Inter-Services Military Integration: How Well Can India Do It?

Integration of the armed forces addresses only one part of the requirement, the ultimate goal being a ‘whole of the nation’ capability that can be brought to bear on an adversary in case of future conflict. It is therefore a step in the right direction


By Maj Gen Amardeep Bhardwaj (Retd)

Transformational Change in the Offing

Going by recent media reports and publications, it appears fairly certain that the Indian Government has already made up its mind to introduce ‘Integrated Theatre Commands’ for the military – in one form or another – on India’s 74th Independence Day. If so, it is a very welcome, long awaited and path-breaking initiative that may well prove to be the biggest ‘game changer’ in Indian military modernisation to date.

In this regard, full marks are due to the Modi Government for resolutely demonstrating ‘transformational thought-leadership’, backed up by astute statesmanship, futuristic thinking and sound decision-making. At the same time, no marks at all to the eternal procrastinators, status-quoists, feet-draggers, slow movers, file-pushers and nay-sayers, who – if I may candidly say – abound in the dimly-lit, labyrinthine corridors of power in New Delhi.

The Start Point – Integration at the ‘Command’ Level

The July 2, 2021 edition of India Today put it rather satirically, titling its piece on the subject “Divided Over Unified Commands”. It goes on to say, “Phase Two of India’s biggest post-independence military reform is likely to be announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, 2021. The Defence Ministry will initiate the setting up of India’s first two integrated military theatres — an integrated maritime theatre command (IMTC) based in Karwar and an integrated air defence command (IADC) based in Allahabad. Of the two theatres, one will pool warships, patrol craft, soldiers and fighter jets, and the other missile and gun regiments with a network of ground and air radars. They will be a precursor to creating two more theatre commands — a western and eastern theatre command. These land-specific commands will begin consolidation by August 15, 2022, and will be raised within a year.”

The Bigger Picture

Now, not only is it unfashionable to talk of segregated battles by armies, navies or air-forces on a battle-field, it is downright anachronistic to do so. The new term is battle-space, and space, as you know, is multi-dimensional and seamless

So, it does appear that the ‘die has been cast’ and integrated theatre commands will soon see the light of day, though it is still not clear how exactly they will be configured. But this development should not be seen in isolation. On the contrary it must be viewed in a much wider context so that its import is fully comprehended. Integrated Theatre Commands are merely one small portion of a giant canvas, a ‘picture-in-picture’ if you will, of a larger, bigger TV screen called ‘Inter-Services Integration’. Further, Inter-Service Integration of the three Defence Forces, including some allied Para-Military Forces, is itself a subset of a ‘whole of the Govt’ approach to matters military which, in turn, must inevitably lead to a ‘whole of the nation’ approach to National Security. This, then, is the ultimate goal towards which India now seems to be headed.

The Evolving Nature of Conflict

The days of yore, characterised in the military by narrow boundaries, multiple silos and innumerable compartments are long gone. We are now living in a world that is being rapidly ‘shrunk’ by ICT and AI technologies such as multi-domain integration, cross-spectrum connectivity and virtual seamlessness. This change has taken over the military also. Now, not only is it unfashionable to talk of segregated battles by armies, navies or air-forces on a battle-field, it is downright anachronistic to do so. The new term is battle-space, and space, as you know, is multi-dimensional and seamless. To fight effectively in this battle-space, it has become incumbent on militaries to fight in an integrated, multi-dimensional and seamless manner. This cannot be done optimally within the narrow confines of antiquated structures and outmoded warfighting methodologies.

There is now an urgent and pressing need to switch over to integrated organisational structures as well as adopt ‘seamlessness’ in warfighting too. Alive to this changing paradigm, the Central Govt has, for quite some time now, been pushing the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force to themselves figure out a mutually agreed model of ‘integration’ and switch over to it quickly and amicably. However, inter-service differences have doggedly defied such congruence; it appears unlikely that, left to themselves, the three defence services can achieve an amicable consensus. Hence the Govt may well have to steamroll its way through and ‘forge’, if not ‘force’, a consensus. This is likely to happen soon, as soon as 15 August 2021.

