Books and MonographsPublished on Jul 18, 2023 PDF Download
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Momentous Changes: Defence Reforms, Military Transformation, and India’s New Strategic Posture


Anit Mukherjee, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, and Nishant Rajeev, Eds., Momentous Changes: Defence Reforms, Military Transformation, and India’s New Strategic Posture, July 2023, Observer Research Foundation.

Introduction: The New Indian Military

In June 2023 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on a state visit to the United States—his first since taking office in 2014—he was accorded the honour of the highest diplomatic protocol. Such honour had last been given to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009, when the ‘India’ the world knew was very different from what it is today. Over these years, too, the country’s security and strategic challenges have changed significantly. In 2009, India’s most pressing concern was the threats posed by terrorist groups based in Pakistan. Today, while these threats remain, India is also confronting a belligerent China that is challenging the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and expanding its footprint in India's immediate neighbourhood.

Modi’s recent visit has been largely perceived as an effort to strengthen and add depth to the India-US bilateral relationship. The two countries signed new agreements on defence technology transfers and are attempting to forge stronger defence industrial cooperation, with PM Modi and US President Joseph Biden pushing their nations to break new ground. Writing on the outcome of the visit, C. Raja Mohan argued that both India and the US are “on a road not travelled before—towards a joint construction of a stable Asian balance of power.”[1]

The India-US defence partnership is a fundamental element in a much larger effort by Modi to balance against China—both internally and externally. Domestically, the prime minister is aiming to transform India’s defence structures and military posture. He has embarked on an ambitious agenda of reforms to bolster India’s defence apparatus and military strength. The Indian defence establishment and military are engaging in a strategic reorientation, implementing institutional reforms and reinvigorating its technological wherewithal to confront China’s belligerence along the LAC. The Indian military today is poised at the cusp of a radical transformation.[2]

What are the pillars of such a transformation, and what are the contours of the debates around it? How consequential is the military’s shift, doctrinally and in force structures, towards the frontier with China? How does the military take advantage of emerging technologies to enhance its powers? This compendium engages with these questions. Momentous Changes: Defence Reforms, Military Transformation, and India’s New Strategic Posture, examines some of the current changes in the Indian military through essays authored by former defence and military officials, and analysts who have a keen eye on India’s defence posture. The articles seek to show how the Indian military, both in terms of its internal structures and its strategic posture, is undertaking its most significant shift in decades. Taken together, these changes have the potential to improve the various elements of Indian military power. 

India’s China Problem

India’s relationship with China has deteriorated over the last decade, and military crises have escalated in scope and scale during this period. The 2020 Ladakh standoff and Galwan valley crises marked an “inflection point.”[3] Since the Galwan valley clashes, it has become apparent that the existing mechanisms for maintaining peace and stability on the border—including the 1993 and 1996 border agreements and the 2012 border defence cooperation measures—have become insufficient to address the challenges at the border. The failure of these border agreements can be attributed to several reasons, at the core of which is the growing gap in power between India and China; as a result, India is at the receiving end of attempted Chinese coercion. A suitable military balance across the Himalaya is, therefore, necessary to uphold deterrence.

Redressing the unfavourable military balance requires that India undertake significant military reforms. Driven by double-digit economic growth, China’s military power has increased substantially over the past two decades. India, meanwhile, has largely remained focused on its enduring adversary, Pakistan. To be sure, before 2020, there was already growing recognition about the challenges posed by China’s rise, and the military had been gradually turning its attention to it.[4] However, the Ladakh crisis and the Galwan valley clashes marked a clear break from the past. These events accelerated the shift, and today the Indian military is attending to the threat posed by China with far sharper focus than ever before. The military has shifted its forces from the western to the northern border and is embarking on a modernisation drive that includes incorporating emerging technologies.

Yet it is not only the direct conventional military threat at the border that is India’s concern; there is also China’s increasing geopolitical influence in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region. Growing Chinese geopolitical influence is being buttressed by the increasing reach of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This is particularly intense in the East and South China seas, but PLAN’s reach and influence in the Indian Ocean is a reality that India has had to confront in recent years. The PLAN has been making regular forays into the Indian Ocean, with Beijing investing in several port facilities in the region which some analysts argue can serve as proxy military bases.[5] It has also established a permanent military base in Djibouti in the western Indian Ocean.[6]

Indeed, China’s growing interests and capabilities are creating greater complications. For instance, China has expanded its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across the Indian Ocean littoral states, such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka.[7] It would do well for India to proactively engage the region given its ambition to serve as a net-security provider.[8] India’s active participation in minilaterals such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) illustrate its intention to proactively shape the regional dynamics. While these minilateral coalitions have various objectives including the delivery of public goods, some of them have important security dimensions to their engagements.[9] A critical element in all of India’s current efforts is to grow its defence and military capabilities.

