CDS- Integrating Indian Defence Forces

Will the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) kickstart the long due integration of Indian Defence Forces - creating a Joint Multidimensional Force that will be at par with the modern militaries of other countries?


A military is only as good as the efficacy of its command and control structure, both in war and peace, more so in a fast moving digital battlefield fought over all four dimensions including space. Clausewitz's nine principles of warfare did not include the principle of ‘Jointness’ which now has become a guiding principle in war for the leading militaries of the world. Those who ignore it, do so at their own peril.

The success of a modern war depends on the formulation of a joint military strategy based on the politico-military aim and its integrated execution. Under the current system that India inherited from the British, operational plans are individually drawn up by the three Services, based on the Defence Minister’s Operational Directive. Limited coordination alone is carried out at the operational and the tactical level.

A definition coined at the Indian Defence Services Staff College explains Jointmanship as “Integrated planning and application of military power at the Strategic, Operational and Tactical levels, with proper sequencing of combat power of the three Services in time and space as per requirement and in relation to the enemy’s centres of gravity and culmination points, is a must to win a war”.

In various ways, many observers advocate the hierarchy principle, which holds that the degree of jointness is inversely proportionate to the number of command echelons. Flatter organizations are more prone to effective internal cooperation. Therefore, if each of the individual services- Army, Navy and Airforce- is looking up a silo to their respective hierarchy to get operational/ directives with no common ground in between,  decisions taken may be disjointed, duplicated and even worse, would ignore the one cardinal principle- unity of effort.   

The P5 of UNSC have long adopted the Integration of their Armed Forces. In the US, UK and France, creation of a CDS/ equivalent was a top-down political decision as mutual competition for scarce budgetary allocations failed to bring consensus between the Services. The pull of parochial interests were too strong. The US, UK, and France ultimately adopted the Joint / Integrated Command model for its armed forces, with some like US and China going down to the operational level to form joint theatre command structures.

Jointness/integration, or rather lack of it, was a bitter lesson of the Kargil War for India, and gave birth to the Kargil Review Committee Recommendations. The Ministry of Defence has made it their focus for the past few years. As a stopgap measure, and totally inadequate one at that, the Government set up the Headquarters, Integrated Defence Staff (HQIDS), headed by the Chief of Integrated Staff to Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC), to support the existing (and largely ineffective) Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC).

Pending for nearly two decades, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the creation of the office of the CDS in his Independence Day speech 2019, stating, "To further sharpen coordination between the forces, India will have Chief of Defence Staff, CDS which will make the forces even more effective”.


India is the world's last democracy without a single-point military advisor like the CDS. It is the only major democracy where the Armed Forces Headquarters are external to the apex government structure as attached offices' rather than integrated departments. This model was put into action in 1947 by Louis Mountbatten's Chief of Staff, Lord Hastings Ismay.

This bizarre structure of three commanders-in-chief heading their respective services, with a central committee for coordination, though intended to be a temporary arrangement, has continued till date, with each service doing its own force and war planning. Consequently, the warfighting too is controlled and conducted in individual service specific battlespace with some degree of inter-services cooperation, overshadowed by a lot of turf protection and petty hiving of resources.

In the case of India, out of a total of 17 single service Commands (Army, Navy and Airforce), only one is a truly tri-service command-Andaman and Nicobar Command. Strategic Forces Command (SFC) due to the peculiar nature of its operational role is also a ‘purple’ organisation directly under the National Command Authority. Similarly, the fledgeling Cyber Command and the Special Operations Command would have to be joint command, as they come of age. Other Commands being examined are a Space Command, a Logistics Command and an Air Defence Command, all of which by virtue of their specific roles, will have to be integrated commands with a task-specific representation of each service.

The raging debate at the higher levels of India’s security establishment in recent times has been on defence spending. The government's worries over a slowing economy, focus on socio-economic priorities and balancing the fiscal deficit will mean a tighter grip on defence rupees. Military modernisation in India has been bedevilled by individual services exaggerating the threat in their own particular domain and projections delinked from budgetary realities. In times of modest budgets, appointing a CDS to accelerate training and cooperation, and prioritise defence spending is even more vital.

The larger than life role of the Army and its share of the resources purely based on its size, made the other services wary of accepting a “Super Chief” who if not wearing the same shade of uniform was unlikely to do justice in the allocation of funds for future acquisitions and growth. It was preferable to plead one’s case directly to the Ministry regardless of the cost involved to the national exchequer due to duplication, in the face of turf building and stove piping of expensive training and maintenance.

Since there is an existing integrated service organisation located in Delhi -Integrated HQs of Defence Staff (HQ IDS)- manned by the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (CISC), currently a three-star officer, the first incumbent of the post of CDS can quickly get into the business of preparing for war in terms of common doctrines, policies and training objectives, force structures, amalgamating logistics resources and other assets. Service interests may be in conflict to joint interests and there is bound to be disharmony amongst stakeholders. Undoubtedly, the way forward is long and challenging.


  • The CDS, once appointed should not become a ceremonial piece or one amongst equals. To be effective, he should enjoy a degree of control over the three services and should be constitutionally mandated as a single-point adviser to the National Command Authority on matters pertaining to defence.
  • CDS should be actively involved in formalising modern force structures in consultation with the three services. His recommendations would receive due consideration as the single point of advice to the Government. He would also be responsible for producing the National Military Strategy and provide major inputs for the National Security Strategy.
  • There is no doubt that waging modern wars will require theatre commands. The practical way to ensure proper command and control would be for the theatre commanders to report to the National Command Authority through the CDS. CDS by himself is not the panacea- if the system is to be successful in war the integration must seep down to the operational echelons through credible theatre commands, as being rapidly evolved and fine-tuned by China.
  • While in the Indian context it may be a bit premature to create an integrated geographical in the short and middle term, there are important spheres where integration will work. The time has now come to manage logistics, training, special forces, cyber warfare and space warfare as integrated commands. The Strategic Force Command, a fully functional entity, should also report to the National Command Authority through the CDS.
  • As a global phenomenon, militaries being hierarchical societies in nature are known to be averse to major change. If India’s security ambitions are to be fulfilled in the near future this opportunity must be made use of. A successful initiation by a first time CDS will be key for this.

Image Courtesy: DNA India