Do you think having a Chief of Defence will strengthen the coordination between India’s defence forces?

In his first Independence Day speech in his second term Prime Minister Narendra Modi today made a far-reaching announcement for India’s defence forces. PM Narendra Modi said his government has decided to establish the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDF) for the three services — the Indian Army, the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force.

The necessity of a Supreme Commander at the theatre level was realised and got fully established during the Second World War. After the war, this concept was adopted into the Defence organization at the national level, with the United States instituting Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff under the National Security Act of 1947 and the UK establishing Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in 1958. Many countries of the world follow this arrangement in one form or the other. Probably, India is the only country in the world, where the Secretary Department of Defence – a generalist civil servant drawn from diverse background and who serves in the Ministry of Defence for a fixed tenure – has been made responsible for “the Defence of India and every part thereof including preparation for defence” according to the Government of India AOB/TOB Rules.

Does it mean that a bureaucrat heading the Ministry will formulate the operational plans for war fighting and Chiefs of Staff will execute it. If that was an anomaly then it should have been rectified by now. But this neglect is either due to politicians’ detachment and indifference towards matters relating to defence forces or alternatively, it serves the purpose of bureaucrats bossing over the military brass. This situation can best be explained in the words of Late Shri K Subrahmanyam, “Politicians enjoy power without responsibility, bureaucrats wield power without accountability, and the military assumes responsibility without direction.”

Let’s study the CDS Models of Nations ahead of us in Military Power.


Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). It consists of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as its head, who is the senior most ranking military officer having served as chief of any service; Vice Chairman, always from a different service; the Military Service Chiefs from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force, in addition to the Chief of National Guard Bureau.


Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). The CDS acts as the professional head of the Armed Forces and he is the principal military adviser to both the Secretary of State and to the Government.


The Central Military Commission (CMC) has been reorganised with a New Joint Staff Department (JSD) performing the command & control (C2) functions. The PLA has adopted a distinct operational chain of command from CMC to theatre commands and administrative chain of control from CMC to services, akin to the US C2 structure.

Now Let’s see Indian Model and Reasons for Not having it.


Problem Areas in having a CDS

  1. In 1955, when the designation of the then commanders-in-chief of the three services was changed to chiefs of staff, the Army, Navy and Air Force acts were just amended to replace the wording ‘Commander-in-Chief’ wherever it occurred in the Acts by the term ‘Chief of Staff’ of the relevant service. By very definition of the concept of ‘Chief of Staff’, they should have become the chiefs of the Armed Forces Headquarters Staff and thereby the principal professional advisers of the defence minister and the Prime Minister as it is prevalent in other democratic polities like the U.S. and the UK. On the contrary, with such amendment, the chiefs of staff in India became separate entities outside the government structure, and began functioning as the sole commander of the entire force.
  2. The Chiefs of Staff have to perform two divergent and diametrically opposite roles in their capacity as the principal advisers to the Defence Minister in national security planning and at the same time functioning as commanders of their respective forces. As commanders, their primary aim is to keep the forces combat ready through operational and logistical planning and ensuring availability of appropriate weapons, equipment and infrastructure for operations likely in the near future. While as principal professional advisers to the government, they have to strike a balance between near-term and long-term future and concentrate on preparing the nation to face the future challenges. Professionalism in national security policy management and planning is different from that in respect of fighting battles at divisional and corps level. Diplomatic manoeuvring requires different skills, knowledge and background than fighting wars at various level of violence. Similarly assessment of likely threats to our security and interests of technological developments, economic constraints on our potential, adversaries etc., also require professional skills of a high order and these are different from professional skills for fighting wars. This resulted in the absence of national security planning in the country till 1964, when for the first time a five-year Defence Plan was formulated.
  3. Ministry of Defence is an entirely separate entity from the Service Headquarters and is staffed exclusively by civil servants. In 1961, three services ceased to be a part of the Ministry of Defence and became attached offices. Further, there is Ministry of Finance (Defence), yet another separate entity. Each of the three entities Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Finance (Defence) and Service Headquarters tend to examine issues in isolation of each other, resulting in triplication of efforts and causing considerable delay
  4. The style of functioning of Indian higher defence organization has been criticised by many eminent authorities and committees for the obvious flaws:
    • Duplication of efforts between Service Headquarters and Ministry of Defence, causing waste in terms of finance, talent and time.
    • Proposals emanating from senior level at Service Headquarters being examined by junior officials in the Ministry lacking the necessary expert knowledge.
    • Subordination of the military to the civil power should be in political and not bureaucratic terms.
    • In fact, a Parliamentary Sub Committee in 1978 urged the Government to evolve an integrated set up amalgamating Service Headquarters, Ministry of Defence and Financial Adviser so that they may work in complete cohesion.

What will/should CDS do?

  1. He will be the Principal Military Adviser to the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister.
  2. He will be responsible for formulating operational plans for Integrated Theatre Commands and exercise operational control ‘only’ over all field formations and provides inputs to Defence Minister, Prime Minister and CCS on all operational issues.
  3. He will have no operational command authority neither individually nor collectively as the chain of operational command will go from the Prime Minister to the Defence Minister and from the Defence Minister to the Integrated Theatre Commands/ Specified Commands.
  4. He will advise the Prime Minister and the CCS regarding selection of nuclear targets along with detailed technical, tactical and strategic analysis.
  5. He should be a permanent member of the CCS chaired by the Prime Minister, as also of NSC. HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) and ‘Directorate General of Operations’ of three services will function under him to enable him to perform his role and responsibilities.
  6. He will be the Chairman of the COSC (JCS), with individual Service Chiefs having a right of direct access to the Defence MInister and the Prime Minister. Present format of the COSC may have to be changed because of its obvious disadvantages.


  1. Ideally, the CDS should be an overall commander-in-chief and from him command should flow to individual theatre commanders. Given India’s long land borders with a varied terrain configuration and two major seaboards, as also adversaries who are geographically separated, a “theatre” system of tri-service command is best suited for the optimum management of both external and internal security challenges. Contrary to the belief that only the United States needs a theatre system because of its wider geo-political interests and involvement in security issues all over the globe, with its inimical neighbours and peculiar national security threats and challenges, India too needs a theatre system for integrated functioning to achieve synergy of operations with limited resources. The Chinese, with similar needs, have a well-established theatre system.
  2. Each theatre commander should have under him forces from all the three services based on the operational requirement. The initial allocation of forces need not be permanent and could be varied during war or during the preparatory stage. However, change should be evolutionary and not revolutionary. At the inception stage of the concept of CDS it may be more appropriate to designate the CDS as the “first among equals” and let the three Chiefs of Staff retain operational command and administrative control over their Services. Once the system matures, theatre commanders should be gradually appointed. The Chiefs of Staff of individual Services should then have responsibility primarily for the force structure and for drawing up perspective plans. They should oversee the development and acquisition of weapons and equipment, plan recruitment, guide and coordinate training at specialised training establishments and control administrative matters such as the annual budget, pay and allowances, maintenance support and medical services etc.



Credits Hitesh Lav, former Colonel at Indian Army

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