Right sizing the Military to Meet Future Threats: Integrated Theatres or Fronts?

Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat/ Image source: The Print


The CDS Gen Bipin Rawat, immediately after assuming command, spoke about the creation of an Air Defence Command followed by the announcement of proposals for Peninsular Command. As per newspaper reports, he is also keen to review some regional theatre commands and operational logistics, along with the philosophy and concepts to arrive at an optimal force structure. The apparent objective is to achieve savings in manpower and cutting down on the burgeoning revenue expenditure to free up resources for military modernisation. While it is a welcome step, without a clear enunciation of the overall military strategy, reviewing the size of the military, regional commands and operational logistics chain in isolation would not be the ‘Right Way’.

Wars will be fought in future as ‘Integrated Multi-Service Multi Domain Campaigns’; hence any ‘restructuring for revenue savings’ would result in a disaster in the next conflict. In the age of ‘network centric warfare’ with stress on persistent situational awareness and precision surgical strikes by all arms manoeuvre teams under extensive fire support and information dominance, standardisation of equipment across the three services would provide for the economy of size and savings in manpower and revenue.

Image Source: RSTV

Political Aims and Military Objectives

The start point for all this is the ‘Political Aim’, which may not always be enunciated by the Government very clearly. Many governments of the world have gone to war without a clear political aim; however, a study of military history does enable the culling out of a set of Political aims, whether limited or extreme. Some of these are listed below,

(a) Limited Political Aims.

  1. To take a slice of enemy territory or prevent him from doing so.
  2. To cause a change in policy of the enemy, e.g., prevent it from rousing trouble within one’s border and encouraging a province to secede.
  3. To prevent one country from becoming so powerful as to menace one’s security – reduce enemy’s military capability.
  4. To intimidate and deter the enemy.

(b) Extreme Political Aims.

  1. Regime change, to change the form of Government or the Ruling Class.
  2. To conquer another country.
  3. Genocide/extermination.

Based on the political goal(s) chosen, a calibrated full spectrum of military, non-military and trans-military actions (with deniability) would be resorted to in future conflicts. These actions, especially non-military and trans-military, would be ongoing even during peacetime to ensure that when the ‘clash-of-arms’ does occur, the enemy’s ‘Comprehensive National Power (CNP)’ has been adequately degraded to ensure own success.

The Chinese call it ‘The Unrestricted Warfare (URW)’, while the US terms it ‘The Full Spectrum Dominance (FSD)’. Political and social instability, economic and financial turbulence/crisis, fake news / false narratives, socio-political turmoil, insurgency/militancy/secessionism are all facets of the above that attempts to degrade a country’s CNP.

Image Source: HT

Enemy’s Obstinacy

It is not just the Political goal(s) that dictate the Military Objectives; the enemy’s obstinacy also needs to be carefully factored for the Armed Forces to reach certain Military Objective(s) in order to attain the Political Goal(s). The Military Objective(s) then dictate the Military Strategy – from which comes the force structures and the ‘right-sizing’ so desired.

The magnitude of the Political Objective(s) and the obstinacy of the enemy determines how far-reaching the Military Objective(s) should be, as listed below,

(a) If the government’s Political Goal is limited, but it faces a determined/obstinate enemy, then it must have far-reaching Military Objective(s) (India v/s Pakistan today).

(b) If the Political Goal is ambitious, even if it faces a moderate or obstinate enemy, it must attain far-reaching Military Objectives (India v/s East Pakistan 1971, and China v/s India since 1962)

(c) Only if the government’s Political Goal is limited and the enemy is not very obstinate, can it set for itself a limited Military Objective (India v/s W Pakistan 1971, and India v/s China).

India faces threats across both its Northern and Western borders, with two vastly different enemies. Therefore, it cannot have the same yardstick to prosecute war against both. The Political Goals and the Military Objectives against each would be different, and the methods to prosecute the war would also be quite different. So also, should per chance in future, India be faced with a two-front war (not counting the non-state actors) the strategy to effectively counter across both fronts would also be rather different. Hence any ‘Right-Sizing’ exercise must first get this calculus correct, else the potential to prosecute future wars could be negatively impacted.

Image Source: Medium

Western Front: Military Objectives – Proactive Strategy

The likely Political Goal for India could range from limited to extreme; limited – to cause a change in the policy of the Pakistan Army to prevent it from rousing trouble within one’s border and encouraging a province to secede; extreme – regime change viz., to remove the stranglehold of the Pakistan Army and ISI on the Government of Pakistan.

Considering the intransigence of the Pakistan Army and its non-state actors, whether the Political Goal is limited or extreme the military objectives would have to be far-reaching. Punitive deterrence with better force multipliers, optimum force ratios with an integrated front plan, along with a robust BMD shield to counter Pakistan’s nuclear threat, the decimation of his reserves at every level and air-dominance / superiority would be essential towards achieving the desired Political Objectives.

