South Asia and Beyond

Theaterisation: Still A Case of Blind Men And The Elephant

 Theaterisation: Still A Case of Blind Men And The Elephant

NEW DELHI: Considering that the idea of theaterisation and integration of Indian Armed Forces that found favour almost two decades back continues to linger without concretisation is disconcerting. While achieving political consensus may be blamed for initial delays, its current inertia is to be squarely blamed on lack of conceptual clarity amongst the senior military leadership where long-embedded instincts of protecting turf are still being peddled under the garb of ill-founded or outdated military jargon. Here is an attempt to bring to focus the key concepts that must drive the process of integration and theaterisation.

Levels Of Management Of War

Against common understanding of wars being managed and conducted at just two levels—strategic and tactical—professional business of managing war is at six levels. National Strategic Level, Military Strategic Level, Theatre Strategic Level; Theatre Operational Level, Operational-Tactical (Op-Tac) Level and Tactical Level. National Strategic is the apex political level where political aim(s) of war along with restraints & constraints are enunciated. In Indian context, the CCS duly assisted by NSC (NSAB & SPG included) deal with this level. Military Strategic is the level that deals with deciding overall military objectives to be achieved to deliver the political aim(s) of war. These include military objectives to be achieved in each strategic theatre as well as theatre independent strategic objectives, as relevant. Theatre Strategic Level is concerned with addressing the whole of a military adversary within defined geographical boundaries; planning, organising and sequencing of operations for more than one military campaigns, to achieve multiple assigned military objectives. Theatre of Operations forms part of overall Strategic Theatre, its expanse confined by geographical constraints and size & nature of employable forces. This level is concerned with planning, organising and sequencing of operations for one military campaign to achieve one operational objective. Achievement of objectives in adjacent & contiguous operational theatres, collectively enable achieving of objectives of the Strategic Theatre. Operations at this level, referred to as ‘Operational Zones’, are conducted by a Corps sized force or by a CBG. Op-Tac level deals with operations along a single thrust line and axis of maintenance, normally referred as ‘sectors’ and conducted by a divisional size force (or by IBGs or in maritime domain by a CGTF) which are part of Corps or CBG. All operations below this level are conducted at Tactical Level.

Overall optimization of all levels of management of war is to be achieved through functional synergy by institutionalised interactive and iterative mechanisms.

Concept Of Theatre & Theatre Geometry

Theatre of war (to be managed at Theatre Strategic Level) as per George Marshall, has been defined as that expanse of contiguous geography which must address the whole of competing adversary and preferably, its collaborating entities if also geographically contiguous. This has also been referred to loosely as “Fronts”. To illustrate, pre-1971, though Pakistan was one adversary yet, East and West Pakistan comprised two separate Theatres of War being geographically non-contiguous. In the current context, all of Pakistan’s geographical expanse, including contiguous seas, must form part of one theatre of war. Its hierarchy & geometry has been defined to comprise Theatre of Operations (single campaign & multiple thrusts), Zone of Operations (multiple operations part of one campaign along multiple axes), Sector of Operations (Op-Tac Level with One Operation along one axis) and Area of Operations (Tactical Level with multiple concurrent & sequential operations astride common axis).

Theatres of war normally comprise all-Service components. However, this is true of the US model where its Strategic Theatres are large geographical entities comprising oceans and land territories. Logically, Strategic Theatres of War fall in two distinct categories: Maritime Theatres and Land-Air Theatres. Maritime Theatre of War comprises oceanic & land (islands & coasts) geographies where all Services can and must operate hence, also referred as Tri-Services Theatres of War. Land-Air Theatres of War obviously deal with wars on land frontiers and in skies above hence, referred to as Bi-Service Theatres of War. In the Indian context, evidently, both, Tri-Services (Maritime) and Bi-Services (Land-Air) Theatres of War come into play.

Maximising impact is to be achieved through “integration” of decision making at single headquarters at each level in the hierarchy of theatre geometry and by two-down synergizing of operations now much enabled through shortened sensor-shooter loop (OODA loop).

Force Structuring For Theaterisation

Fear of distributing assets in penny packets is often expressed as logic against theaterisation, most often by the Air Force. This is misplaced and displays lack of conceptual clarity. The concept of theaterisation is broadly to be achieved through three tiered force structure at national level. These include Theatre Forces; Theatre Independent Forces; and Services Training & Equipping Pool.

Theatre Forces (or Theaterised Forces) are those ab initio orbated and integral to each theatre which are essential for fulfilling all assigned roles, tasks & missions of the Integrated Theatre Command. These will comprise Army, Navy & Air Force elements in Maritime Theatre Commands and Army & Air Force elements in Land-Air Theatre Commands. Besides, components from Theatre Independent Forces may also be integrated in each.

Theatre Independent Forces are over and above Theaterised Forces, held at Military Strategic Level and comprise Theatre Independent Strategic Forces (viz, Strategic Air Force, Strategic Missile or Nuclear Force; Special Operations Force, Strategic Cyber Force, Central Logistic Command, Central AD Command etc) and Theatre Independent Strategic Reserves.

Theatre Independent Strategic Forces would be employed by Military Strategic level, often with clearance of apex National Strategic Level, for independent strategic operations which may or may not have direct relation with warfare of Theatre Strategic level or below.

