of IDS and ensures coordination between services. He remains the single point contact for advice to the government on policy and various other issues. He also coordinates defence strategy. Two parallel structures responsible for war and defence.

Under C-in-C India would be a Commander Army, Commander Navy, and Commander Air Force. There will be sub commanders under each of them who would handle regional assets.  Single theatre would mean no dividing of scarce air assets and no dilution of combat power and loss of operational flexibility. IN, too, would not have problems in managing its fleet of approximately 295 vessels of all sizes. Can one Army C-in-C wield the combat power of the Indian Army? History shows that increasingly larger forces have been commanded by one man. Ownership by a single commander at the national level does not hinder the administrative distribution of assets into smaller manageable entities, like field armies/corps/divisions/brigades/battalions or IBGs. C-in-C India will ensure that lower-level command and control elements of all three services are so structured as to ensure synergy in operations.

C-in-C India Structure

C-in-C India responsibility will be total military strategy, irrespective from which service he belongs. C-in-C India will receive orders directly from political leadership. C-in-C India and each operational service commander should be collocated. C-in-C India must have a strong staff structure to both formulate war-fighting strategy and to monitor execution.

Way Ahead – Single Theatre India

In-built service biases must be shed. Create structure and process for joint strategy at national level first. Redo each service structure to fit “Theatre India” by segregating what goes to whom. Single “Theatre India” is best solution to counter WTC of China. India needs a single strategy not multiple theatres. C-in-C India will have the three service heads as fighting commanders. Below these commanders will be subordinate commanders and fighting assets and staff who execute service-specific operational art. C-in-C India and the land/air/maritime forces commanders would spend all their energies on war problems. The CDS and service HQ staffs who would be responsible for the philosophical side of the defence function like manage, train, equip, conceptualise.

Header Image: freepik.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

6 thoughts on “Unified Combatant Command – India

  1. “If it ain’t broke , why fix it ?!” We didn’t do too badly in 65 & 71 for jointry.. I feel we shudnt tinker with organisations just coz USA, Russia or China have done so ..their compunctions are different .. we can have some joint commammands such as A&NC and may be Special Forces …but retain the existing system and pleeze .. NO AIR DEFENCE COMMAND !!!🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An all-encompassing narration that brings out the theatre conundrum. Given the size of the country and the resources of warfighting, parcelling out is a NO GO. Divide and Diminish. I endorse the Single Theatre concept and have written about it. That’s how India will retain the flexibility to configure joint combating forces ( Quantitatively and Qulitatively) based on the dimension of the ensuing threat.

    No Air Defence Command Please, the concept has not worked the world over. We need to learn from others and need not make the same mistakes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A very comprehensive and logically argued view. Agree with you that with our present world view, single theatre India would serve the purpose of defence of India, with the responsibility of the same shifting from the Defence Secretary to C-in-C India, a 4-star. who in turn reports to the RM and in turn the PM. The Chiefs should continue to be 4-star.

    As brought out jointness needs to be stepped up; it is an accepted fact that Jointness and interoperability are two issues that need to be enhanced to make our warfighting more efficient and effective, within the available resources. How we go about it is key; hurry, but slowly, is the best policy.

    Liked by 1 person

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