The Quest for an Optimal Model of Integration

Formal adoption of the new, ‘integrated’ organisational configurations will necessitate concurrent dismantling of some of the old, antiquated structures. Two possibilities remain, either we ‘get it right’ or we make a hash of it

Once this transformational change is unleashed the narrative will shift quickly from today’s largely conceptual quest of “how to integrate” to the more practical task at hand, of “how best to configure the optimal model of integration” for ourselves. Eventually, in due course of time, the professional squabbling will get resolved, a definite architecture will emerge and the three services will morph themselves in congruence with the ‘integrated’ model.

Although the ‘Command’ level has been chosen as the start point of heralding this change, it is only the first step, the forerunner of the sweeping change that the entire Indian Military is now destined to undergo. Once the planning process culminates, the logical next step will be ‘implementation on ground’. This could take anything from five to ten years although my prognosis is that if the Modi Govt stays in power, it will be done with a higher sense of urgency. Formal adoption of the new, ‘integrated’ organisational configurations will necessitate concurrent dismantling of some of the old, antiquated structures. Two possibilities remain, either we ‘get it right’ or we make a hash of it. Consequently, either our ‘military power’ will become stronger or weaker.

Which way will India go? More importantly, how will we judge the efficacy, or otherwise, of the new ‘integrated’ organisational structures? On what parameters should we evaluate the new model vis-à-vis the old one? These are extremely important and pertinent questions. And they need answers right now since the moment to prudently exercise our foresight and forward-thinking is now upon us. It is therefore vital, at this point in time, to define a set of key parameters on the basis of which we can accurately judge how well, or shabbily, we effect this change towards enhanced military integration. Given below are five carefully selected ‘measuring tools’ that can help us determine the ‘carat value’ of this Kohinoor, a metaphorical ‘Litmus Test’ of true military, inter-service integration.

Five Hallmarks of True Military Integration

Significant Increase in Capabilities: There is little point in undertaking such a major organisational transformation if, at the end of it, our military capabilities do not increase substantially. In fact, the very raison d’etre of undertaking this exercise, in the first place, is to give an exponential boost to the combined capabilities of the Army, Navy and Air Force, by building in synergy through better integration.

(a) This term – synergy – needs to be better understood in the current context. Synergy may be defined as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organisations or agencies to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their individual, separate effects”. In military terms ‘Cross-Domain Synergy’ is said to have been achieved when the integrated sum of all (land, sea, air, space, cyber, etc) capabilities of each component service produces a combined effect greater than the aggregate of each service’s individual capability. It has two main constituents; improving operational performance and reducing unnecessary redundancies; the aim being to gain a military advantage over the adversary.

Fortunately, a broad understanding already exists amongst the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force that no single service can, by itself, conduct a war, leave alone winning it. Yet, beyond this conceptual convergence there are considerable differences. Each service has its own set of doctrines, strategic constructs, warfighting procedures and processes, logistic constraints, organisational structures, work culture, unique manner of functioning and even its own ‘laws’. While limited ‘jointness’ does exist, ‘unity of conception’ and ‘unified warfighting capability’ are still inadequate; integrated application of the available capabilities in a synergised manner is lacking. Yet, the very concept of ‘inter-service integration’ emphasises conceiving and conducting warfighting as a series of ‘integrated battles’, employing the air, land and maritime services as one well-knit team or warfighting machine to achieve the stated military and national security objectives.

