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India’s CDS 2.0 & the Integrated Theatre Commands: Challenges and Prospects
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Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM
Retired after 37 years of distinguished service, as the ADGMO (B) in 2016,having been closely involved with Future Strategy, Force Structures and Force Modernisation.


The tragic and untimely demise of Gen Bipin Rawat, India’s first CDS and the delay by the government in announcing his successor has led to many speculations in the media about not only the appointment of the CDS but also the furthering of integration between the three services via the Integrated Theatre and Functional Commands that were being pushed for by the CDS. Further, reducing costs and economising on defence expenditure, which is already at a low of 1.5 percent of the budget,reducing the strength of the armed forces through integration, and achieving further economy through such steps seems to be the flavour of many a review on by  the ‘arm-chair strategists’, without due thought to the capability and capacity needed to confront the accepted two and a half front threat that India faces. In the same breath, these same ‘strategists’ accept the NATO’s need for a 2 percent expenditure from the budget for defence when faced with just a single front threat – Russia.

Even as this issue is still being debated by the decision-makers, there is a need to step back and assess the way forward, learning from the experience garnered from the ‘triple hated’ CDS 1.0. There are always positives and negatives from any major decision taken, and course – correction based on the lessons strengthens the process, thereby ensuring establishment of viable structures capable of effectively countering the evolving and future threats. This paper looks at the following,

    • The drivers for change.
    • The challenges.
    • The way ahead: prospects.

The Drivers of Change

The three major drivers of change that necessitate reorganisation, restructuring and right sizing of the military are,

    • The integrated multi-domain strategy in the emerging and future battle space milieu, both kinetic and non-kinetic.
    • Economy of scale and balanced budgetary support.
    • Civil – Military – R&D integration / fusion.

Integrated Multi-Domain Strategy. The emerging and disruptive technologies would generate different kinds of hybrid threats to a nation’s overall security in this globalised, inter-dependent and digitally connected world. No single service or arm of government would be able to counter it by itself, and thus the need for an integrated approach to such warfare that transcends the intra, inter service and civil-military barriers.It would also blur the distinction between the forward and rear areas, with the depth of such military / trans-military / non-military operations encompassing almost the entire depth of the nation.There would be multiple sub campaigns ongoing at these different levels that would need to be effectively overcome, thereby necessitating a whole of nation approach to national security, wherein the military would forma major sub-set for countering external threats.Thus, the need for an Integrated Multi-Domain Strategy – the National Security Strategy, as the capstone document, under which the military needs to enunciate its Integrated Military Strategy, that would be capable of effectively overcoming the evolving and emerging threats from the two and a half front that India faces. This strategy is usually based on three aspects[i],

    • The Political Aim (s).
    • Enemy’s obstinacy and obduracy.
    • Military Objectives to achieve the Political Aim (s).

The Political Aim. In the Indian context, while the political decision makers may not be that forthcoming in enunciating this, yet from the statements about India not having any territorial ambitions in its neighbourhood it can be construed. Against both its adversaries, to the West and the North, India does not aim to take absorb any lands, apart from what they hold of Indian territories. Thus, India’s Political aim is limited and not deep –  regain India’s lost territories when feasible and prevent any loss of ground against both adversaries, and blunt the multi-domain hybrid threats, both kinetic and non-kinetic.

The Enemy. The more obdurate the enemy the military objectives would have to be either deeper, or the destruction, degradation, disruption, dislocation and denial (D5) would have to be very severe; and vice-versa for a less obdurate enemy.

The Military Objectives. India faces this dual challenge wherein the Western enemy is very obdurate, while the enemy to the North is not obstinate but very persistent and can be blunted with limited military objectives with larger catch of prisoners that would make the leader (s) lose face. The Western adversary would need either deeper objectives or the D5 would have to be very severe.Based on the above, the Integrated Military Strategy so articulated must achieve the military objectives as derived above to counter, blunt, defeat the multi-domain threat over India’s battlespace from both the adversaries, both the immediately evolving and the emerging future threats.

