Chief of Defence Staff, a decision better late than never

Chief of Defence Staff, CDS, advisor, Indian military, army, navy, air force, head, Bipin Rawat, Karambir Singh, BS Dhanoa
Army Chief General Bipin Rawat (left), Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh (centre) and Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa (right). File Photo: PTI.

In his sixth Independence Day address to the nation from the Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the setting up of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) post over the three military chiefs.

However, controversy characterises the creation of a CDS, considering that the move has been opposed for over two decades due to inter-services rivalry and other political considerations. For instance, the Air Force has always opposed the creation of a CDS because air marshals feel that air power is the first to engage an an adversary, given its speed and flexibility of application. To that extent, a CDS would cramp their operational style and autonomy.

The appointment of a CDS will be a first step to transform the higher defence organisation of the country, namely the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which is a flawed anachronism. The fact that the higher defence organisation requires a revamp is evident from the fact that although India is a big arms importer, the military remains unprepared to wage a war beyond 10 days. Clearly, arms procurement procedures are cumbersome and the military’s views are not necessarily given due weightage in the hardware acquisition process.

Today, the MoD is staffed with IAS officers and headed by one who is a Defence Secretary — a generalist bureaucrat who takes decisions on military matters which are semi-technical in nature. While the ubiquitous IAS officer switches ministries and departments to become a jack of all trades and master of none, the military officer is a specialist professional in his chosen sphere, either a fighter pilot, tank man, submariner or a commando.


The MoD is unlike the Ministry of Railways, the Department of Atomic Energy or the Department of Space which technocrats manage; military officers are not part of the MoD which the IAS bureaucracy manages. Such a situation creates myriad problems which manifest as irritants in civil-military relations, which was evident from the sacking of a former navy chief in December 1999. Subsequently, another navy chief Admiral DK Joshi resigned a few years ago due to problems with the MoD.

Also read: One nation, one poll key to make India great, says PM during I-Day speech

Till now, the closest equivalent of a CDS is the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CCoSC), who is the senior most serving military chief. The CCoSC is presently assisted by the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), which is a tri-Services organisation.

The IDS manages multi-Services bodies such as the Defence Satellite Control Centre, Defence Cyber Agency, Defence Space Agency, Strategic Force Command, and Special Operations Command, besides providing secretarial and domain expertise to the Minister of Defence in all proposals of capital defence procurements and facilitating cooperation through intra-Services deliberations for procurements, joint doctrines, joint training and common procedures.

Despite the CCoSC, classic military miscalculations are the non-use of air power in the 1962 conflict against China, the delayed use of air power in Kargil 1999, the non-use of the navy in 1965 against Pakistan, the confusion over deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka during 1987-88, which indicates absence of coordination between the armed forces, intelligence agencies, and Ministry of External Affairs.

Similarly, the lack of coordination between the army and Ministry of External Affairs to cope with the Chinese challenge over the Sumdorung Chu territorial intrusions in 1987-88 typifies poor politico-military decision-making that has a bearing on national security.

Also, inter-Services rivalry between the three Services is exemplified in the rift between the navy and air force during the mid-1990s over the navy’s acquisition of an aircraft carrier, army-air force problem over attack helicopters, or army-air force misunderstanding over air maintenance of troops in Siachen in the late 1990s. The CDS would serve as a single point link between the military and political leadership which would ensure synergy between defence and foreign policy formulation to promote national security interests.

Also read: 13 from Navy, 3 from Coast Guard graduate as Observers

Today, the Defence Secretary is a weak link between the military and political leadership. For instance, India’s ultimate politico-military triumph so far has been the creation of Bangladesh — a new nation in the post-Second World War period through the force of arms despite US saber-rattling with gun boat diplomacy in 1971. The legendary Field Marshal Maneckshaw was a de facto CDS in this military victory.

The proposed CDS would have to be a Secretary-level appointment supported by the existing Integrated Defence Staff in a suitable manner. The CDS must be a member of the CCS with the three Service Chiefs also attending the CCS as observers. The CDS will also have to be vested with requisite decision-making and financial powers, subject to political approval.

The CDS would need to be involved with procurement which are common to the army, navy and air force like drones, computers, small arms, transport vehicles, radars, communication systems, medical equipment, medicines etc. The CDS will have operational powers as joint service organisations like the SFC and others will be under him while those specific to each service will be directed through the three military chiefs. This organisation, to be holistic, should also have representation from the Intelligence Services, MEA and Ministries of Finance and Home.

For an effective CDS, it is essential that the existing IDS should become part of the existing MoD organisation in order to inject it with the requisite tri-Services expertise at each working level. This will also eliminate the IDS from being an additional layer of bureaucracy, as also provide the CDS with tri-Service advice from his staff to take holistic decisions.

While the decision to create the position of a CDS is the first step, the challenge would be to establish an organisational structure with tri-Service expertise, inter-agency channels to ensure seamless decision making and jointmanship in military operations. Any other means used to establish this apex military appointment, will in effect, subvert the sound political decision to establish the proposed position of the CDS.

(Chengappa is a Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at Christ Deemed to be University Bangalore and Surendranth is a former Lt General and a graduate of Cranfield University, United Kingdom, where his thesis was based on Higher Defence Organisations of various countries.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)