An extraordinarily strong Counter-Terrorism Grid would also be essential, both cis and trans-frontier, to negate the threat from the non-state actors. Concurrently, the aim in the Maritime domain could be to deny all SLOCs, destroy the efficacy of Pakistan Navy and quarantine all its ports (could also destroy/degrade it), thereby presenting a cogent threat of amphibious landings to complement the ground offensive. The presence of Chinese personnel due to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), brings in a new dimension to this conflict and would need to be carefully woven into the overall plan.

While China may not activate the Northern Front in such a situation, but it could build up troops in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Xinjiang in the garb of exercise, and resort to transgressions and face-offs, thereby trying to assist its ‘all-weather ally’. Therefore, there would be a need for a continued balanced and robust Border Management Posture all along the Northern Borders.

Image source: HT

Northern Front: Military Objectives

To counter a rising India and ensure a ‘Unipolar Asia’ under its stewardship, China would aim to politically and militarily humiliate India, in any future conflict. Its Military Objective(s) would thus be far-reaching in selected sectors / politically sensitive areas. However, any stalemate would be a loss of face for China, and any loss of territory would be politically and militarily unacceptable. Loss of, or threat to, a politically sensitive area and capture of sizeable PsOW would be disastrous to the PLA and CPC. It could trigger nuclear blackmail.

The Indian Political Goals would more likely be limited to preventing China from annexing any portion of Indian Territory, and to deter it for any misdemeanour. As such India’s Military Objectives would accordingly be also limited. India would need a balanced and robust Border Management Posture, along with its own concept of Anti- Access and Area Denial, with a credible deterrence in all domains, to achieve limited gains trans frontiers (preferably in a politically sensitive area), blunt the PLA offensive and capture sizeable PsOW.

The PLA has elaborated in detail the employment of the conventional missiles of the Rocket Force as part of its overall campaign planning. Hence there is a need for India to have a robust BMD system to counter this clear and present danger.

In such a scenario, it would be more than certain that Pakistan would attempt some mischief – its probability of occurrence increasing as we move North of Sutlej, with a pan-India terror threat. Should it open a second front for India, it may be prudent not to go for far-reaching Military Objectives but limit it to blunting the Pak misdemeanour and achieving limited gains in sensitive sectors. The need for a robust BMD along the Western front also would be critical.

The Maritime threat from China would be to own SLOCs and the Littoral states. Thus, the Maritime Objectives could be limited to denial of crossings to PLA Navy across the Malacca/ Sunda/Lumbok Straits, deny victuals from known the ports along its ‘String of Pearls’ and the effective defence of Indian Littoral States. Blocking China’s SLOCs across the Indian Ocean (Asia-Pacific?) could also be considered, along with like-minded partners. Effective degradation and destruction of any PLA Navy venturing into the India Ocean, and the Pak Navy, would be a part of the Maritime Strategy.

India should aim at ensuring that both antagonists also face a similar two-front dilemma. Robust pro-active diplomacy, in creating a partnership of the willing and like-minded countries during peacetime would be essential in furthering this aim. It would constrain both countries in their objectives and reach.

Image source: DefenceMinIndia/Twitter

Future Force Structure

There is an urgent need for the Indian Military to move beyond jointness to Integrated Warfare. The essence of creating such Integrated HQs is to have a Unity of Command for operations. Many studies have indicated that the optimum span of operational military control is 5 – 7. They also opine that at the tactical level, this reduces to 3 – 4. These key factors need to be factored in the planning of any reorganisation/restructuring of forces.

Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat inspects the Guard of Honour, at South Block lawns, New Delhi (Arvind Yadav / Hindustan Times)

By resorting to ‘Integrated Theatre Commands’, as has been the view of the present CDS and other military experts, there would be at least 3-4 such Commands opposite our Western front, and 2-3 opposite our Northern Borders. Who would orchestrate the resources and stitch together the overall Integrated Strategy and Plan? It defeats the very purpose of having Unity of Command and a ‘Single Overall Military Strategy’ to prosecute a War. It also suffers from the lack of understanding of, operations done by other services, the issue of reallocation of resources to various Integrated Commands, an optimum span of operational military control, and the role of the Service Chiefs within this ambit. Also, it creates an exceedingly high degree of flux that India can ill-afford; India has two highly active borders that need to be managed and a major ongoing counter-terror operation in two regions. Such a flux would disrupt these operations.

Based on the threats and keeping the aspect of the unity of command, stepping back and creating Integrated Front HQs for the Northern, Western and Peninsular Fronts – catering for threats from Pakistan, China and the Maritime Zone, appears to be a suitable option. These need to be over and above the extant Command HQs of the 3 Services, with all the field formations (including the Commands – whose numbers could the reviewed), under the operational control of these Integrated HQs and functioning directly under the CDS/ Permanent COSC/ Commander-in-Chief.

This would ensure Integrated Front planning – the need for facing future wars. A separate Integrated Strategic Front should also be created, to cater for the strategic assets, i.e., SFC, Cyber and Information warfare, Special Operations, Air Defence Command, BMD, Space, Strategic Communications, and any central Strategic reserves envisaged.