(b) A fundamental problem in this regard is that the current methodology of defining capabilities and assessing them is largely subjective, leading to varying interpretations and misinterpretations. This makes it very difficult to quantify exactly what a given capability is currently and to what level it needs to be enhanced and by what date in the future. The answer lies in developing a more objective system of capability assessment, based on statistical models and algorithms, to underpin and drive the process of ‘capability enhancement’. We need to develop and adopt such an objective system of capability assessment at the earliest. Although some intangibles (like ‘leadership’, ‘motivation’, ‘efficacy of doctrines & concepts’, etc) will always remain, it will still be possible to come to a fairly accurate assessment of capabilities. A number of such capability assessment methodologies are already in use across the world, the interesting thing about them being that even though each uses a different method of capability evaluation, the end results are, almost always, identical. Thus, ‘Indian Military Power’ is consistently ranked 4th in the world by SIPRI, IISS, Lowy, the US and UK even though all of them use different evaluation algorithms.

(c) To illustrate this point further, one of the systems used by the US to objectively evaluate ‘military capability’ is DOTMLPFI – an acronym for Doctrine, Organisation, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Education, Personnel, Facilities and Interoperability. Another model is the US JSTOR which is basically centred on four main parameters, viz., Force Structure, Modernisation, Combat Readiness and Sustainability. Here, each major parameter is further broken down into well-defined sub-and sub-sub-parameters. The UK model employs parameters called ‘Defence Lines of Development’ (abbreviated as DLODs), which include Training, Equipment, Personnel, Information, Concepts and Doctrine, Organisation, Infrastructure and Logistics. The Lowy Institute, Australia, draws a distinction between ‘Conventional Military Strength’ (which is measured in terms of defence spending, armed forces and organisation, weapons and platforms, signature capabilities and military posture) and ‘Military Capability’, which is calculated using a weighted average of scores across five sub-measures and 22 indicators. Similarly, the world’s top institutes like SIPRI, Rand, IISS and others use well proven statistical models to objectively quantify a nation’s overall military capability as well as each individual component of that capability. Thus, for example, the Global Fire Power Review, an annually updated, statistics-based website tracking defence related information of 140 countries, utilizes over 50 individual factors to determine a given nation’s ‘PwrIndx’ score with categories ranging from military might and financials to logistical capability and geography. Sadly, India has not formalised any such statistical model. It is sorely needed by the policy makers and planners, in ‘quantifying’ the exact score of each defined military capability or sub-capability. Such objective models are indispensable to those working in the domain of ‘military capability building’, including departments such as Budgeting, Force Structuring, Capital Acquisitions, Indigenous Capability Building, DRDO, Defence Planning Staff and a host of others. If we have to do military integration right, then this is an essential first step that we need to take right away.

Optimal Response to Threats and Violations

A number of capability assessment methodologies are already in use across the world…Thus, ‘Indian Military Power’ is consistently ranked 4th in the world by SIPRI, IISS, Lowy, the US and UK, even though all of them use different evaluation algorithms

This is another hallmark of a well-integrated military structure, the emphasis here being on the word ‘optimal’. Tri-Service Integration can vastly reduce reaction times to inimical threats or violations, thus providing a more robust response. Ownership of a sensor, communication device, information network, decision support system or response system by one service or another – be it the Army, Navy or Air Force – is of little consequence in such an environment. What really matters is the combined, integrated response, the premium being on efficiency, promptness, timeliness, correctness and effectiveness of detecting the threat or violation and responding to it, irrespective of ‘which Service’ is doing what. Moreover, such integrated man-machine-system mixes can even be useful during other national emergencies or large-scale disaster events. The key point here is that enhanced Inter-Service Integration must necessarily accrue a significantly higher efficiency towards optimising our detection and response to threats or violations of any kind. If it does not, it’s not worth the effort and a better model of integration needs to be adopted.

Minimal Loss of Own Lives

One of the simplest and clearest indicators of the efficiency of any military system is the number of ‘friendly lives’ – own soldiers, civilians and allies – lost while executing a military mission or operation.

