Theater Commands in India: A Force Structure Ripe for Transition?


Modern warfare requires a premium on higher defense management and challenges status quo thinking. With that pretext, a longish and contemporaneous debate within the three arms of the military has been taking place on forming the Joint Theater Commands (JTC) in India. The Indian Army is favorably disposed toward the idea of JTCs whereas the Indian Air Force (IAF) is stringently opposed to it.

This debate has been ascribed to turf control between the services with accusations of each trying to dictate the terms of “jointness” at the expense of the other. The crux of the debate has, however, revolved around the conception of airpower, control of air assets and whether the force structure is ripe for it. The current squadron strength and the nature of geography however suggest strongly that theater commands though desirable must wait until the force structure is ripe for such a transition.

The Role of Airpower?

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The discord between the Army and the IAF extends to how the services construe the role of airpower in warfare. The Army’s conception of the battlefield whether air-land domain or air-sea domain involves air-assets predominantly for a “close air support” role. The Army believes that wars are eventually fought and won on land. This threat perception is driven by the fact that the nature of war fighting will essentially be in the realm of limited conventional wars on both the eastern and western fronts where counter-air missions will hold more importance than the strategic employment of airpower. This view, however, discounts the wide-ranging roles that the introduction of airpower can fulfill. Airpower can be employed toward strategic objectives, as an exercise in compellence and have a decisive role in shaping the outcome of a war. Modern day wars are premised on air superiority, which, if not established, could be detrimental to a country’s own ground troops.

A second question to consider is who owns the air assets. The Army’s conception of war implies it wants to have dedicated assets under its control and has competed with the Air Force for ownership of rotary assets, even as the fixed wing assets remain under the IAF. Even within rotary assets however commonality of assets is not a given. The configuration of a helicopter flying at high altitudes like Siachen is different from a helicopter flying at sea-level for the Navy. A prior example showcasing lack of understanding of airpower was seen in the Kargil war of 1999 when on the Army’s insistence IAF deployed Mi-17s sorties but these were not suited for high altitude operations and eventually one was lost to a Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS).

The Rationale Behind Theater Commands

The argument for moving ahead with JTC’s is based on the rationale that for future wars it is necessary to have unified control over limited military resources which can deployed in the most efficient manner. China moved to a theater command structure in 2016, junking the old regional command structure by combining Chengdu and Lanjhou Military region into its Western Theater Command which is responsible for all air and land assets concerning India. India, on the other hand, has 17 military commands in addition to the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and the Andaman and Nicobar Command, which is its only tri-services integrated theater command. Of these, three Army commanders (Northern, Western, and Eastern) and one Air Force (Eastern Air Command) and one Navy (Eastern Naval Command) act as a collective against the single Chinese Western Theater Command.

If two battle theaters are far away it makes sense to segregate military assets. The deciding factor here is not the distance but if the capacity to switch military assets between the two theaters is not available, not feasible, war-inefficient or quite simply not possible. This ostensibly is the case with the U.S. military which has global reach, but six combatant commands segregated on geographical basis (other than the four functional commands Cyber, Special Operations, Strategic and Transport), which cater to a diverse range of security threats across defined regions of responsibility and where switching military assets from one theater to the other is neither advisable nor possible. Contrast this with the threat landscape that India has and the IAF is firmly of the opinion that the subcontinent should be considered one single theater as neither time nor distance are a factor in switching assets from one area to another as required. During exercise Gaganshakti in 2018 IL-76 squadron covered 275,000 km in a month which is approximately 9,200 km a day. The maximum distance covered across Siachen to Kanyakumari (north to south) or Naliya to Dinjan (west to east) is 2,500 km implying this distance can be covered almost four times a day manifesting in a capability that can lend greater flexibility in utilization of limited assets.

Force Structure and Optimization

The IAF currently operates 34 fighter squadrons against the required 42 squadrons, but of these only 31 are operationally available for combat. The capability to concentrate firepower within a shorter time-frame and in a limited area of engagement against the adversary is often decisive. The force structure here is important as are other attributes. India maintains a diverse range of platforms in the limited 31 squadrons it operates, the serviceability rates of which vary implying not all fighters are up in air at a given point of time. Servicing these diverse platforms is a tedious job but more importantly these fighters are supported by a limited number of air-enablers like three Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and six mid-air refuellers. Dividing these air-enablers among JTCs will be counter-productive to the overall scheme of increasing air-time for the available and serviced fighter platforms. Optimum utilization of fire power leveraging numbers will therefore require air assets including the force multipliers to cater to the entire force along the length and breadth of the subcontinent and not just in a single area of engagement.

Given the security landscape jointness cannot be wished away, but whether the overall force structure is ripe for it is a pertinent question for the Indian decision makers. Su-30 MKI is the mainstay of the IAF but there are many other in its inventory which are ageing platforms. The initial Rafale contract for 126 fighters was ostensibly to fill this gap. But the cost prohibitive nature of defense procurement and capital crunch lead the numbers for a new government to government deal for the same aircraft down to 36. This too has been embroiled in political controversy over allegations of cronyism and corruption. Given that India is a year away from general elections, any progression on this procurement will be excruciatingly slow as politics dictates the speed of the process. Further, India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program meant to replace the phased-out squadrons is still awaiting Final Operational Clearance (FOC) and suffers from production hurdles. In all probability squadron numbers for IAF are slated to go further down by 2025-27. In the final analysis, any movement toward JTCs must account for these impediments and transition to JTCs must prioritize addressing concerns related to force structure requirements before such an exercise can be undertaken.

Joy Mitra is a visiting fellow in the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

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