Options for the Northern Theater

 By Col. Ali Ahmed (Retd.)

The Northern Command (NC) appears to have been left intact in the latest structural rejigging of the army, the most consequential since Independence. The mandate for setting up joint commands reads: “Facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through the establishment of joint/theatre commands.”

Notably, if theaterisation was the directive, the forward slash need not have been there. However, the issue is moot since reports have it that the theaterisation concept is being implemented. The maritime theatre is complemented by three landward theatres: western, eastern and northern theatre. The northern theatre is the current-day NC area of responsibility, with its boundary duly adjusted to accommodate the two new neighbouring commands in the offing. NC, therefore, covers the adjacent territorial spread into Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh respectively of the two abutting theatres, western and eastern theatres.

The consideration in this article is whether the NC should be retained as the northern theatre or should be split with the Pakistan and China facing stretches of its geography taken over by the respective neighbouring commands, western and eastern. Of the two options – retain NC as a northern theatre or down the road split it between the two adversary-specific theatres – this article argues in favour of the latter.

As of now, since theaterisation is a work-in-progress, it is not fully known how the end state is envisaged. Along the two fronts, reportedly the operational functions of the current day commands are to be first taken over by designated command headquarters, followed over time by other functions as logistics. But the NC has been kept out of this makeover, for now, favoured with its own theatre as hitherto.

Presumably, since it is an operationally active command, with the counter-insurgency operations set to heighten after the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the Ladakh intrusion by the Chinese not having reverted to status quo ante yet, the military – sensibly – has led to NC being the third theatre for now. It would not do to generate structural instability at a time when the challenge is nigh. Doing so will reduce accountability, currently vested in one theatre headquarters: the NC.

In the first option, this arrangement is persisted with since the NC is where the much-vaunted two-front threat is likely to be the most incident. Geographical contiguity in the northern parts allows India’s two adversaries – Pakistan and China – to act in sync and manifest a threat. If the appreciation has it that such a threat is best met with an integrated response under one theatre command, then the NC may be persisted with.

However, a drawback of retaining NC as a single theatre is that its counter-insurgency commitment is of the order that perhaps led to it being off-guard when confronted by the Chinese intrusion. Arguably, similar was the case with the Kargil intrusion. With the Pakistani proxy war apprehended to heighten in wake of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the Chinese refusing to revert to status quo ante in Ladakh, the NC may be faced with dissonance. It seems that the NC has rather a lot on its plate, that can be better digested when shared. In other words, its area of operations should be split between the two fronts facing respectively India’s two adversaries, Pakistan and China.

If the NC is split, the theatre command handling the Pakistan front can have a holistic view of the Kashmir situation, enabling it to modulate conventional deterrence as necessary and conduct integrated conventional operations across the whole front when warranted. It would have the two mechanised strike corps and elements of the new mountain strike corps (reportedly created out of the third mechanized strike crops) at its disposal. If the Pakistan front, in such as circumstance, is split into two theatres – western and NC – then the promise of theaterisation is defeated and its very concept negated.

This is especially relevant since India has been at pains to doctrinally link the two levels of war – sub-conventional and conventional – in order to deter Pakistan’s proxy war at the latter level. India is reforming its strike forces into integrated battle groups to make conventional military power credible. One operational level headquarters thinking up their simultaneous assaults is better than one handling those across the international border and the other across the line of control. This will keep the higher headquarters free to maintain a strategic view of the conflict and keep a wary eye on the other neighbour under the two-front rubric.

A similar argument is valid for the other front too. Having Ladakh under one theatre and the remainder of the line of actual control with China under another would yet again embroil the strategic level headquarters at Delhi in calibrating the response across two theatres, rather than maintaining an eagle eye on both fronts. At the operational level, any future intrusions would require to be met with speedy counter grab actions, best mounted by one headquarters fully abreast with the strengths and vulnerabilities and the developing situation across the entire front. At the strategic level, the likelihood of a Pakistani hyena action is taken is more likely in a situation of a limited conflict on the other front. It would not do for the strategic level headquarters to be distracted by integrating the response of the two separate theatres on the China front.

The two-front situation is most pertinent at India’s northern extremity, where India has the vulnerability of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) on one side and the Siachen-Kargil area on the other, where India is on a surer footing. This may require to be innovatively handled if a split of NC places these two complexes respectively in the responsibility of two different theatres, with Siachen falling in the western front.

Even if the two adversaries join hands for a concerted effort here, the two theatres can respond by opening up other sectors along respective fronts. For instance, in case of a grab of DBO by China, the northern theatre can counter with pressure points elsewhere and outside Ladakh, even as the western theatre can ‘go for’ Gilgit-Hunza (specifically the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and/or elsewhere. Having the strategic level headquarters at Delhi oversee operational level details would distract it from its primary responsibility at such a juncture: paying attention to conventional escalation and nuclear thresholds.

Admittedly, retaining NC for a better response is persuasive. It would keep the conflict limited geographically and make for a concerted response. But this would play into the hands of the adversaries who would have catered for NC’s pushback. Escalation horizontally may be better in such a case, rather than have a repeat of Kargil. On balance, this argument in favour of a northern theatre does not clinch the issue.

The argument for the northern theatre being split into two putative theatres – western and eastern – is therefore plausible, but would require the current threat in the northern theatre to stabilize before the next steps are taken.