The transition to theatre command must commence with simultaneous switch to the basic structure decided.A trial-based theatre command would be neither here nor there.


Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (Retd) 


It was on 15 August 2019 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would have a Chief of Defence Staff. On 30 December, General Bipin Rawat was appointed the first CDS and the Department of Military Affairs was created in the Ministry of Defence. Among other issues, the DMA was mandated to facilitate restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands. The CDS was mandated to bring about jointness in operations, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, etc of the three Services, within three years of assuming office.

In 2020, we witnessed China’s aggression in Ladakh. The tragic demise of General Rawat in an air accident in December 2021 was followed by the post of CDS remaining vacant for nine months. The decision-making on basic design of restructuring is still being baked in the oven of inter-Services differences and the laudable reform announced by the PM from the ramparts of Red Fort remains a work in progress. Even the first major step of the paperwork, involving the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), has not transpired even though some recent media reports indicate that the restructuring has been finally crystallised. It is understood that the restructuring would be based on three theatres that include a land-based theatre command each for northern and western borders and Maritime Theatre Command for the Indo-Pacific.

There have also been several other ongoing initiatives covering training, logistics, human resource management, legal, and interoperability of communications that haven’t made sufficent progress in the absence of the fundamental decision regarding the design of the new structure, which will replace the existing systemic architecture based on the thirteen service-based operational commands, including six Army, two Navy, and five Air Force. Additionally, there exists one functional command each for the Army and Navy dealing with training. The IAF has two – maintenance and training. There are also two integrated commands – the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) — that control the nuclear assets. Currently, all these are under their respective Service headquarters, except the ANC and SFC, which are controlled by the Integrated Defence Staff and the Nuclear Command Authority, respectively.

The conceptual basis for theatre design

The conceptual basis for restructuring should be driven by the notion that “larger [operational] theatre structures facilitate flexible cooperation in greater quantities of military power and concurrent with inter-service integration would cater for centralised joint planning and decentralised application of military power”. In application of the concept, it would seem logical that two continental theatres, western and northern, and one maritime theatre should provide the best fit. But one major factor works against the singularity of the maritime theatre.

The permeability of external and internal threats demands that theatre commands share the internal geographical space. The internal space that the maritime-based theatre command would have to share is sizeable and evident as it would have to cover the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Jharkhand, and Odisha. This implies the entire southern part of peninsular India. To encumber a single maritime theatre with such a vast inland space is better avoided. So, two maritime theatres based roughly on the existing Western Naval Command and the Eastern Naval Command would be preferable with the Eastern Theatre Command absorbing the existing Integrated Andaman & Nicobar Command.

There is no question of having a separate functional command for internal security responsibilities as the assets have to be sourced from the theatre commands. The command structure for internal security could be based on the existing area headquarters of the Army, responsibilities of which already conform to the existing state boundaries. However, and especially at the edges, in places like Kutch and Ladakh with Himachal Pradesh, district boundaries may have to be followed. This would facilitate coordination of communications, logistics, transportation, and liaison with civil authorities.

Structural organisation

Below the theatre commands, the corps/areas of the Army would have to be restructured as required, especially with respect to creating joint operational assets, internal security commitments, logistics, and administrative integration. The Air Force stations/squadrons could be grouped into operational entities consisting of two or three ‘wings’ under an Air Vice Marshal, who will report to the ‘component commander’ at the theatre level. The maritime theatres will have ‘fleets’ as their subordinate structure.

There would be functional commands that could be either integrated or Service-specific. We could think of an integrated training/cyber/space/special forces/logistics command or a Service-specific Army/Air Force/Navy training command. These functional commands could be placed under the control of the permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee or be under the Service chiefs. Once operational responsibility is devolved to the theatre commanders, the Service-specific functions including training, administration, and human resource management will remain under the individual chiefs.

Inter-theatre boundary

One of the major decision points in the design of the continental structure relate to the boundary between western and eastern theatres in the Union Territory of Ladakh. It is here that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and the Line of Control (LOC) with Pakistan are contiguous. Currently, headquarters 14 Corps is responsible for Ladakh over the region that faces China as also for the Kargil/Siachen area, which faces Pakistan. Ideally, in terms of threat, the Eastern Theatre Command should control Ladakh and Western Theatre Command should control Kargil/Siachen. But both terrain and communication lines traverse common areas and splitting the Ladakh and Kargil/Siachen between the western and eastern theatres would be hugely problematic especially for logistics. That would be because the support base in terms of surface communications would lie through Punjab/Himachal Pradesh via Rohtang Pass and J&K via Zoji La Pass, which would be under the western theatre. Therefore, the entire Union Territory of Ladakh should be under western theatre. The inter-theatre boundary would have to be demarcated with adjustments for terrain and road communications in the region of the inter-state boundary between Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh.

Maintaining balance during transition

It is only when the structural design of the theatre boundaries are decided that all other downstream decisions of military assets allocations be finalised. The transition to theatre commands would be a complex process. The major challenge is maintaining the operational and logistic balance keeping in view the contemporary geopolitical threat scenario. The transition will have to be managed in stages, but it must start with the creation of the command and control structures at the top to also include the HQ IDS and HQ theatre commands. Simultaneously, the theatre command structure based on geographic boundaries should be put in place. The reassignment of assets and its command and control will need to be phased in specific cases so that balance is retained at all times.

The transition to theatre command must commence with simultaneous switch to the basic structure decided. One should avoid establishing a theatre command as a trial. It would be akin to the theatre command structural system being neither here nor there. Such trials must be avoided not only to avoid the resultant operational imbalance it is likely to create, but also obviate the likelihood of the unintended provision of grounds within the Services to sabotage the entire exercise. These caucuses have already delayed the decision process.

For India’s armed forces, theaterisation is a political mandate and the issue for decision/action by the armed forces is about how and not why.