With the appointment of Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan (Retired) as chief of defence staff (CDS), the attention of the defence ministry and the military should focus again on the much-delayed task of setting up joint theatre commands, in which elements of all three services — the army, navy and air force — work in an integrated manner to maximise the military’s combat power.


What is to be done?

  • This would involve restructuring India’s single-service commands, merging 17 army, navy and air force commands into five-six tri-service commands.
  • The Andaman & Nicobar Command and the Strategic Forces Command are India’s only tri-service commands.


What are the challenges?

  • One of the military’s worst-kept secrets is that the army is in favour of joint theatre commands, the navy is equivocal, and the air force opposes it internally, but pays lip service to the concept.
  • Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari, publicly stated that the air force was not opposing the broad process. What the air force does have reservations about is the setting up of joint command structures without having thought through the process, and its consequences, adequately.
  • One of the concerns of the air force is said to be the idea of dividing their 30-35 fighter squadrons among five-six integrated theatre commands, leaving all of them with a little but none with enough. In its perception, planning should be centralised and execution decentralised.
  • For example, in the Balakot strikes of February 2019, the Mirage 2000 fighters that bombed the terrorist seminary took off from Gwalior, the Sukhoi-30MKIs that provided them air defence cover operated from another command, and the MiG-21s that were fielded against the Pakistan air force’s retaliatory strikes the next day were airborne from yet another command. The air force argues only centralised planning could have got together all these fighters from widely separated bases.


How it will be beneficial?

  • Driving home the point further, the air force says it would be perfectly conceivable in wartime for a sortie of Sukhoi-30MKIs to take off from Pune, in the Southern Air Command, bomb a target located in the South Western Air Command theatre, deliver the rest of their bomb payload in support of the Western Air Command, and then top up from air-to-air refuellers from the Central Air Command before landing in Kolkata, in the Eastern Air Command, in preparation for a mission in the Sikkim sector the next day.
  • Centralised planning is essential for such multiple tasking, with aircraft viewed as flexible assets that can be switched around among theatres.


Way forward

Nevertheless, the air force chief voiced his support for integrated theatre commands, subject to certain provisos. He said the new structures needed to be “future ready”, or prepared for new forms of warfare such as cyber and space warfare. With multiple tasking in mind, he stipulated the decision-making levels must reduce.



It is essential that the air force’s concerns be addressed so that there is buy-in from that service. At the same time, the air force must realise the military as a whole has walked a long way down the road to integrated commands. It is too late to stop or turn around now.


SourceBusiness Standard


QUESTION – Indian armed forces’ tryst with integrated theatre commands is said to be stuck with the reservations from the Indian Air Force. What are those reservations? Suggest a way forward.