IAS Gyan



6th October, 2022

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  • India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, late General Bipin Rawat was instrumental in laying down the foundation for joint theatre commands in India.
  • His successor, Lt. General Anil Chauhan has now spelt it as his priority area.
  • In his maiden communication with the three defence forces, the new CDS asked the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to make a move ahead toward the creation of integrated theatre commands.
  • Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced the setting up of “joint theatre commands” so as to have an enhanced coordination among all three services of the country’s armed forces.


What are integrated theatre commands?

  • The idea behind the ‘Theatre Command System’ is to bring synergy coordination between the three wings of the armed forces, at the same time streamline costs, and have a leaner fighting force with optimal utilisation of resources.
  • It’s a concept that has its origins in the 1st world war, but became much more prominent during the second one with battles being fought across continents.
  • Today, almost all major countries like China, Russia, the US, the UK and France work on a theatre command concept.
  • It is a unified commandunder which all the resources of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are pooled, depending on the threat perception.
  • The commands could be geographical— like looking at a border with a particular country — or thematic, like a command for all maritime threats.
  • Several nations in the world have theatre commands, including the United States and China.


Is theatre commands a new idea?

  • The idea of creating an integrated tri-Services command in India is not new — it had been recommended at various levels after the Kargil conflict.
  • When Gen Rawat was appointed Chief of Defence Staff in January 2020 with a mandate to raise such commands within his three-year tenure, the idea was finally brought to the design table.


What other countries have a theatre command system?

  • More than 32 countries in the world already have some form of theatre or joint command in place for better integration among the branches of the military.
  • Notable among such countries are the US and China.
  • According to a report, the US was the first to come up with a theatre command system and "presently possesses six geographical and four functional commands".
  • Russia is said to have commenced with the restructuring of its armed forces in 2008 and "has now created four theatre commands".
  • China's theatre command system is said to be based on the US model and has "five peacetime geographical commands".
  • It is the Chinese Western Theatre Command that covers India.


What is the proposal under discussion?

  • A model with four to five integrated tri-Services theatre commands is under discussion, with each command headed by a three-star officer.
  • This officer, the theatre commander, will report to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which, as the name suggests, includes the three Service chiefs, and is headed by the CDS as its permanent chairman.
  • This brings in a major change — the Service chiefs currently have all the operational control over their forces; operational powers will now move to the COSC.
  • Each of these commands will have the needed assets from all the three forces. Operational control over all of those assets, regardless of the force, will lie with the commander of that theatre.


The proposed commands are:

  • A Maritime Theatre Command,which will take care of all the maritime security needs of the country on both the eastern and the western seaboards, and will include air strike assets and amphibian forces of the Army.
  • An Air Defence Command, which will be mandated with air defence across the country and beyond. The fighter jets will have reconnaissance and surveillance assets as well.
  • Two or three land-based commandsare proposed. If there are two commands, there will be one each for India’s borders with China and Pakistan.
  • There is also a proposal to have another command looking at India’s borders with Pakistan and China in Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, given the unique territory and security needs of the country in that region.
  • Apart from these theatre commands, there will be two functional tri-Services commands as well.
  • There will be a Logistics Command, which will have the logistics of all the Services under one person; and there will be a Training and Doctrine Command, so that all Services work under a common doctrine and have some basic common training.


What will be the role of the Services, if not operational?

  • As of now, the Services have to speak to each other in times of need and urgency to request their assets to conduct a particular operation.
  • The proposal is to have a theatre commander who will have operational control of the assets under his command, thus enhancing jointness among the forces, and also reducing duplication of resources.
  • However, this would leave the Service chiefs with no direct control over their assets operationally.
  • This does not mean their roles will be made redundant. Now the Services will have the core tasks to Raise, Train and Sustain their respective forces.
  • Also, as each chief will be a member of the COSC, and an expert of his/her domain, his or her inputs will be necessary for all operational decisions.


How many commands are there now; are any of them tri-Service commands?