It would need to be focussed on destruction, degradation, disruption, dislocation and denial (D5), as mentioned above, and then secure. In short it goes beyond the 2nd and 3rd generation methods of warfare of degrade/destroy, attack and capture; it goes beyond these that depend solely on boots on ground and ensures an optimal blend of technology, C4ISR, firepower (direct, indirect, long range, air and missile defence), manoeuvre, non-kinetic disruption,  dislocation and denial, and boots on ground.

The capability and capacity development and modernisation are based on the weapons and systems needed to achieve the ability to secure the military objectives as stated in this strategy. The reorganisation, restructuring, and right sizing of the Indian military should be based on the structures that would ensure the best application of these weapons and systems over the battle space to achieve these goals. Without such an approach, any changes attempted would be like placing the cart before the horse.

Such restructuring and reorganisation have a finite gestation period before they become effective. It needs to be considered that these changes are well thought through and do not end as an exercise in futility, with constant changes being done. It would create an enormous flux that would have a grave impact on India’s security – both internal and external.

Economy of Scale and Balanced Budgetary Support. The emerging and disruptive technologies and their counter measures are expensive and thus the need for cost-savings. However, by optimally right sizing the military and CAPFs a fine balance can be achieved wherein the sum of the parts would be greater than the whole. This entails a detailed assessment to eliminate the duplication at various levels, both in the field formations and staff. This would provide economy of scale through standardization across services leading to a better utilisation of funds. Concurrently, while there exists a need for additional funds to achieve the sustainable development goals it cannot be over emphasised that the rise of India cannot be sustained without achieving multi-domain security. Thus, the need for a balanced optimal budgetary support for the military; that said, budget cannot be the main factor for right sizing.

Civil – Military – R&D Integration / Fusion. Duplication in the civil – military staffing at various departments and levels needs to be reduced through fusion of these multiple billets and verticals to enable faster decision making and cut costs. This would entail reorganisation and restructuring of the Higher Defence Organisation, also. Further, since these emerging and disruptive technologies are expensive and also of dual use, there is a need for fusion with the technological universities and private companies and laboratories for necessary R&D. Such a fusion would ensure better technology absorption and a balanced expenditure towards the same.

The Challenges of Restructuring

There are eight major challenges that are visualised for any reorganisation, restructuring and right sizing of the military. These are discussed below,

