The chimera of tri-service commands - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 16 January 2020

The chimera of tri-service commands

India does not need tri-service joint commands; it needs joint operational planning

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 17th Jan 20

Discussions on strengthening the apex level management of the military usually find agreement on the need for two reforms. The first is the requirement to appoint a tri-service chief to coordinate between the three services – the army, navy and air force – and to provide single-point military advice to the executive leadership. This has been partially implemented with the New Year Day appointment of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). He has been charged with inter-service coordination, but will advise the government only on tri-service matters, while the three service chiefs will continue advising on matters relating to their respective service. 

The second reform that most experts agree on is the need for the three services to group themselves into tri-service combatant commands, rather than the current plethora of single-service commands they currently run, organised on a geographical basis – e.g. the army’s Northern Command, Western Air Command, Southern Naval Command, etc. It is argued that this dysfunctional separation should be eliminated by establishing tri-service commands, with each one given command of all the army, navy and air force units it requires to prosecute combat operations in wartime. One integrated, tri-service command already exists: the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC). But that trial balloon was never extended elsewhere.

The US military was the first to implement the concept of geographically dispersed tri-service integrated commands. In 1947, it established five geographic combatant commands (such as Central Command, Africa Command, Indo-Pacific Command, etc.) that, between them, cover the globe. In addition it has four functional combatant commands, responsible variously for Special Operations, strategic forces, transportation and cyber warfare. In 2016, China’s People’s Liberation Army copied this model, reorganising its seven “Military Regions” and three “Navy Fleets” into five joint theater commands with elements from all three services. China’s initiative intensified the clamour amongst Indian reformers to also take steps to implement joint, tri-service commands. The Christmas Eve announcement notifying the creation of the CDS charged him with: “Facilitation of restructuring of military commands… by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands.” The first CDS, General Bipin Rawat, has already held meetings to discuss the way forward with the three service chiefs.

But while jointness helps in structuring forces optimally, avoiding wastage in logistics and obtaining economies of scale in equipment procurement, it is worth thinking carefully before imposing a joint theatre command structure on the military. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has consistently opposed being split up into theatre commands and it is worth considering its arguments.

First, given the speed at which combat aircraft move and their extended operating ranges, especially with mid-air refuelling, the IAF views India as a single geographical theatre. It is logical to group the slower-moving army and naval warships in the geographic vicinity of where they are likely to operate. But combat aircraft canswing in minutes from one sector to the other, as also from one combat role (ground strike, air defence, photo reconnaissance, etc) to another. For last February’s attack on the Balakote terrorist camp in Pakistan, the IAF’s Mirage 2000 fighters took off from Gwalior, which is in Central Air Command, and struck its target opposite the Western theatre. In that pan-theatre mission, the Mirage 2000s flew over 1,500 kilometres, assisted by mid-air refuelling.

In similar fashion, the IAF can use fighters from Gwalior to hit targets across the McMahon Line in the Eastern theatre. Such a mission would involve just an hour of flying from take off to the target, with only limited need for mid-air refuelling, since the Mirage 2000s could easily land and refuel at the IAF bases in Tezpur or Chabua on their way back. It is quite feasible for a fighter to take off from an airfield in one command zone, strike a target in another, land for refuelling in a third and strike a second target in a fourth, before heading back to base.

Secondly, there are difficulties in inter-theatre coordination. Given the heavily contested airspace over Pakistan and China, strike missions today typically involve large force packages. Strike aircraft could require air defence escorts, electronic warfare aircraft, mid-air refuellers and airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), which would be assembled from multiple air bases, since no single air base hosts all the aircraft needed in a large force package. For example, the mid-air refuellers are based in Agra and transport aircraft at Hindon. The take-off of the force package from widely dispersed bases would have to be precisely coordinated, so that each component reaches its operational area at the designated time. The tight, centralised control and coordination needed for this is difficult to achieve once aircraft have been distributed between multiple theatre commands. Each theatre commander, with his own mission looming as the number one priority, would be reluctant to allow his own assets to be distributed for strikes in other theatres. 

Third, with the IAF’s fighter strength diminished to just 28 squadrons (against the authorized 42), sub-dividing these between two, three, or even four, theatres would create weakness everywhere. Only large air forces can afford to distribute aircraft between multiple theatre commands. India’s geographic sprawl appears vast, but is fairly limited in the context of aerospace operations, being smaller than even China’sWestern Theatre Command. That allows the IAF to treat it as a single theatre.

