[Burning Issue] Appointing the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)


  • In his Independence Day address PM has announced the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to provide “effective leadership at the top level” to the three wings of the armed forces, and to help improve coordination among them.


  • India has had a feeble equivalent known as the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC); but this is a toothless office, given the manner in which it is structured.
  • The seniormost among the three Service Chiefs is appointed to head the CoSC, an office that lapses with the incumbent’s retirement.
  • The post did not further tri-service integration, resulting in inefficiency and an expensive duplication of assets.
  • This system is a leftover from the colonial era, with only minor changes being carried out over the years.

The office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)

  • The CDS is a high military office that oversees and coordinates the working of the three Services, and offers seamless tri-service views and single-point advice to the Executive (in India’s case, to the PM).
  • On long-term it provides for defence planning and management, including manpower, equipment and strategy, and above all, “jointsmanship” in operations.
  • In most democracies, the CDS is seen as being above inter-Service rivalries and the immediate operational preoccupations of the individual military chiefs.
  • The role of the CDS becomes critical in times of conflict.

Why need such Office?

  • The creation of the CDS will eventually lead to the formation of tri-service theatre commands intended to create vertical integration of the three forces.
  • The CDS will be a single-point military adviser to the government and synergise long term planning, procurements, training and logistics of the three Services.
  • This is expected to save money by avoiding duplication between the Services, at a time of shrinking capital expenditure within the defence budget.
  • Military diplomacy is today supporting the conventional diplomacy. That can’t be done by different Services.

Recent upheaval

  • The first proposal for a CDS came from the 2000 Kargil Review Committee (KRC) which called for a reorganization of the “entire gamut of national security management and apex decision-making and structure and interface between the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces Headquarters.
  • The Group of Ministers Task Force that studied the KRC Report and recommendations proposed to the Cabinet Committee on Security that a CDS, who would be five-star officer, be created.
  • In preparation for the post, the government created the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) in late 2002, which was to eventually serve as the CDS’s Secretariat.
  • However, over the past 17 years, this has remained yet another nebulous department within the military establishment.

What happened to the proposal?

  • Political misgivings, bureaucratic turf protection and inter-service mistrust, together, created so much friction that the CDS wagon could not start rolling.
  • No consensus emerged among the Services, with the IAF especially opposed to such a move.
  • Then opposition was against the idea of concentrating too much military power in the CDS’s post.
  • The Ministry of Defence (MoD) too, opposed it subtly for the same reasons, and because it could disrupt civil-military ties in the latter’s favour.
  • The smaller Air Force and Navy fear that the CDS would be from the Army, by far the largest Service.
  • The IAF has long argued that unlike the United States and other western militaries, the Indian Services are not an expeditionary force, for which a CDS is a necessity.
  • The appointment of a CDS would also lead to theatre commands, another aspect that the IAF opposes, fearing a diminution of its operational role.

Naresh Chandra Committee recommendations

  • In 2011, more than a decade after the KRC Report, the UPA government which had opposed the CDS proposal when in opposition, set up the Naresh Chandra Committee on defence and security.
  • The Committee comprising retired Service Chiefs and other defence experts, suggested a watered-down version of the CDS proposal, in which the Chairman CoSC in the rank of a four-star officer would have a fixed tenure of two years.
  • He would have significantly more authority and powers than the Chairman CoSC, and would be a CDS in all but name.

The case for having a CDS

  • Although the KRC did not directly recommend a CDS — that came from the GoM — it underlined the need for more coordination among the three Services, which was poor in the initial weeks of the Kargil conflict.
  • The KRC Report pointed out that India is the only major democracy where the Armed Forces Headquarters is outside the apex governmental structure.
  • It observed that Service Chiefs devote most of their time to their operational roles, “often resulting in negative results”.
  • Long-term defence planning suffers as day-to-day priorities dominate.

Who serves the purpose as for now?

  • In effect it is the National Security Adviser.
  • This has been especially so after the Defence Planning Committee was created in 2018, with NSA as its chairman, and the foreign, defence, and expenditure secretaries, and the three Service Chiefs as members.