Agenda for Defence Reform

For some time now, the Indian Government has recognised the need for institutional reforms within its higher defence organisation. In the aftermath of the Cargill War of 1999, the Government constituted a Group of Ministers (GoM) to review India’s national security apparatus and tasked it to submit a report of their findings. Among other reforms, the GoM recommended restructuring the Ministry of Defence and service headquarters, promoting jointness,[10] and establishing the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).[11] The government created an Integrated Defence Staff and accepted most other suggestions. However, it demurred from the most important one—appointing a CDS, mainly because of political apprehensions and resistance from different bureaucracies including the air force. Over the years, several of these recommendations have been reiterated by successive defence reform committees but remain largely unimplemented for various reasons.[12]

Thus, Prime Minister Modi’s announcement on 15 August 2019, that the government would create a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) post by the end of that year, was hailed as a positive development. According to former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash, the appointment of the CDS was the “most significant development in the national security domain since Independence.”[13] The appointment of a CDS came with a mandate to promote jointness within the military, and to establish joint theatre commands. This was an important directive since there are sharp disagreements between the services regarding the necessity and resultant model of jointness.[14]  This is despite the fact that most modern militaries have already adopted some form of integrated theatre commands.

However, jointness was not the only focus of this reform initiative. The government was also keen to re-imagine relations between the ministry of defence and the services. This was because civil-military relations have for long been regarded as the “bane” of India’s defence policymaking.[15] To address this, in a surprising move, the government announced that the CDS would head a newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within the Ministry of Defence (MoD). As a result, certain civilian officials within the ministry would now work under the CDS. Entrusting the CDS to handle most military matters, in one stroke, promises to obviate many of the structural weaknesses in civil-military relations.[16]

Along with these measures, there has been increasing emphasis on incorporating emerging technologies in the military realm. These include technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, and new and critical domains such as space and cyber. These technologies have the potential to increase the speed, reach and lethality of one’s forces, thereby upending previous assumptions about the conduct of warfare. The Modi Government has pushed the Indian armed forces to embrace emerging technologies and induct new capabilities.[17] The government raised defence cyber and space agencies as independent tri-service agencies in order to coordinate operations in these domains. Inducting new technologies and capabilities will allow the Indian armed forces to shift from a ‘personnel-intensive’ organisation to a ‘technology-centric’ one.  For its part, the Indian military has been closely monitoring the efficacies of new and emerging technologies in modern battlefields. Translating capacity into capability is now the pertinent issue.

Overview of the Volume

This report highlights some of the key contours of the strategic rebalancing and defence reforms being undertaken in India. It collates ten essays, grouped in three sections, that discuss various facets of the reforms and of the military’s strategic reorientation—not just vis-à-vis China, but also in terms of US-India relations.

Strategic Reorientation

The first set of essays explore India’s efforts to strategically reorient away from a long-held focus on the terrorism threat from Pakistan, and attend to the challenges of China’s rise. They analyse the changes in India’s foreign policy and military posture over the recent years. Shruti Pandalai, Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), highlights the key changes in India’s foreign policy in the aftermath of the June 2020 Galwan valley clashes and the larger Ladakh standoff. She notes, “New Delhi, which has been willing to defer to Beijing’s sensitivities on certain critical issues in the past, is now seeking to redraw those red lines, insisting on reciprocity.” India has now adopted a more assertive approach across the Indo-Pacific and is leveraging external balancing measures to address the China challenge.

In the succeeding article, General M.M. Naravane, former Chief Army of Staff (2019-2022), discusses the Indian Army’s efforts to rebalance its forces from the Western to the Northern Front. He notes that the post-Galwan assessment highlighted a changed security environment and enabled the Indian Army to rebalance its forces to the Northern frontier. The Indian Army’s rebalancing efforts have been undertaken under three pillars: reorientation, relocation, and re-orbatting. Under these pillars, the Indian Army has tasked formations to shift focus from Pakistan to China, moved units from the Pakistan border to the China border, and instituted new internal structures to keep them agile and responsive to threats. The result is a more even-handed posture that addresses threats from both of India’s disputed frontiers.