    • The Higher Defence Organisation (HDO). The current structure of the HDO has duplication with the service HQs at every level and is not conducive to speedy decision making since the key appointments are ‘generalists’ with no knowledge of matters military, geostrategy or geopolitics. It needs to be grasped that a clash of arms occurs when diplomacy fails, and thus the person responsible for the defence of India cannot be such a generalist, but a person with a keen eye for matters military, and a good knowledge of geostrategy and geopolitics.Further, all the HQs currently created – MOD, Service HQs, Integrated Defence Service HQ, Department of Military Affairs , has extensive duplication and needs to be merged and streamlined. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), currently having only administrative role[ii], should be renamed back as Commander in Chief and be responsible for the defence of India. The Defence Secretary should only be responsible for the administrative aspects of military.
    • Integrated Military Strategy. This is the key document that should drive the capability and capacity building, modernisation and the concomitant reorganisation, restructuring and right sizing. However, this seems to be missing. Considering the reports that the National Security Advisor was preparing a draft National Security Strategy, on which the military strategy needs to be based, it is imperative that this aspect needs urgent attention. The Integrated Military Strategy should be able cater for the evolving emerging future threats, as warfare moves from 5th to 6th, 7th generations and beyond, as mentioned above.
    • Unity of Command. Considering the multiplicity of threat domains that need to be secured, against each adversary there needs to be a unity of command, i.e., there needs to be one overall commander who would stitch together all the plans for defence and offence. Thus need one overall commander each for countering the Western and Northern adversaries, one Maritime Commander and one Strategic Commander to stitch together the missile, missile defence, air defence, cyber, space, strategic special operations, and information warfare strategies.
    • Span of Control. There are two limits to the span of control by any commander, physiological and technological. Von Clausewitz had opined that the optimal level was ten[iii] for an operational commander while Napoleon kept it at five.[iv],While the physiological limits cannot be increased, however with the advances in technology, communications and use of computers the technological limit could be reviewed. However, it needs to be considered that in decision making during operations, time is at a premium; thus, even if technology permits an expanded control, if the passage of orders and information gets delayed then such a span would be ineffective.This forms a major aspect that needs to be carefully considered while reorganising and restructuring.
    • Cadre Satisfaction. The pyramid structure of the military is very steep at present, wherein it has currently 27 ranks in the apex scale – 17 C-in-Cs of the three services, 2 C-in-Cs of tri-service commands (Strategic Force Command and Andaman and Nicobar Command), 3 Service Vice Chiefs, 1 CISC, 3 Service Chiefs and 1 CDS. Any reduction at this level will have a cascading concomitant reduction of lower level billets, thereby making the pyramid steeper, or virtually a like a stiletto. This would have a very undesirable impact on cadre satisfaction and result in less optees for service in the military that would be very detrimental for the over health of the three services as it directly impacts the morale.
    • Minimum Flux. With India facing two live borders and an internal security threat, it can ill afford any restructuring that creates a major flux, especially in the command and control set up. There cannot be any major disruption in the planning, operational and command channels, as it could lead to a major embarrassment.Thus, the reorganisation planned would need to consider this factor the uppermost.
    • Not just inter-service but this duplication of effort exists even with the CAPFs who are deployed along the sensitive borders. By placing these CAPFs directly under the operational control of the military, there can be optimal right sizing that can be envisaged in a phased manner thereafter. Similarly, Integrated Functional Commands covering Logistics, Aero-Space Defence, Maintenance& Sustenance, Communications, Training, Cyber and Information Warfare, would create economy of scale and achieve a better balance in budget between revenue and capital expenditure.
    • Integrated skill development at the operational and tactical levels to enable understanding the standard operating procedures and grasping the methodology of functioning of each service and their respective branches is the key to success. This is currently very low and thus integration without such skills would lead to crisis in command. As such, for the interim the integration needs to be at the higher level wherein each service has its staffing to oversee the planning and execution of operations within the integrated setup. Integration at lower levels can be considered after the necessary skill levels have been achieved, maybe in the medium to long term.

The Way Ahead: Prospects

There have been reports in the media about four Integrated Commands being created, Western, Northern, Maritime and Air Defence Commands, with the Army’s Northern Command not being addressed due to its live borders[v]. It envisages that it would subsume all the Service Commands within it, thereby curtailing all extant Service C-in-C ranks to just 4 from 17 (Western, Northern, Eastern and Maritime), and adds an Air Defence Command. The reports are silent on the size of such Command HQs needed to stitch together the Theatre plans, and the command and control channel, given the limited staffing of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. The skills needed to billet joint staffs may not be available in the scale and scope envisaged leading to crisis in command and control. Also, since the Service Chiefs still have an operational role, would they dictate the operational issues to the Theatre Commander? How will the Theatre Command manage its span of control?

It may be prudent to take a step back and create four Integrated Front HQs – Western, Northern, Maritime and Strategic, with four Integrated Functional HQs – Training, Logistics, Aero Space and Maintenance[vi]. A review can be taken of the extant Service Commands and be optimally reduced. This would enable better training, planning, execution and sustenance. The integration at lower formations can be addressed after development of the necessary skills through joint training. A detailed analysis of both proposals in given in the table below.