(a) A historical analysis of all our past military campaigns consistently points out that the price we have paid, in human lives lost or injured, is unacceptably high. Indian war casualty figures, when compared to those of other top militaries across a range of operations, indicate serious shortcomings that we need to overcome, the main one being lack of integration – vertically, horizontally and diagonally – in our ‘Higher Defence Organisation (HDO)’. While our soldiers and tactical commanders on the ground deserve kudos for invariably having the guts to snatch victories even by ‘running into a hail of enemy bullets’, those who sent them into that hail of bullets must not escape blame for shoddy planning or poor ‘war direction’. It is a sad, but undeniable, fact of our military history that our ‘Higher Defence Organisation’ has performed ‘below-par’ in almost every major war or campaign. This is a sensitive issue that is rarely discussed but one that cannot be ignored by any professional military. Many of our military ‘victories’ have been won by the bravery and indomitable courage of our simple soldiers; who forged tactical victories even in the face of great odds, being either poorly clothed, fed, equipped, supported or directed by the higher-ups. The question here is: why were they inadequately equipped or supported? Lack of integration in our HDO is a major culprit.

(b) It is axiomatic that during battles, there will be numerous occasions when the ‘combat power’ of any one service – be it the Army, Navy or Air Force – will be insufficient to gain outright victory or may even be inferior to the enemy, at least in a tightly defined box of ‘time’ and ‘space’. It is precisely at such a juncture that the other Service or Services pitch-in to augment the combat capability of the beleaguered force, thus saving precious lives and turning the tide of the battle in our favour. It is no more acceptable that when, say, the Army is fighting its own, ‘private’ battles on the high Himalayas, the Air Force is not even informed of the same. Lest you consider this a far-fetched example; this is what actually happened in the 1962 war with China. It must not happen again. Suffice to say that inter-service integration, a part and parcel of an integrated HDO, is absolutely indispensable. If such integration cannot minimise the loss of friendly lives in a conflict, it hasn’t been done right and needs to be done better.

Multi-Spectrum Functionality

This is the new reality, the new state of world affairs, the new ‘jungle’ in which the Indian ‘Tiger’ must learn not only to survive but thrive. It must therefore shed its old stripes and abandon its old ways…

Of late, the entire concept of warfare has undergone such a monumental change that the term ‘Modern, or Futuristic, Warfare’ defies definition. It excludes nothing; encompassing in its visualisation all terrains (mountains, deserts, jungles, plains, swamps, coastlines, etc), all surfaces (land, sea, air, under-sea, sub-terranean, etc), all domains (including the perception domain, space, cyber, electro-magnetic, optical, acoustic, sonic, super and hyper-sonic), all conflict spectrums (peace, no-war-no-peace, all-out war), all types of threats (tacit, implicit, gray-zone), all forms of warfare (overt, covert, terrorism, insurgency, guerrilla, conventional, CBRNe, hybrid), all inimical forces (be it a nation, group of nations, non-state actors, fundamentalism or terrorist groups, economic cartels, proxies, secessionists, etc) indulging in any kind of activity inimical to a nation (economic, military, diplomatic, technological, subversive, clandestine, political). This is the new reality, the new state of world affairs, the new ‘jungle’ in which the Indian ‘Tiger’ must learn not only to survive but thrive. It must therefore shed its old stripes and abandon its old ways, in their stead donning a new mantle and adopting new tactics to win the battles of the future in this global forest.

(a) The essential condition for victory in this new battlespace is ‘Multi-Spectral Functionality’ spanning all domains. It is no longer sufficient to be proficient in a few chosen military functionalities, such as ‘armoured warfare’ or ‘submarine operations or ‘air-to-air combat’. What eventually matters is the sum total of the ‘military might’ that a nation can bring to bear on its adversary and this places a premium on unleashing the ‘extra power’ produced by efficient inter-service military integration.

(b) It is axiomatic that tomorrow’s wars cannot be won by yesterday’s weapons. Or, for that matter, yesterday’s perceptions, mindsets, methods of planning and executing war. Neither can they be won by outmoded military structures and restricted, stand-alone military capabilities. Multi-dimensional conflict demands a necessary pre-condition: multi-dimensional capabilities.