Theatre Independent Strategic Reserves would be controlled by Military Strategic level and meant for reinforcing capabilities of any of the Theatre Strategic Forces, as and when required.

Services Training and Equipping Pool would comprise forces/units under raising and equipping/ re-equipping; those returned from operational deployments or those under disbandment. These will be controlled by Services HQ and would become part of Theatre Forces or Theatre Independent Strategic Reserves, when assigned.

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Concern Of Penny-Packet Distribution Of Assets

This fear expressed by some, especially with regard to air assets, may be a legitimate concern. However, the following, as per overall concepts elucidated above, should put matters to rest:

  • As a thumb-rule, strategic air assets must not be integrated with Theatre Forces. Operational & Tactical air assets may only be assigned to Theatre Commands while strategic air assets must form part of Theatre Independent Forces (as Theatre Independent Strategic Air Force).
  • However, nature of modern air assets being that most of same platforms being capable of performing tactical, operational & strategic missions, as well as most countries, especially India, not being rich enough to maintain separate air assets for strategic and operational/ tactical roles, an optimization philosophy with inherent flexibility must be resorted to while initial assigning of air assets for theatre forces and those retained centrally as Theatre Independent Force.
  • Endeavors should be made to assign air assets to each Integrated Theatre Command to enable it to execute all of its assigned primary operational & tactical missions. Strategic air support and meeting less likely operational contingencies should be catered for by air assets of Theatre Independent Strategic Air Force and/or sidestepping from other Integrated Theatre Commands by flexible/contingency tasking.

Command Of Integrated Strategic Theatres

It is a misnomer that maritime theatres are more appropriate for command by Naval admirals and that land-air commands are more suitable for command by Army generals. This thought must be dropped with the contempt that it deserves. Those who have risen to the ranks of generals/ admirals/ air marshals cannot afford to be single service specialists nor display any special solidarity with the service of their initial commission. Office of the CDS should offer a panel of all qualified generals/ admirals/ air marshals for command of either of the strategic theatres. Political authority would be most suited to pick any out of the pool in its own wisdom.

Integration Versus Jointness

“Jointness” refers to an arrangement of linking two similar or disparate entities. It doesn’t seek to combine but to provide a reasonably strong interface to prevent two or more entities from moving away. In material domain, it’s a mechanical measure (like joining two pieces of wood through a screw or nut & bolt arrangement or linking two separate buildings with different architectures & foundations by a pathway) and in human organisational domains, institutionalising daily/weekly meetings to share thoughts/ideas/plans. Waging wars or conducting operations is a different kettle of fish and demands all-for-one and one-for-all approach. It demands dynamically covering up of changing vulnerabilities or weaknesses of one component by the other. It demands unity of command, responsibility and accountability rather than diffused responsibility and blame games. The whole structure is to be erected as an outcome of one architecture and common foundation. This is what is delivered by “integration”. Let temptation of appeasing service egos not dilute the desired architecture for theaterisation by calling it “jointness”.

Supporting Versus Supported Debate

This debate is uncalled for in modern integrated warfighting doctrines. In the course of any military campaign or operations, it will be more a rule that different services and components within one Service will play interchanging roles. There would be phases of operations and stages of combat where different Services/components may be the Lead Service or Leading Arm, interchangeably. Time has come to make terminologies of supporting/combat/supported etc. redundant and have only two classifications across all Services viz, “Operational” and “Operational Logistic”.

Preserving Culture And Ethos

This argument too is pushed by many amongst senior military leadership, as an excuse for decelerating, if not abandoning theaterisation. It must be remembered that the whole exercise of theaterisation is to develop common ethos and common culture. Those practices which reinforce common ethos must be retained and amalgamated into new ethos and those which agitate against integration must be abandoned. It may be remembered that battle drills of one era become ceremonial drills of subsequent eras. While armed forces are prompt and professional enough in abandoning redundant battle drills, they dither endlessly in letting go of ceremonial drills.

Implementation Philosophy And Priority

In the Indian context, forces along specific borders & maritime frontiers being operationally committed, there is a need for a staggered implantation of the theaterisation plan. A viable phased plan would be as under:

  • Phase 1: Western Integrated Theatre Command, in clearly defined stages.
  • Phase 2: Northern Integrated Theatre Command and Maritime Theatre Command, both to follow two stages behind Phase 1 process.
  • Concurrent with Phases 1 & 2: Structuring of Theatre Independent Forces (including Theatre Independent Strategic Forces, Theatre Independent Strategic Reserves and Specialised Functional Commands).
  • Phase 3: Other Theatre Commands.


It is time that senior military leadership displayed conceptual clarity and abandoned vintage sub-optimal organisational structures and warfighting methodologies under the cover of misplaced apprehensions or turf guarding instincts. It is also time for the apex political authority to intervene in seemingly endless inter-Services competitiveness and set the ball rolling for theaterisation through legislative action.

(The author is a military analyst. Views expressed in this article are personal.)

Maj. Gen. Ajay Das (Retd)

He is Psc, HDMC and holds Masters Degrees in Strategic Studies and also in Management Studies. He has been a teaching faculty and Head of Deptt of Strategic Management at the College of Defence Management (CDM). He has also been a Security Advisor to a foreign Govt; Additional Director General of Public Information at the Army HQ and GOC of two operationally committed formations. His interests are in areas of geopolitics and international relations with domain expertise in Systems View, Net Assessment, Scenario Building & Analysis.