  • As of now, the three forces have 17 commands between them.
  • The Army has seven commands: Northern, Eastern, Southern, Western, Central, Southwestern and Army Training Command (ARTRAC).
  • The Air Force has seven as well: Western, Eastern, Southern, Southwestern, Central, Training, and Maintenance commands.
  • The Navy has three: Western, Eastern and Southern, of which Southern is largely about training.
  • Even if these commands operate in the same region, they are not co-located, and their areas of operational responsibility are not necessarily the same.
  • There are two existing tri-Service commandsas well — the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), which is headed by rotation by officers from the three Services, and the Strategic Force Command, which is responsible for India’s nuclear assets.

How will system help?

  • The theatre command system is intended to bring better synergy between the three branches of the armed forces.
  • Instead of separate commands for the Army, Navy, Air Force, a unified command will be set up to be led by a single commander.
  • Which means that that the military assets that are now split under separate centres of command will be fused into one single command under one operational head who will be responsible for directing and controlling their activities in a given situation.
  • But apart from operational synergies, experts point out that a theatre command system will also contribute to more streamlined costs and a leaner fighting force.
  • A big chunk of the annual defence budget goes into paying salaries and pensions while outlays do not always grow in line with the actual needs of the armed forces.
  • Supporters say that the theatre command system will help remove redundancies and bring greater focus in the allocation of resources.


What are the challenges towards its creation in India?

  • According to experts, the key hurdle in integrating the three services under the theatre command system is that of the structure itself: that is who reports to whom and how does the chain of command flow.
  • These involve issues of operational command and control over assets.
  • Further, budgetary allocations and the distribution of funds have also been pointed out as factors that need to be clearly worked out to enable the setting up of a seamless theatre command system.
  • Another issue may be the existing mismatch between the assets of the army, navy and air force.
  • According to reports, with fewer perceived resources, the Indian Air Force has concerns about its assets getting spread out thinly over the different theatre commands while it has also been suggested that more clarity is sought on questions of operational control.
  • A piece published by the Observer Research Foundation said that the air force "has only 31 operational squadrons against a modest sanctioned strength of 42 (and that) would make it difficult for IAF to permanently station assets in a particular command with territorial boundaries".


Way Forward:

  • Analysis of what is available in the public domain reveals that there are to be a West Land Based Theatre Command, an East Land Based Theatre Command (both headed by the rmy), a Maritime Command (headed by the Navy), Air Defence Command (headed by the Air Force) and Andaman and Nicobar Command with rotational helmsmanship.
  • The Northern Command is to be left undisturbed (which is not understood).
  • The reasons for such domain specific heads for Theatre Commands is unclear and does not appear to have been after due diligence by the stakeholders.
  • These domain-based commands go against the spirit of jointness/integration and is best avoided. It is divisive in nature and kills the idea of jointness/integration or enhanced organisational effectiveness.
  • There is a need to address the cognitive dissonance caused by the prevailing mindsets and lack of communication (trust) for integration to succeed.
  • Training at joint service institutions should include the operations methodology of the other services and this needs to be assessed. This may reduce the cognitive dissonance.
  • Besides the doctrinal base, there needs to be a legal authority like an Act of Parliament to authorise such changes. Authority to direct, control, reward and punish implies legitimate power. In a society subscribing to democratic values, the legitimacy of power wielded in any organisation finds its origin in the elected government.
  • India is not NATO or the United States. This fact should be the premise while working on the Theatre Command concept. Indian process should not simply mirror US/NATO/Russia/China approaches but be unique to our geography, threat perception, and future objectives
  • Indian planners should also keep in mind that this is not just one-time reform but a continuous process. The Americans started the reforms over hundred years ago and are still continuing. The Russians initially opted for only four ‘Joint Strategic Commands’. At a later date, a fifth ‘Northern Command’ was added to meet specific requirements.
  • Last but not the least, ‘Defence Industry’ should be brought up and nurtured at a war footing. It is an often ignored aspect in India, without realizing that the domestic defence industry for the modernization of armed forces is as important as the fighting arms themselves. No nation has become a great power without having a robust defence industry.


Theatre Commands are much more than just jointmanship, technology, and strategy. It is about speed and time in achieving success on the battlefield: “A minute can determine the result of the battle, an hour the result of the campaign, and a day the fate of empires.” Command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) have speeded up the process of decision-making. The key to winning the war is having command over technology, implementation of technology, and utilizing that technology in acting faster than the adversary. The answer to all this is a modern ‘Integrated Command Structure’.