A probable structure could be as under,

  • Western Front HQ, with following under operational command:
    • Army Commands: Northern, Western and Southern Commands (optimise SW Command);
    • Air Force Commands: Western and South Western Air Commands;
  • Northern Front HQ, with the following under operational command:
    • Army Commands: North Western (Relocated SW – E Ladakh and HP), Central (UK and N Bengal) and Eastern Commands (Sikkim and Arunachal); 
    • Airforce Commands: Central and Eastern Air Commands;
  • Peninsular Front HQ, with the following under operational command:
    • Navy Commands: Western, Eastern, Southern Commands;
    • Airforce Commands: Southern Air Command
    • Integrated Command: ANC (Suitably reinforced with assets from all three Services);
    • Proposed Area of Operations for the Peninsular Front:
      • Western Fleet – Arabian Sea;
      • Eastern Fleet – Bay of Bengal;
      • Southern Fleet – Western Indian Ocean;
      • ANC – Eastern Indian Ocean
  • Strategic Front: SFC, Cyber and Information Warfare, Special Operations and Marines, Air and BM Defence Command, Space, Strategic Communications, and any Central Strategic Reserves Commands / Corps;
  • Functional Commands: Integrated Logistics and Maintenance Command, and Integrated Training and Doctrine Command.
Chief od Defence staff, General Bipin Rawat/ Image: DD

The CDS: Operational or Administrative Role

A CDS with no operational role would just be a ‘ceremonial figurehead’. Advice on force structures, procurement policies and resource re-allocation are contingent on the Military Strategy and with the Service Chiefs controlling each Service Strategy, the CDS would be a ‘ceremonial figurehead’ with no teeth to implement his advice to the political leadership. The structures of decision making on these and other administrative aspects would remain within the MOD and under the Defence Secretary.

For the CDS to be effective he would need to have full control over the decision-making apparatus. The ‘Department of Defence’ within the Ministry of Defence would need to be restructured, with the bulk of the functions pertaining to operational and operational logistics, intelligence coordination, procurement prioritisation and resource allocation for operational tasks, etc,  transferred to the IDS HQ, under the CDS – CDS2.0. The AOB/TOB Rules relevant to MOD would again need a review to enable and strengthen it, thereby making it capable to face emerging and future challenges. The following aspects need attention,

The CDS should be responsible for all operations and for the defence of India. The Defence Secretary would be responsible for the administrative issues;

Creation of Integrated Front HQs, to cater for the threats across Northern, Western and Peninsular frontiers, directly under the CDS;

The re-creation of the Military Wing in the Presidential Secretariat by locating the CDS there.

Note: – * The CDS has only operational control over all field formations, and provides input to the RM and CCS on all operational issues.

The proposed restructuring affords co-ordination of effort, integrated planning, shared procurement and a reduction or elimination of inter-service rivalry. It will also provide unity of command, conforming to modern military thought. Individual Services would change from relatively autonomous warfighting entities into organisational and training hubs, responsible for the acquisition, modernisation, force structuring and deployment and operational readiness as a component of the Integrated Armed Forces HQ and as per the Joint Directives and Doctrines issued by the CDS.

The Service Chiefs would not have any operational role and thus would not exercise any operational control over the field formations.


As India rises within the comity of nations as a major power in the 21st century, the mere use of ‘soft power’ may not be adequate. Judicious use of ‘smart power’ would be the key. However, it is stymied by the Higher Defence Organisation (HDO) and individual service structures that are reminiscent of the early 20th century. The major lessons that have emerged during since the 20th Century has been that the success in the future wars would be directly proportional to the level of integration achieved. Such ‘integrated operations’ enables orchestration of an effective synergy to achieve a force multiplier impact over the battlespace, thereby facilitating early achievement of military and political aims of the war.

The heads of the three services of Indian Armed Forces: Chief of Defence Staff — General Bipin Rawat (L3) Chief of the Army Staff — General Manoj Mukund Naravane (L1), Chief of the Naval Staff — Admiral Karambir Singh (L2),  Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria (L4)

A full spectrum high-intensity war, covering land, sea, air, space, information and cyber domain, of limited duration is likely to be the future battlespace milieu over the coming decades. Unrestricted Warfare (or Full Spectrum Dominance) with its Hybrid/Compound wars would add to these complexities, wherein both the Western and Northern neighbours would utilise non-state actors in conjunction with their conventional forces covering military, trans-military and non-military spheres. To achieve victory in this milieu, integrated theatre operations would be imperative.

Based on the above, clear military aims and strategies must be formed for prosecuting the future wars, and the logistics structures needed to support the same. From this would flow the optimum force structures, priorities for modernisation and the planned ‘force substitution’. The Ajai Vikram Singh (AV Singh) Report, implemented over the last decade in two phases, has given adequate additional force in the officer rank to enable the creation of these Integrated HQs. It would need a pragmatic cadre review for JCOs and Other Ranks plus some additional posts in the rank of Lt Gen and above for these HQs, something that is feasible.

There would be voices raised that India is not yet ready for such Integration. This is despite all studies indicating that future wars would need an Integrated Plan to succeed. It may be noted that any such restructuring needs at least 5-10 years to mature. As such, unless steps are taken now India may find itself short-changed in future wars.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan

Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM, is Head at Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation at the USI of India. He's 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. He can be reached at klrajiv.n@gmail.com

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