Dr Amit Gupta, Senior Adviser at the Forum of Federations in Ottawa, outlines the force posture, modernisation efforts, and doctrines of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Navy (IN). Dr Gupta notes that the IAF doctrine is not aligned to its current capabilities and is largely speculative. Furthermore, as there are budgetary shortfalls in its modernisation ambitions, the IAF does not have the wherewithal to fulfill its stated doctrinal role against China or Pakistan. On the other hand, the Indian Navy’s doctrine is better aligned with its objectives. The IN is well placed to carry out its doctrine of sea control against the Pakistani Navy, and will have to adopt a sea denial posture against China, especially considering the rapid growth of the PLA Navy. Ultimately, given their slow pace of modernisation, both services lack the clear-cut capabilities to decisively counter the Chinese military.

Institutional Reforms

Reforming higher defence management in India has been a long-standing demand of the Indian Armed Forces. The second set of essays in this volume focus on India’s efforts to bring institutional reforms to its structures of higher defence management.

India’s former defence secretary from 2017 to 2019, Mr. Sanjay Mitra, explores the implications of the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff post and the Department of Military Affairs. Both were part of key institutional changes seeking to make the military a formal part of defence decision-making. Crucial challenges remain in this goal. For one, while the Indian defence reforms have been modelled on those undertaken by the United States, the country needs to find a model of theatre command suitable to the Westminster style of governance. Furthermore, in a collegiate decision-making system, adequate civilian representation and perspectives must be ensured and given due weight. Otherwise, increasingly military voices may crowd out the views of the civilian bureaucracy, which could prove detrimental to both civilian control and defence policymaking.

In his essay, Admiral Karambir Singh, the Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy from 2019 to 2021, discusses the emerging role of the Chief of Defence Staff and the need for joint theatre commands. While the reforms were certainly a step in the positive direction, there is an uneven distribution of responsibilities between the Defence Secretary and Chief of Defence Staff. Moreover, the CDS has been overburdened with “rudimentary matters” in the Department of Military Affairs. Both these shortcomings will likely continue to hamper effective policymaking. On the issue of jointness, Adm. Singh notes that regardless of the resulting structure of theatre commands in India, the principle of “unity of command” should be the guiding principle in institutionalising jointness. He argues that it is critical that when theatre commands are established, greater clarity should be brought to the chain of command vis-à-vis the role of the CDS, service chiefs and the theatre commander.  This is an important point that deserves deliberations at the highest levels.

For his part, Air Vice Marshal Anil Golani, the Additional Director General for the Centre for Air Power Studies, elucidates the Indian Air Force’s perspective on the ongoing defence reforms. AVM Golani highlights how the inherent service-specific biases of uniformed personnel can impede efforts in defence planning even within the DMA. Activities such as joint planning and operations continue to be carried out in service-specific silos. Such an approach is having a negative impact on the development of theatre commands. The unique attributes of air power are often neglected in India’s debate on theatre commands, even as air power has emerged as a key determinant of the outcome of modern conflicts. Adopting a joint command structure that can adequately leverage the unique advantages of air power is crucial. In his view, the principle of “unity of effort” should guide the development of theatre commands in India.

Emerging Technologies

Modern conflicts have demonstrated the increasingly crucial role of emerging technologies in the battlefield. The essays in the final section examine the impacts of emerging technologies on India’s defence and military calculus. They attempt to uncover how the Indian military is looking to integrate these technologies into its doctrines and force structure.

Dr Sameer Patil, Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, explores the impact of cyber technologies on Indian defence planning. His essay opens by outlining the sources and multifaceted nature of India’s cyber threats: apart from cyber-attacks by state actors like Pakistan and China and non-state actors like Pakistan-based terror groups, India is also targeted by disinformation from both countries. He then underlines the Indian military’s cyber doctrine(s), highlighting cyber capabilities and warfare as part of the broader ‘information warfare’ concept. He analyses India’s cyber capabilities and identifies the gaps in India’s cyber strategy, and argues that despite operational and funding limitations, the military is moving to develop multifaceted cyber capabilities. However, fundamental questions elude India’s broader cyber posture, which prevent optimal utilisation of those capabilities.

In his article, Nishant Rajeev, Senior Analyst at the South Asia Program of RSIS, ponders the Indian military’s attempts to induct and expand its drone capabilities. For much of the past two decades, the Indian military has had modest drone capabilities and drone operations were limited to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Increasingly, however, modern conflicts are demonstrating the ability of drones to play an important role in determining the outcome of conflicts. Studying these conflicts, the Indian army, navy and air force have launched programs to harness the potential of drones. The Indian military is of the view that drones can give it an asymmetric advantage in a conflict with China. By analysing public speeches and writings of senior military officers as well as media reports on India’s drone capabilities, Nishant traces Indian efforts to expand its drone capabilities and analyses the concepts behind their employment.