Bigger Bang for the Same Buck

Traditionally, the Indian Defence Budget has always been pegged in the 1.6% – 2.5% range of the GDP. This is unlikely to change since the country’s poverty alleviation needs and human development index goals disallow any sharp deviation. The criticality of utilising this ‘defence allocation’ prudently is therefore paramount, with every Rupee being put to good use. Sadly, this does not happen in the present system, with each service vying, selfishly and self-centredly, for a larger share of the pie, notwithstanding its other two sister-services. Moreover, there is no mechanism to logically work out inter-service allocations, so ‘Defence Finance’ merely goes by the previous year’s ratios, trying its best to pare down the budgets to the bone. So great is the disconnect that although several reams of paper are used up in working out Long (15 years), Medium (5-7 years) and Short (1-2 years) Term Plans, ‘Defence Finance’ doesn’t even bother to look at them and is usually absent from all such meetings. It goes merely by what its master, the Ministry of Finance, dictates.

(a) The efficiency, rather lack of it, of the present system of budget allocation can be judged by the inglorious epithets it has earned for itself; “Arming Without Aiming”, “Procuring Without Planning”, “Acquiring Defence Assets Without Building True Military Power” and so on. In fact, so absurd is the planning process that even the ‘guidelines’ from the MOF clearly state in black and white that actual allocations may have no bearing to the plans made. And they never do, leaving the services with a satisfaction level of about 33% (one-third) in comparison to their legitimate, planned needs.

(b) Inter-service integration, if done well, holds the promise of minimising these inefficiencies and reducing overlaps, thus freeing precious funds to modernise faster. When a holistic, overarching view is taken of military capabilities – irrespective of Army, Navy or Air Force – the areas of weakness can be better addressed and redundancies, duplication, even triplication, can be reduced. By way of example, studies undertaken by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) have conclusively proved that simply by integrating the ‘Logistics’ of the three services, huge savings can be realised in inventories, warehousing, manpower, real estate holdings as well as numerous allied and ancillary services; thus, adding up to appreciable savings in the ‘Revenue’ budget of each individual service. This money can be redirected to other areas that badly need capability augmentation, such as shortage of ammunition. Such examples abound, underscoring the key point here; inter-service integration can unlock huge funds to give India a bigger bang for the same buck.


Today, India stands on the cusp of a monumental transformation of its military structure; seeking to adopt a model that will empower its military with exponentially greater integration, seamlessness and war ‘winnability’. How will India make this transition; for the better or for the worse? How to judge the efficacy of the newer organisational models that will soon be adopted? This article describes five ‘key parameters’ that we need to keep in mind today so that we can steer in the right direction to achieve our goal of substantially enhancing the synergy between various components of our military. Like it or not, the fact is that ‘Integration’ is now an essential prerequisite of modern warfare and will gain increasing prominence as we transit to the future.

In this context, integration of the armed forces addresses only one part of the requirement, the ultimate goal being a ‘whole of the nation’ capability that can be brought to bear on an adversary in case of future conflict. It is therefore a step in the right direction. India can unleash vastly more military power by integrating its defence set-up, to do so ‘optimally’ it needs to exercise due diligence and exhibit the required foresight as well as implementation ability. The parameters described in this article, if utilised pragmatically, can prove immensely helpful in guiding and shaping this ‘restructuring’ process. Let all Indians look forward, proudly, to the day when India makes the transition from the present compartmentalised defence set-up to a more integrated, and futuristic, one.

The writer is a soldier–scholar of international repute, a ‘Thought-Leader’, an ‘Out of the Box Thinker’ and a ‘Transformationalist’. His website has wide readership. He is an active contributor to intellectual forums world-wide through his articles, comments and talks / lectures on a wide range of subjects. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda

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