Fourth, operating on the basis of a single theatre requires the IAF to centralise control and planning, while decentralising execution. Fighter squadrons all have their permanent locations but, to prepare a pilot to operate in any theatre, she would move out often on detachment (a small group of pilots and fighters) to train in other locations. A Sukhoi-30MKI squadron located in Tezpur would send detachments to, say, Jodhpur, providing pilots the opportunity to train in desert missions. Sukhoi-30MKI pilots sometimes spend as much as 240 days each year on detachment to other theatres. Such inter-theatre flexibility would be difficult, were squadrons to be permanently grouped with a joint theatre command

Fifthly, defending India’s airspace, which is the IAF’s primary role, demands centralised control. The air defence vigil is controlled through the IAF’s Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS), an automated network that receives inputs from all military and civilian radars to create a nationwide air picture. This big picture will be even more essential once long-range S-400 air defence systems and the Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MR-SAM) enter service later this year. Air defence also involves monitoring space. This necessarily requires centralised control. 

Pragmatically, the CDS has already affirmed that the military will not blindly mimic other countries in creating integrated theatre commands; and that these will be based on India’s peculiar requirements. Besides the IAF’s legitimate reasoning, there is also the fact that the navy has no role in most army commands, especially those deployed against Pakistan and China. It is therefore worth considering whether the restructuring emphasis should shift from creating tri-service commands to the more urgent issue of formulating integrated, tri-service operational planning structures so that – when the balloon goes up (military slang for when war begins) – the combat power of all three services is fully synergised.


  1. CDS will fighreout these complexity eventually

  2. While in full agreement with the premise that what the Indian military needs is joint planning one cannot but express severe disagreement with the argument - mostly built on seductive but flawed logic - that the theatre command structure is not necessary. To borrow a phrase from the corporate world “structure follows strategy”.

    Not so briefly:

    If the IAF truly believes it is unique in being able to rapidly switch assets from one geography to another it should lead by example and shut down its 5 geographical commands (especially South-Western that the IAF brass managed to squeeze in between Western and Southern Commands) and move to two commands - Central and a NORAD-style Indian Air Defence Command.

    Adm Monty Khanna’s CENJOWS paper on the IAF and theater command - available online - excellently punctures this bit of spurious logic advanced by the IAF and also goes on to address the real “political” issues at the heart of the IAF’s opposition. Of course the thanks the Navy gets for calling a spade a spade (and for sacrificing its Far Eastern Naval Command in the interests of jointness) is to be regarded as an afterthought, a problem that wont be resolved by joint planning alone.

    As the US historical record with its unified commands shows (which currently number 11 not 9 as stated in the piece), inter-services politics have been key in shaping theater commands and continue to this day. Except the US nat sec community has addressed those challenges, however imperfectly, rather than choose to be in denial or circumvent them which is the single biggest danger of accepting the IAF’s flimsy argument. Where the US model, which absolutely should not be copied blindly is highly instructive is for its iterative flexibility and constant evolution. Read more here

    Just as in the US, until and unless the services come to a negotiated political settlement, on everything from warfighting roles to hardware, even joint planning will be a chimera. Worse, like many aspects of the Indian military such planning will only look good on paper.

    And being a real paper tiger when the balloon goes up is just as bad as being a mythical fire breathing creature.

  3. Wg Cdr Nilesh Gandhi(Veteran)17 January 2020 at 04:43

    Excellent article,Sir! May our colleagues, still donning the uniform & those out of uniform read this & discuss it in public domain to bring about awareness & generate meaningful debates

  4. How is it that the Air Force considers employment of air assets involving multiple Air Force,commands to be feasible but the same is not acceptable across multiple “theatre” commands. I think this just a classic parochial argument. To test this assertion, try this logic stream. Would the Air Force be similarly opposed to achieving conformity in the area of jurisdiction between the various single service commands? I am sure everyone would agree that nothing can really justify the current muddle. Once the single service commands are geographically aligned then how much of a leap is it to club them under a single commander with the erstwhile single service commands taking on the nomenclature of air combat component, maritime combat component etc..

  5. The simple argument is ,why does airforce then maintain multiple commands internally? And the shooting down of it's own chopper as well as losing mig21 during feb 2019 engagement is clear proof of IAFs limited and rather limited professional capability. It's better to ignore them as they want to have multie higher ranks


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