Chief of Defence Staff

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation on Independence Day has announced the institution of the office of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who will be above the three Service Chiefs. This is one of the biggest reforms in the military and it is expected to bring in jointness and tri-service integration.

Who is the Chief of Defence Staff?

The Chief of Defence Staff would be a single-point military advisor to the government and will coordinate long-term planning, procurements, training and logistics of the three services.

Strengthening Armed Forces
  • As future wars become short, swift and network-centric, coordination among the three services is crucial. The Chief of Defence Staff will aid in tri-service integration.
  • As the stress on resources increases and defence budgets is constrained, the way forward is the optimisation of resources by joint planning and training. The Chief of Defence Staff will play a key role here.
  • The CDS, being above the three Service Chiefs will play a key role in optimising procurement, avoiding duplication among the services and streamlining the process.
  • India is a nuclear weapons state and the CDS will also act as the military advisor to the Prime Minister on nuclear issues.

Current Status

At present, the seniormost of the three Chiefs used to function as the Chairman of COSC. It was an additional role and the tenures were very short.

For instance, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) B.S. Dhanoa who took over as the Chairman COSC on May 31 from outgoing Navy Chief Adm Sunil Lanba will be in the role for only a few months as he is set to retire on September 30.

After which the baton will pass to Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat who will then be the seniormost. Gen Rawat too is set to retire on December 31 after three years in office.

Genesis of the Proposal

  • The proposal for the CDS has been there for two decades. The first recommendation was made by the K. Subrahmanyam committee appointed after the Kargil conflict of 1999 to recommend higher military reforms. Due to the lack of consensus and apprehensions among services, it never moved forward.
  • In 2012, the Naresh Chandra Committee recommended the appointment of a Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) as a midway to allay apprehensions over the CDS.
  • The CDS was also one of the 99 recommendations made by the Lt General D.B. Shekatkar (retd) Committee

Questions which are yet to be answered?

  • Will the CDS be a glorified Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, or will he be an empowered bridge between the military and the political leadership?
  • Will the government be bold enough to immediately assign him operational responsibilities in a phased manner, or will it follow an incremental approach of first entrusting him with issues such as acquisitions, training and policy?
  • Will there be an accompanying reform in the MoD?

Challenges before the CDS

  • Need to balance national interests, shed his own service affiliations and looking after the interests of all the three services will be a tough act for the CDS.
  • The Western experience suggests that the world view and political awareness necessary for the CDS to engage with diverse stakeholders will happen only after years of joint-service assignments, exposure to working with government and educational interludes in a military career. But India currently lacks such mechanisms.
  • India’s security landscape is dominated by the Indian Army due to multiple security challenges shaped by conflicts and face-offs on its land frontiers and near-continuous internal armed conflicts. Balancing this reality with a realisation that both maritime and air power are going to play an increasingly important role in India’s rise as a leading power will be among the initial strategic challenges any CDS faces.

Tasks ahead for CDS

The immediate tasks before the CDS are to:

  • Improve the inter-services synergy and laying the road map for time-bound integration.
  • Attaining a seamless integration of the MoD with service headquarters.
  • Assuming the operational responsibilities for all tri-service commands and agencies.
  • Steering the creation of integrated battle groups for various contingencies as a precursor to validating the concept of theatre commands.

Cynics see the CDS as a makeup reform owing to the challenges and lack of coordination between the armed forces. But it has to be kept in mind that when political heft is attached to a strategic process, it has always delivered results. The classic example for the political commitment is the ongoing, politically driven, shift from a reactive and restrained form of deterrence to a more proactive and preventive form.

The government has set the ball rolling by announcing the CDS. The government must carry forward this momentum by not just appointing a CDS, but by continuing with a top-down reform of national security structures.


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