Analysis: Integrated Theatre Commands versus Integrated Front / Theatre HQs

Serial No Challenges Current Proposal of Theatre Commands Recommended Proposal of Front HQs
1. HDO No operational overview, but has created an additional layer for decision making, thus delaying the process. CDS has the operational overview, as he has only an operational task. The Service Chiefs have only administrative roles. Integrated MoD, with a healthy mix of civilians and uniformed staff
2. Integrated Military Strategy Neither enunciated as yet, nor does the command structure facilitate it Not yet enunciated but can be prepared with ease.
3. Unity of Command Command and control in a flux, as role of Service Chiefs not defined. May need a bloated Command and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Secretariat (CJCSS). The Front HQs are structured to stitch the plans easily. Unity of Command achieved.
4. Span of Control Theatre Commands, with Integrated Battle Groups, would increase the span of control way beyond what is feasible. With no major changes in extant structures, this enables a better span of control.
5. Cadre Satisfaction Bu reducing the Apex grade ranks, even with a bloated Command HQ and CJCSS, it would have an adverse impact on Cadre Satisfaction With minor changes to the structures and staffing at the Front HQ and Operational staff with the CDS, this would not impact the cadre satisfaction.
6. Minimum Flux Creates the maximum flux as it disrupts the extant command and control chain, even before the new channels have stabilised. No major flux envisaged.
7. Duplication of Effort Currently only air defence and maintenance would avoid duplication of effort. Rest would continue as hither-to-fore, till new functional commands are raised.

However, duplication of effort with the CAPFs would remain

The recommendation envisages integrated functional commands that would overcome all duplication between the three services. Also, the plan to operationally integrate the CAPFs that have operational role, ab initio, would enable reduction of this duplication.
8. Joint Training Not yet envisaged in detail With the creation of a Joint Training Command, this aspects would get due attention, and the necessary skills achieved in the medium to long term.
  Overall Assessment The Theatre Commands does not overcome the challenges that such changes evoke; the recommended Front HQs is better formulated to face the changes. But it would need four additional four star ranks, that could be adjusted against the savings from C-in-C level rank savings from the three services. It does not create a major flux to the cadre satisfaction. However, it needs fresh changes to the AoB/ToB rules, thus its acceptance would depend on the political will.


The emerging and evolving technologies enables the adversaries to generate multi-domain threats, both kinetic and non-kinetic, even during peace time, which makes it difficult for any single service to counter it effectively. Further as the cost of capacity and capability development with these technologies rise, there is a need to enable an Integrated operation that would effectively counter these threats and take the war across into the adversaries’ domains. For this, there is a need to evolve Integrated structures that would ensure effective conduct of such multi-domain operations.

To commence such a change, it is imperative that the Indian military evolves its Integrated Military Strategy, based on the assessed political aims, as indicated by the key decision makers in their speeches from time to time. Thereafter, it must be ensured that the challenges envisaged are well covered by the reorganisation and restructuring proposed. Such changes should create a major flux resulting in a command and control crisis, given the live borders and internal security threats that India faces. The proposed changes, as is available in open domain, does not appear to cater for these challenges and, on the face of it, seems more like a cost-cutting exercise.

It is now time to revive the post of the Commander – in – Chief, that India had till the early 50s, rather than an administrative CDS. The new Integrated Structures should operationally come under this C-in-C / CDS, and the service Chiefs should have only an administrative role. This appointment should be solely responsible for the defence of India, and be a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security, Nuclear Command Authority, etc. Only such a drastic step, with an expert in military affairs at the helm, would ensure that India is well prepared to counter the emerging and future multi-domain threats and not with a ‘generalist’. The generalists should be responsible for the administrative aspects a of matters military, the aspect that they have vast experience in.


[i] Capt Basil Liddell Hart, The Objective in War: National Objective and Military Aim, Lecture at US Naval War College, September 24, 1952,

[ii] Press Information Bureau, Cabinet approves creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff in the rank of four star General, December 24, 2019,

[iii] Von Clausewitz, On War, translated by J J Graham, pp 230-236, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1968

[iv] E H Altham, The Principles of War, pp 37, Macmillan, London, 1914

[v] Rajat Pandit, India kicks off groundwork for Four Integrated Theatre Commands, The Times of India, September 08, 2021,

[vi] Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retired), Higher Defence Organisation for India: Towards an Integrated Approach, Indian Defence Review, Issue Vol. 31.2 Apr-Jun 2016, August 12, 2016

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