September 15, 2019

Is Modi Govt Efficient Enough to Build the Institution of CDS?

B Arjun

IN his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the government’s decision to establish the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), a single head for the three services - army, navy and air force. The CDS, a four star officer is expected to be senior to the three other service chiefs.

The lack of strategic culture in India is often blamed on the prevailing higher defence management structure in the country. Security experts have often lamented that a general list civilian bureaucrat in the ministry of defence (MoD) has been acting as the CDS for years, and his actions have resulted in dividing rather than integrating the three services. Many in the armed forces consider the defence bureaucracy in the MoD as an impediment to the evolution of joint doctrines, joint training programme and joint strategy. 

The creation of the post is aimed at ensuring better efficiency and coordination among three services. The plan envisages to avoid duplication of equipment and manpower within the armed forces. It intends to balance the defence capital and revenue budgets. Besides, ensuring seamless integration and interoperability among services, the CDS, is expected to act as a single-point advisor to the government of India on military matters.

The post of CDS was first recommended by the Kargil Review Committee and the Group of Ministers (GoM) report of 2001.  Ever since then, the establishment of the office of CDS has been articulated by defence and strategic affairs experts at almost every conference and seminar dealing with defence reforms and higher defence management. The Naresh Chandra Committee report of 2012 had recommended a permanent chairman, chiefs of staff committee at the same level as the three chiefs. General DB Shekatkar committee set up by MoD in 2016 recommended structural reforms in the military and an integrated command structure.

How much is Modi government coaxed by the American establishment to initiate this reform remains unknown. But there is no denying the fact that creation of CDS is needed as much by the Indian armed forces as by the United States, India’s chief strategic ally. The US Indo-Pacific Command, based in Diego Garcia, intends to deal with the Indian armed forces through a single window, both to promote their weapons as well as military plans. It is envisaged that dealing with CDS would enhance interoperability between strategic allies and theatre commands would help in conduct of joint operations in the Indo-Pacific or elsewhere. 

For long it has been felt that Indian armed forces lacked a joint approach to tackle military threats. It is often said that in 1962 Sino-Indian war, there was no coordination between the army and the airforce; in 1965 Indo-Pak war the navy was unaware of its role and in 1999 Kargil War, the army-air force turf war prevented the optimum utilisation of our military resources.      

Under the current arrangement, each service works to protect its parochial interests, this fact is highlighted in the manner they pitch for increased share of defence budget every year. It is largely to obviate this single-service approach to defence preparedness, procurement, budgeting and operations that CDS is expected to play a big role. The post of CDS is an essential element in higher defence management architecture because it is expected to inculcate a spirit of 'jointmanship' among services and at the MoD.

Last year, the government brought agencies for space and cyber, as also the special operations division under chairman, chiefs of staff committee. With the formation of the CDS, these three joint commands are likely to come under his jurisdiction. The space and cyber commands are relatively old; however, the new element  is placing the assets of the special forces of the navy (marcos), air force (garuds) and army (para special forces) under a single umbrella. The joint special forces command will help in optimum utilisation of the special forces assets available within the armed forces. 


There is a need to recognise that the task of bringing the three services on a single platform is onerous. This would not only impact the position of defence secretary in the decision making hierarchy but would also entail erosion in the powers of three service chiefs.

It will take a long time for the tri-service culture to evolve and for officers to jettison the single-service parochialism that they have imbibed over their long service career. For example, if an admiral who has been demanding three aircraft carrier was to become the CDS, he may be expected to  tweak navy’s ambitious plans in order to meet the joint demands within the budgetary constraints.  

It is not just at the service headquarters levels, the tri-service ethos has to percolate down to the lowest rank for jointness to be a success. And this would involve developing joint training institutions and creation of unified theatre commands.

Establishing effective unified theatre commands will be a big challenge. The first tri-service theatre Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) at Port Blair, along with the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) at New Delhi were created in 2001. This was done mainly to cater to the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean and in order to be well prepared to exploit China’s “Malacca Dilemma”. However, it has taken almost two decades for the command to emerge as role model for future joint commands.

Currently, the three services operate 17 commands across the country. The concept of jointness is likely to reduce this number to maximum four or five theatre based joint service commands. The joint theatre commands are expected to penetrate the operational bottlenecks by placing all military assets needed to conduct a particular operation at the beck-and call of a theatre commander.

However, skeptics maintain that the “concept of tri-service, geographical commands offers distinct organisational advantages for a global military like America’s, whose Central Command might be fighting a campaign in Iraq, even while its Pacific Command is engaged in a war with North Korea. The sheer distance between America’s combat theatres requires each to be self-contained. In the Indian context, where the operational commands are in close proximity, it would be wasteful to emulate the American structure.”

The argument is valid and brings us back to the issue that mere announcement from the ramparts of the Red Fort cannot solve this vexed issue of establishing synergies between the services. It will require lots of efforts and years to achieve a modicum of success in this endeavour. But the moot question is, does this government, which is constantly hankering after publicity, have the patience and the maturity to implement this big defence reform?

While the move to facilitate the formation of CDS is to be appreciated, however, Modi government’s lackadaisical attitude and poor record of implementation of various plans and policy does not inspire much confidence. One hopes that the government will be more proficient and careful in affecting this far reaching change in India’s defence decision making loop. One also hopes that India’s first CDS will not be a glorified permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee and will have the mandate to create a culture of jointmanship within the proposed theatre commands.