Imagining Integrated Theatre Commands as ‘Strategic Entities’

 By Ankur Banga
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The recent conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh have demonstrated emerging threats, the advent of modern innovative technologies and the complexities of joint multi-domain warfare. COVID-19 further gave proof of unknown challenges faced by an increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependent world. In the Indian context, Pulwama and Galwan incidents in recent years have adequately highlighted the myriad challenges being faced by India and the need for cohesive employment of comprehensive National Power. While all elements of national power are increasingly being harnessed towards that, within Armed Forces, integration and jointness are most critical to achieving desired outcomes in future conflicts. After decades of safeguarding individual service turfs amidst inadequacies of civil-military relationships and resource constraints, Indian Armed Forces have shown a promising start to achieve a transformation process that should ideally not culminate at higher defence organisations like DMA, CDS and Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) but also cover Armed Forces in its entirety.

The process of establishing ITCs currently underway with great vigour amid wider deliberations is an important step towards the same. While countries like the US, China, Russia & UK have adopted different paths towards achieving integration, driven by their own strategic context and compulsions, India’s security would need to be maintained not only along the Northern and Western Borders but also in the strategic space of the “extended neighbourhood” and strategic frontier as well[1]. Though securing unsettled Western & Northern Borders and the emergence of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as a new Zone of global contestations are central to arriving at desired structures and capabilities, the larger geostrategic construct and unpredictable future scenarios also merit anticipation to enable cooperation, competition, coercion and compellence in collaboration with politics and diplomacy. Post lessons learnt in Iraq & Afghanistan, the US had concluded that while geographic combatant commands are priceless in their strategic value but their structure, function, and organization are increasingly relics of a bygone era[2] necessitating a Whole of Nation approach to national security policy. As threats and challenges change, so should structures, approaches and processes.

The evolution of ITCs in their own context deserves to be imagined from a broader prism so that ITCs not only remain responsible for campaign planning and execution of operations at all levels but also attain the character of a strategic entity. Hence, the driving principle of transformation must move beyond ‘necessity’ to ‘opportunity’. As per media inputs quoting CDS’ interview to ANI news agency, two to five theatre commands including a separate command for J &K are likely to be set up by 2022[3].  Theatre Commands based on either geographically defined contiguous regions or threats should not only indulge in border management and border security role but be a part of harmonizing the strategic effort to secure own national interests close & far. With the likelihood of Theatre Command’s area of responsibility coinciding along distinct land borders, extending outwards from peninsular India or specific to geographically unique/strategically important area, ITCs must exercise wider influence that should not only permeate internally to forces/state/ non-state agencies in AOR but even radiate well beyond external boundaries. Externally, ‘X’ Theatre command along Western Borders must look at Afghanistan, Iran, Middle East, Turkey, Europe and Africa mainland as areas of strategic interest beyond Pakistan. Similarly, ‘Y’ Theatre Command along Northern Borders must look at Central Asia, Russia, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar & Thailand as areas of strategic interest beyond China. With IN already tuned to maritime diplomacy and operating seamlessly in the entire IOR, African coast and Indo-Pacific, ‘Z’ Theatre Command would have a head start over continental commands, however, it must go beyond mere numbers and enhance capabilities in order to influence the emerging geo-economic centres of gravity. Internally, the second line forces like ITBP, AR available along Northern Borders and BSF along Western Borders should also be placed under the operational control of ITCs to achieve true unity of command and synergy in an effort that would also be budgetary prudent. The same will enable greater force generation and rapid deployment from defensive orientation to offensive in high intensity limited/ conventional conflicts or Out of Area Contingencies in quicker time frames.

The ITCs ultimately encapsulate the commonality in threats, security concerns, national interests and meeting aspirations of India as an emerging power. In long term, ITCs need to transform into repositories of knowledge and expertise about respective strategic frontiers, maintain a cognitive readiness to exploit opportunities and offer broader capabilities for engagement in all domains. The other important aspect that merits greater reflection is the presence of extra-regional powers, neutrals, inter-play/ collusive between adversaries/partners. The presence of a viable component like ‘sherpas’ adept in diplomacy and international relations will add great value to any structure by bringing to the table requisite soft power skills to complement the hard power. The evolving multilateralism entails close cooperation with allies and partners to secure global commons amidst competition for resources and influence. Herein, an equal status entity like empowered ITCs will surely carry more gravitas and improve deliverables in a firm manner with integral/primary resources at hand or secondary assets when allocated. The availability of a counterpart appointment of Theatre Commander will not only promote one to one formal or informal linkages with peer structures like QUAD/ INDOPACOM/ CENTCOM/ AFRICOM in terms of interactions, discussions, joint training exercises, intelligence sharing, exchange of Liaison Officers, imbibing best practices etc. but also lead to equity in cooperation and partnership.

Lastly, the political wisdom and statesmanship displayed in the appointment of CDS and mandate to oversee the transformation process including ITCs must transcend beyond desired end state of an integrated structure and military orientation. Shaping up and eventual empowerment of ITCs backed by political awareness, muscle and will have the potential to fire up the future destiny of India as an emerging pole with significant mass and gravitas. The ‘Whole of Nation’ approach towards matters of national security and defence alluded to by Prime Minister’s address during the recent Combined Commanders Conference dwelled upon breaking down of civil-military silos and on expediting the speed of decision making[4]. Empowered and wholly integrated ITCs not only enable speedy decision making but would further enhance the quality of decision making with strategic outcomes. The opportunity of giving shape to the most important military reform in the history of the Indian Armed Forces in the establishment of ITCs must be seized to embrace a forward-looking structure that enables strategic reach rather than remaining purely operational in character. While we take initial steps towards the same, the available resources, assets or budgetary constraints must not cloud our imagination in carving out not only a futuristic structure of ITCs but a vibrant future itself that can adapt to any evolving situation with confidence and achieve cross-domain deterrence as strategic entities.

Endnotes:

[1] www.economictimes, 06 Sep 2020, by Gen Bipin Rawat in a Symposium on Defence Exports

[2] www. atlanticcouncil.org, 23 July 2014, All Elements of National Power- Moving towards a new Interagency balance for US Global Engagement.

[3] theoutlookindia.com, 17 Feb 2020, India will set up Theatre Commands: CDS Gen Rawat

[4] www. theprint.in, 06 Mar 2021, Break down civil-military silos, indigenise customs & doctrines, Modi tells Armed Forces by Snesh Alex Philip.