CDS General Bipin Rawat reveals shape of India’s ‘joint theatre commands’

For the first time, Chief of Defence Staff General publicly des­cribed the Indian military’s deliberations on reorganising itself into “integrated theatre commands”. These are warfighting entities, containing army, navy and air force components, that would fight jointly to focus and synergise the combat power of all three services.

In what would be the boldest move since Independence, Rawat said the 17 single-service commands that currently exist would be combined into just four geographical commands, each with elements from all three services.

The first joint theatre command would be responsible for the border against Pakistan in what the military refers to as the “western theatre”; while a second command — the northern theatre command — would be responsible for the border with China. A third, navy-heavy theatre, called the “maritime command” will be responsible for the security of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR); and an island command, already functional and called the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC), would project power into the eastern Indian Ocean.

Rawat was speaking in New Delhi to an audience of writers and intellectuals at the India Inter­Centre on Wednesday.

“Today, we have four different army commands looking after Pakistan: Northern, West­ern, South-Western and South­ern commands. From the air force, we have three commands looking after that frontier: West­ern Air Command, South-West­ern Air Command and South­ern Air Command. From the navy, we have a Western Naval Command and a Southern Na­val Command,” counted Rawat.

The frontier with China is managed by a similar multiplicity of commands. The Central Air Command, located in Allahabad, has a role in managing both the western and northern theatres, while the Eastern Air Command at Shillong is responsible for the northern theatre. “The army’s Central and Eastern Commands look after the northern border while the army’s Northern Command is split between the western border and the northern border. If you count, there are 17 commands that are responsible for guarding against both our adversaries,” said Rawat.

Describing these joint theatre commands, Rawat said the one looking after Pakistan would have a commander, whether from the army, navy or air force — who is best suited for the job. He would have subordinate commanders from the other two services, who could offer him advice specific to their respective services.

“There is also a thought pro­cess about co-opting the central armed police forces (CAPFs) for tasks with the army. The CAPFs train with us and have weapons systems that are as good as what the army has. So they can take on some defensive tasks and, thereby, relieve the army for carrying out offensive tasks.”

The CDS said the military was also looking at creating a single theatre command for managing the threat from China. This theatre commander would also have under him elements from the Eastern Naval Com­mand and IAF components.

Rawat said the navy’s two combat commands — the western and the eastern na­val co­mm­ands — would be integrated into a single headquarters. Called the Nat­io­nal Mari­time Com­mand, it would be responsible for the security of the Arabian Sea, Bay of Ben­gal and the northern Indian Ocean.

The fourth joint theatre command would be responsible to defend India’s island territories, which Rawat called “islands of resistance”.

The military has already created a joint theatre command in the Andaman and Nicobar Is­lands, headed by a CINCAN (Commander-in-chief Anda­m­an and Nicobar), who has been India’s only integrated comm­an­der-in-chief. The CINCAN does not report to the navy, but to the Integrated Defence Staff.

The fifth theatre, said Rawat, comprises India’s air space, which is increasingly contested by manned and unmanned aircraft, missiles, rockets and artillery shells, which go as high as 15 km when they are fired. “With the air chief engaged in multiple other tasks, the solution being considered is to have a dedicated air force commander-in-chief, responsible for the air space above us,” said Rawat.

The sixth joint commander would be in charge of cyber war. “Frontal attacks with tanks and infantry may not be the way the next war is fought. Instead, the troops in the rear may become the first to come under attack – a cyberattack launched by the enemy,” said Rawat. “The adversary may force you to join battle in the manner that suits him. So we need a space agency.”

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