Need for an integrated service

  • It is generally agreed that India badly needs a Combined Defence Staff to integrate defence planning and operations.
  • For a long time, it seemed that the IAF was marching to the beat of a different drummer.
  • The consequence of this reluctance to plan and work together showed up in Kargil.
  • The air force did not have the tactics and the appropriate weapons when called to assist the Indian Army.
  • Also, the PM and Defence Minister do not have the benefit of the views and expertise of military commanders, in order to ensure that higher level defence management decisions are more consensual and broad based.
  • The case for CDS aims to provide a single-point for giving military advice to the government, administer the Strategic Forces and to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning process through Intra and Inter- Service prioritization.

The emerging theatres

  • Three theatres are straightforward: Northern, Western and Southern to address the threats from China, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean, respectively.
  • To these, we can add an eastern command for the Bay of Bengal littoral and an expeditionary command responsible for operations further afield.
  • In the years ahead, a combination of climate change, violent non-state actors and volatile politics will increase the demands on the government to deploy military forces beyond the subcontinent.
  • Despite a multitude of threats, India’s Armed Forces have very limited capacity to operate overseas. Hence, the need for an expeditionary command.
  • The major task of the new CDS will thus be to conceptualize and implement the transformation of the forces into theatre commands.

With nuke at its hand

  • Administering the ‘Strategic Forces’ also denotes administration of India’s nuclear arsenal.
  • Presently, during a conflict that brings nuclear weapons into play, the chairman’s expected to be with the prime minister to provide advice and execute required actions.
  • This, though, is problematic as it would entail the chief being away from the important role of controlling and directing his own service forces.
  • The existing arrangement of seniority-based rotational appointment of the Chairman and the Chief of Staff Committee (COSC), has resulted in the side-lining the Chairman from this important role.
  • Short tenures of even a few months, combined with pressures of being the head of a Service, has been the primary reason.

Neighbourhood examples

  • In 2016, China integrated its military and other police and paramilitaries into five theatres from the earlier seven area commands, each with its own inclusive headquarters, one of which has responsibility for the Indian border.
  • In contrast, India’s border with China is split between the Eastern, Western, and Northern Commands.

The arguments against

  • Theoretically, the appointment of a CDS is long overdue, but there appears to be no clear blueprint for the office to ensure its effectiveness.
  • India’s political establishment is seen as being largely ignorant of, or at best indifferent towards, security matters, and hence incapable of ensuring that a CDS works.
  • Militaries by nature tend to resist transformation.
  • In the US, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act elevated the Chairman from first among equals to the “principal military advisor” to the President and the Secretary of Defence.
  • In the Indian context, critics fear, the absence of foresight and understanding might end up making the CDS just another case of “jobs for the boys”.

Way Forward

  • The last time India fought a major battle was the Kargil conflict in 1999 in which the Navy played a silent role while the Army and Air Force collaborated to evict intruders from Indian soil.
  • The lessons learnt then prompted the K. Subrahmanyam Committee to propose having a CDS for the first time.
  • Instrumentalism doesn’t always work; sometimes a giant leap is the need of the hour.
  • India has traditionally been a land power and, yes, the primary threats are still on land, from the northern and western borders.
  • But the threat matrix has changed since 1947 and the Indian Ocean region is fast metamorphosing into a major arena of friction, with increasing forays by the Chinese Navy and building up of regional navies with help from China.
  • Also, while the threat of war stills exists in the subcontinent under the nuclear overhang, the room for large conventional manoeuvres is over.
  • In a conflict situation, what would unfold are short and swift skirmishes which call for agility and swift action by the three services in unison.

Recent developments

  • The Union defence ministry has set up a high-powered committee under National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval to implement the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) decision to create the much-awaited post.
  • The HPC is mandated to frame the terms of references for this post, according to top officials in the defence and national security establishment.

Expected terms of references

  • While the government hasn’t disclosed about the powers of the CDS, it is learnt that he will be single-point military advisor to the defence minister.
  • He would be in an interface with the NSA in the Defence Planning Group and Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) as a member of the bodies.
  • The CDS will set budgetary priorities on the basis of available capital outlay for the three services and also define the acquisition priorities for hardware for the armed forces without any duplication.
  • The CDS will be the point person for military diplomacy for the country and be responsible for the overall preparedness of the forces.
  • The CDS, apart from assuming all the roles of COSC in the context of training, jointmanship, education in military academies, will be the head of tri-service Andamans and Nicobar Command (ANC) and will have substantive financial powers.
  • While all the three service chiefs will be answerable to him, the CDS or permanent COSC, will have the tri-services Strategic, Cyber, Space and Special Operations Command under him, with heads of these commands being held by the services in rotation.










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