The Indian government is set to announce the establishment of long-awaited integrated theater commands (ITCs) in the upcoming weeks. After months of discussion, the Indian tri-services have in principle agreed to 99 percent of the working framework for proposed theater commands. Moreover, India’s present chief of defense staff, General Anil Chauhan, recently hinted at the establishment of ITCs while addressing India’s elite scientific community in Delhi, by asserting that “in the national security realm, the concept of theaterization is a fundamental change that is on the anvil,”
If the implementation phase commences in August as reported, it would enable the Indian military to effectively deploy the army’s Integrated Battle Groups along Pakistan’s border in synergy with Indian Air Force (IAF) assets, thus affecting Pakistan’s national security by eroding conventional deterrence.
The Shift to ITCs
The concept of integrated theater commands was first formally proposed by the Shekatkar Committee in 2016, which identified the lack of jointness within the Indian military as a concern. The committee’s report recommended the establishment of three integrated commands: southern, western, and northern.
The recommendation got a jump start once General Bipin Rawat took over the office of the chief of defense staff. Rawat eagerly supported ITCs and proposed five commands, two more than the original idea. He fervently advocated for the creation of theater commands and secured popular support.
But the ITCs attained full traction only in the Indian Army, with some support in the Indian Navy. The IAF, for its part, resisted the novel concept back then, out of concern that the division of air assets will affect its doctrinal approach and adversely affect its operational capabilities. Moreover, comments by Rawat calling the IAF a “support arm” of the Indian Army, created a deadlock, because his comments antagonized the IAF leadership. This eventually slowed down progress toward ITCs.
However, with the appointment of General Anil Chauhan as chief of defense staff, the process resumed, and was put on track again. He silently worked behind the scenes and removed the hurdles in the materialization of ITCs. He pointedly called the process of theaterization irreversible on the eve of the Combined Commanders Conference (CCC). This was a signal to the military commanders to start focusing on jointness and accept the incoming change.
Also, to operationalize the ITCs sooner, the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house, put its weight behind the Inter-Services Organizations (Command, Control and Discipline) Bill 2023, which passed without any amendments on August 4. The bill would end the previous practices being followed within the Indian military, thus permitting the commander of each ITC to discipline personnel of all three services under his command. This measure indicates the seriousness of the Indian government on the operationalization of integrated theater commands.
The plan is to reduce the present 17 commands of the Indian military (three of the navy and seven each of the army and air force) into three commands only. Former Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane argued during his tenure that the process will ensure “tri-services synergy” and effective use of military resources.
Each theater command will constitute elements belonging to the army, navy, and air force, working under only one commander in a certain specific geography. This will ensure the availability of all resources at the commander’s disposal in a crisis. To ensure effective command and control, theater commanders will directly report to the chief of defense staff, instead of services chiefs. This move toward the adoption of ITCs aims to end the lacunas that existed in the Indian military because of a lack of jointness among services.
Additionally, the theater commands are being created based on the notion of One Border One Force. They will be geography- and border-specific, with three to be created: two will be land-based and one will be focused on maritime boundaries. According to various media reports, the first phase will involve the establishment of two ITCs, with separate headquarters in Jaipur and Lucknow, that are specifically intended to counter Pakistan and China. In the second phase, a marine theater command (MTC), with its headquarters in Korwar, will be raised, with the job of protecting Indian economic and security interests in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.
Implications for Pakistan
The news coming from India indicates that Pakistan-specific Western Theater Command will be the first to be operationalized, with the China-focused Northern Theater Command coming second. This highlights the fact that regardless of the recent hot engagements with the Chinese military at Galwan Valley, and increasing cooperation with the United States against China in the Asia-Pacific region, India still considers Pakistan to be its primary adversary.
This was reaffirmed by the recent belligerent statement coming from Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, last month in which he repeatedly threatened to cross the Line of Control (LOC). Singh never used such language against the Chinese even at the peak of the Galwan Valley crisis. Even the recent China-India clash at the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh didn’t invoke such hawkish comments.
Once the Western Theater Command becomes functional, it would provide a suitable launching pad for India’s Pakistan-centric proactive strategy, commonly known as Cold Start Doctrine. The doctrine is grounded in the concept of rapid and swift employment of Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs). It requires jointness between the Indian Army and IAF because the ground-based IBGs would not be able to fight alone without adequate air cover and close air support from the IAF. The IAF has resisted this job in the past because it believed that it had the distinctive skill of carrying out independent strategic missions. However, implementing an ITC under one command authority would bring an end to this hesitancy and enhance the synergy between the two services, which was lacking in the past because of their different doctrinal postures.
Moreover, the theaterization will reorganize the old Indian Army units and convert them into tailor-made IBGs, as argued by Indian Army Chief Manoj Pande earlier this year. The operationalization of an ITC would allow these IBGs to carry out their operations in a shorter timeframe, while retaining the required IAF air cover. The presence of one theater commander would lead to the “unity of command,” enabling effective coordination and direction of all military forces toward a common objective. It would remove the operational hurdles that hindered the smooth launching of the Cold Start Doctrine.
This should be a serious concern for Pakistan because it would pave the way for “Cold Start” to go hot at any time. It would enhance the temptation, already existing in the Indian politico-military establishment under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of crossing the LOC and international border with Pakistan if a new crisis arises. Looking at the Modi government’s previous track record, India could initiate another misadventure.
The Indian theater command initiative will challenge Pakistan’s national security. This new development will pose a significant challenge to the Pakistan Army’s warfighting capabilities, as its last doctrine came in 2011 and didn’t foresee the operational challenges posed by theater commands. India’s shift to ITCs requires new doctrinal thinking on paper, in military training grounds, and during military exercises. To counter this emerging challenge, greater jointness is required within Pakistan’s military at each level of war.
Finally, Pakistan may have to come up with a new military strategy to nullify the advantages that India is likely to get in the near future. This should be done sooner rather than later.