Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Dec 31, 2019
CDS: The long and arduous road ahead

Whatever may be the views on the first incumbent of the office, the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff will go a long way to reform the antiquated military system of the country. General Bipin Rawat whose appointment as the first CDS was announced on December 30 has his angularities and liabilities, but he does bring, as will be clear, some important advantages to the job.

Almost two decades after it was first officially proposed by a Group of Ministers, the government of the day has finally overcome political and bureaucratic doubts to take the decision. Recall that Prime Minister Modi had declared in his 15 August speech that the government was thinking of creating such a post to ensure that “our military power will have to work in unison and move forward.” There was a certain degree of skepticism as to whether or not that would happen in near future. This was  because for the past twenty years we have had governments considering the appointment of a CDS, coming close to announcing one, and then backing off, usually because of bureaucratic resistance, but also in great measure to political pusillanimity.

This time around, all the stars in the firmament were properly aligned. First, perhaps, the hyper nationalist government, which has been seriously underfunding the armed forces, needed to show that they were doing something about national security. Second, those very conditions of persistent resource constraints were making it clear that there was urgent need for reform of the higher command system of the military. Third, and perhaps the most important, the government had a candidate for the position with whom they were  very much comfortable with.


The idea of a CDS-like figure has been around for a long time in the Indian military circles. The Arun Singh Committee of 1990 was the first to broach it but nothing came out of it. The Kargil Review Committee triggered the formation of a Group of Ministers in April 2000 and submitted a report a year later which recommended the most extensive set of reform proposals that the country’s security system had seen till then. The aim was “to anticipate current and emerging security threats”.  While most of its recommendations were accepted, the government hesitated on the one that had recommended the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff saying that more political consultations were needed.

Aware that bureaucratic resistance had undermined many of the reforms suggested, the then NSA constituted a Task Force on National Security headed by Naresh Chandra in 2011. Their report submitted a year later provided detailed recommendations on the entire gamut of security issues. Aware of the resistance, bureaucratic and political to the idea of a CDS, the Task Force recommended that he should be designated as the Permanent Chairman Chief of Staffs Committee.

Both the GOM and the Task Force made a strong recommendation for the integration of the armed forces headquarters with the civilian Ministry of Defence and initiate a pattern of cross-staffing that would have military personnel in the MODs chain of command.

The Task Force recommendations were studied by the National Security Council and then shelved. It is clear from the tenor of the government notification of the post of CDS, that both previous reports have been the template into which the new reform measure has been written.

Rawat at CDS

General Rawat’s record as a soldier has been excellent, if orthodox, he has worked in a variety of areas from UN Peace Keeping to positions as brigade, division, corps and Army commander. He has not had a significant staff appointment and he did the one job that would have equipped him well for the CDS position -- that of Army Vice Chief -- for only  three months.

He was sent there in a hurry, after a short stint as the Chief of the Southern Command which is considered a backwater of sorts.

To go by the government notification on the creation of the post, it’s clear that he has a monumental task before him. We can only hope that he is able to meet the challenge because his ability to do so as the first CDSD will set the course for his successors and determine the future shape of our military. The notification announcing the appointment of a CDS has freely borrowed from the past recommendations from the Group of Ministers in 2001 and the Naresh Chandra Task Force on Defence Reforms in 2012. It has combined some of the recommendations, and also made significant departures from them.

The one thing earlier committees had in common was that the CDS who would be the same rank as the other service chiefs -- a four-star general. But, in other ways, he would be primus inter pares or first among equals. For one, he will be the Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. Currently, the position is rotated amongst the senior most of the three Chiefs.

But the most significant decision of the Modi Government is to also make him the “Head” of a new Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within the Ministry of Defence (MOD). This new post frontally tackles an old lacuna—the fact that the three wings of the armed forces were seen as an “attached office” of the MOD. Now with the new Department, they are brought into the formal ambit of the ministry.

Just how this will be fleshed out remains to be seen. Indeed, a lot depends on the follow up to this decision in terms of altering the rules of the civil services, the Allocation of Business Rules and the Transaction of Business Rules. These form the neutral pathways of the government of India and unless they are clearly laid out, the best of reform ideas will end up going nowhere.

The task of the CDS will be two fold in nature. One will be as the head of the DMA where he will deal with the administrative functioning of the three wings of the armed forces, their headquarters, the construction related to the military and second tier procurements like petrol oil and lubricants, rations etc.

Besides, he will “promote jointness in procurement, training and staffing of the services and the use of indigenous equipment by the Services. Again, a more significant task will be to plan for the restructuring of the military commands to make them capable of joint operations. These could yield joint or theatre commands down the line. His second key role will be as the Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. This will bring stability to the job of coordination of the three Services. Currently the post is rotated among the senior most of the three Chiefs who, at times, end up in the position for periods as short as three months.

In this position he will:

1) Be the principal military adviser to the Defence Minister on all tri-service matters.

2) Administer all tri-service organisations and commands, which means training facilities like the Defence Services Staff College, the National Defence Academy, the Andaman & Nicobar Command, in addition to those that have been mooted recently, the military Cyber and Space agencies.

3) Be a member of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by the Defence Minister and the Defence Planning Committee headed by the NSA.

4) Function as the military adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority. Till now there was no one doing this task, and the burden fell on the somewhat junior Strategic Forces Commander. This is an important task because currently the country’s military doctrines are not aligned with its nuclear doctrine.

5) Bring a kind of integration in operations, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications and repairs and maintenance of the three Services within three years of taking over. In some ways this is one of the most easy tasks because what it means is to merge the logistic chains that the three services have maintained separately.

6) Implement the five year Defence Capital Acquisition Plan (DCAP) and the two year roll on Annual Acquisition Plans as a follow up of the Integrated Capability Development Plan.

The appointment of the CDS has been long in coming and it is that much welcome. At the end of the day the country expects a payoff in the form of leaner and meaner forces, who will obtain synergy through planning, training for and executing joint operations. Despite a head start in 2001, India delayed this crucial appointment without which it could not think of joint operations. In the meantime, China began its reform efforts in the late 2000 and then accelerated them in the last five years to structurally transform the way it runs its military.

As the tasks of the CDS listed above indicate, the burden on General Rawat is very heavy. A lot of it is the kind of responsibilities he is not used to deal with till now. Actually, in all fairness, given the breadth of tasks outlined, no one person would have been adequately equipped for it. But to his great advantage he has a high comfort level with NSA Ajit Doval and the Modi government. If he exercises this influence judiciously, he can successfully lay the foundations of genuinely integrated armed forces, the only kind that can fight and win wars in today’s military environment.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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