Home News Key Defence Bill Clears Obstacle Before Forming Theatre Commands

Key Defence Bill Clears Obstacle Before Forming Theatre Commands


An important defence bill passed in parliament seeks to empower the Commander-in-chief (C-in-C) and the Officer-in-Command (O-in-C) of an Inter-Service Organization (ISO) with disciplinary, command and control authority over personnel from other forces serving in the ISO.

The bill was tabled in parliament in March during the Budget session but was sent to the Standing Committee on Defence, which submitted its report in Lok Sabha in July.

The report answers several questions and highlights important facets of the bill, including the creation of an Inter-Service Organization or the much-discussed Theatre Command.

India currently has two tri-services commands – The Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). The former is an operational tri-services organisation established in 2001, the latter is responsible for the management of India’s nuclear assets and falls under the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), which is headed by the Prime Minister. The Strategic Forces Command was established in 2003.

Air Marshal Saju Balakrishnan AVSM, VM assumed charge as the C-in-C of the Andaman & Nicobar Command

The Defence Cyber Agency (DCA) is a tri-services command tasked with handling cyber threats.

After General Anil Chauhan was appointed the new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), talks on establishing theatre commands resurfaced.

The major reform seeks to unify the strength of the armed forces on the concept of ‘Jointness’ to bring compatibility among the forces.

What Does Theatre Command Mean?

Carl Von Clausewitz’s ‘On War’ defines ‘Theatre of War’ as “A portion of the space over which war prevails as has its boundaries protected, and thus possesses a kind of independence.” The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, termed Theatre Commands as “Battle Zone Commands”.

A theatre can also be termed as a land, sea or air area that may be directly involved in operations.

The US-Indo Pacific Command (PACOM) is one of the six combatant commands of the United States, which is responsible for integrating the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to achieve US national interests in the Indo-Pacific.

The US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is responsible for operations in South America. The US SOUTHCOM is responsible for operations in 31 countries and comprises personnel from the four forces.

In 2016, China restructured its military into five geographical commands similar to the US structure. The People’s Liberation Army’s Western Theatre Command, the largest of the five regions, is responsible for the defence of its western border, which includes India.

Concept of ‘Jointness’

The concept of an integrated approach to warfighting has proven effective and has yielded quick results compared to forces operating in isolation during wartime with little coordination. This concern was emphasized in the Kargil Review Committee’s report.

The Joint Armed Forces doctrine published by the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) in 2017 defines ‘Jointness’ and ‘Integration’. It distinguishes between ‘Joint War-Fighting’ and ‘Joint-War Fighting’ (Joint Operations) and focuses on Jointness among forces as a central concept around which Joint Operations or even single-service operations are planned.

The term ‘Integration’ refers to integrating processes across the land, sea, air, cyber, and space domains. The process requires structures to be further developed to have a ‘shared understanding’.

The terms may seem interchangeable, but the doctrine defines them as two concepts co-existing in a paradigm. The ANC, SFC and DCA are built on the concept of ‘Jointness’, and future theatre commands will share the same foundation.

Challenges for Inter-Service Organisation

The bill aims to counter the challenges an ISO faces. First, the service personnel are governed by their respective laws like the Army Act of 1950, the Air Force Act of 1950 and the Navy Act of 1957. 

Currently, the C-in-C or the O-in-C are not empowered to have disciplinary control over personnel from other services; a Major General from the Army does not have disciplinary powers over an officer from the Air Force even if the Major General is O-in-C of a tri-services organisation. This limitation arises from the fact that the Service Acts do not grant such control.

The bill now empowers the CDS, the C-in-C or the O-in-C to have command and control over personnel from other services to ensure “proper discharge of duties” and ensure discipline in the organisation. The standing committee report mentions that when the ANC was established, such problems were not “envisioned”, but the bill seeks to address these challenges.

The bill also empowers the Centre to ‘constitute’ an inter-service organisation through a gazette notification.

“Quickness is the essence of war” – Sun Tzu

Currently, the Army, Navy, and Air Force operate separate commands responsible for operations in specific geographical areas.

For instance, the Eastern Command of the Air Force, Navy, and the Army handle operations in the East, while the Western Command of the IAF and Northern Command of the Army manage operations in the North. Both were involved in operations during the 1971 war and the 1999 Kargil conflict.

Overlapping geographical areas of operation and separate administrative structures affect cohesion between forces and impact their combat capabilities.

Former army chief General VP Malik, in his book “India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy”, discusses the early apprehensions of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and the Air Force chief regarding the use of air power for dominance in battle. One concern was the fear of escalation due to air and naval power usage. Disagreements over the Air Force’s role in Kargil resulted in a delay of almost three weeks after intrusions were detected in May.

Later, decision-makers eventually approved a joint effort involving all three branches to establish superiority over the Western Front in case of escalation if the war moved from the mountains to the plains.

A synergized warfighting approach was observed during the 1971 war, with the armed forces operating cohesively. The navy on both the Eastern and Western coasts destroyed Pakistan’s naval assets, while the Air Force supported ground forces in a coordinated air-land battle.

Almost 12 days before the official declaration of war in 1971, the No. 22 Squadron’s Gnats shot down Pakistani Sabres in an aerial battle over Boyra in East Pakistan following the Army’s successes in the Battle of Garibpur.


The IAF heroes of Boyra dog-fight

The Present

Chinese incursion in Ladakh and the northeast cannot be countered without synergy among forces. In Arunachal Pradesh, where the road network on the Indian side of the border is still not fully developed, the Air Force has to provide tactical air support (TAS) to the army in the event of a war.


An armed conflict or a full-scale war may seem almost impossible in the present global scenario, but the major standoff in Ladakh, which started in 2020, cannot be discarded as just another incident. Recently, the four commands in the east, including the Andaman and Nicobar Command headquartered in Port Blair, formed the ‘Tetra’ group to counter China on the eastern front.

The tri-services Amphibious Exercise, AMPHEX, which was conducted in January this year, is aimed at improving interoperability and coordination among the three services in amphibious operations

While the government has not shared any official plan for theatre commands, it is assumed that existing structures would be integrated based on operational needs.

In addition to constituting theatre commands, the Department of Military Agency (DMA) said the government is also working on a joint weapons platform also referred to as Integrated Logistics Command, where maintenance and repair of common weapons are done jointly by the forces to avoid duplication of resources for maintenance and reduce inventory to help cut costs.

The Indian armed forces are responsible for safeguarding a vast geographical area, and theatre commands can be formed through a gazette notification, but overhauling the existing structure of logistics and human resources may pose a significant challenge.

(Divyam Sharma is a Senior Sub Editor at NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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