Shimona Mohan, Research Assistant at ORF’s Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology, focuses her chapter on the implementation of Responsible use of Artificial Intelligence (RAI) in India’s defence establishment. She provides a view of the current status of AI integration in the realm of defence. She notes the disparity in Indian approaches to responsible AI adoption in the civilian and military domains. Led by the government think tank, NITI Aayog, India has released a two-part report on RAI adoption for the civilian space. However, in the military domain, the concept of ‘responsible AI’ has yet to gain traction. She characterises India’s conception around RAI as one of “passive observation”, and offers recommendations for facilitating the responsible use of AI in the Indian military.

Rounding off the volume is an essay co-written by Lt Gen Raj Shukla, the former Commander of the Indian Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and Dr Rudra Chaudhury, Director of the Carnegie India Centre, which evaluates the emerging cooperation in defence technologies between India and the United States. While noting that India and the US have had several proposals and initiatives aimed at boosting defence cooperation, the authors point to the unique features of the recent one—the India-U.S. initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET). They note how the iCET focuses on encouraging partnerships between private players in both the Indian and US ecosystems rather than merely government-to-government engagements. Furthermore, the initiatives are run directly from executive branches rather than through the traditional bureaucratic route. Thus, iCET offers a unique approach for fostering India-US defence ties that appear both sustainable and pragmatic. The editors are including the subject of iCET in this volume to examine the feasibility of expanding similar collaborative activities on high technology between India and its strategic partners.


The contributors to this volume agree that India is in the midst of a strategic reorientation to grow its capabilities in confronting the China challenge, institutionalising reforms in higher defence organisation, and developing new operational concepts and structures to leverage emerging and critical technologies.

Unfortunately, however, this compendium is unable to cover other aspects of military reform and defence capabilities. For instance, the volume does not discuss the changes in the recruitment procedures resulting from the Agnipath scheme, nor the recent emphasis on strengthening the domestic defence industry through the Aatmanirbhar Bharat (‘self-reliant India’) initiative. Subjects like professional military education, the absence of declassification procedures, and the inexplicable neglect of the proposal to create a National Defence University (NDU)—are also not touched in these essays. These are topics that are ripe for further research.

Nonetheless, these essays demonstrate that the Modi government has taken up the mantle of defence reforms in a serious manner in recent years. The structural changes in India’s neighbourhood and beyond have provided a critical imperative for the government to act quickly on both strategic reorientation and military reform. The successful implementation of such reforms can significantly transform its capabilities. Whether the government and the military succeed, remains to be seen. Moreover, as the vigorous public debates demonstrate, how to proceed with reforming the military is still an open question. Success in this endeavour could yet make this the most consequential defence reform in India’s history.

Read the report here.


[1] C Raja Mohan, “Credit for India-US bonhomie goes to Xi Jinping,The Indian Express, June 24, 2023.

[2] Anit Mukherjee, “In the Midst of a Transformation: Reforming Defence for Increased Military Effectiveness,” in Ashley Tellis, C. Raja Mohan, and Bibek Debroy (eds.) Grasping Greatness: Making India a Leading Power (Penguin Press, 2022).

[3] Vijay Gokhale, “The Road from Galwan: The Future of India-China Relations,Carnegie India Working Paper, March 2021.

[4] Yogesh Joshi and Anit Mukherjee, “From Denial to Punishment: The Security Dilemma and Changes in India’s Military Strategy towards China,” Asian Security, Vol. 15, Issue 1, 2019.

[5] Gurmeet Kanwal, "Pakistan’s Gwadar Port: A New Naval Base in China’s String of Pearls in the Indo-Pacific,CSIS Briefs, April 2, 2018.

[6] On the growing importance of the maritime domain and Chinese naval threat see, Darshana Baruah, “India in the Indo-Pacific: New Delhi’s Theater of Opportunity,Carnegie India, June 30, 2020.; Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Countering Chinese assertiveness: India’s changing posture in the Indian Ocean,Indo-Pacific Analysis Briefs Vol. 16, Perth USAsia Centre, 2020.

[7] Michael Kugelman, “The Maldives: An Island Battleground for India-China Competition,Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, July 16, 2021.; Chulanee Attanyake, “China-India Competition: The Sri Lankan Perspective,” China-India Brief #142, July – August, 2019.

[8] Anit Mukherjee, “India as a Net Security Provider: Concept And Impediments,RSIS Policy Brief, August 2014.

[9] Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Hard Security Back in Focus at the Quad Foreign Ministers Meet,The Diplomat, March 08, 2023.

[10]  ‘Jointness’ is defined as the ability of the army, air force, and navy to operate together.

[11] Anit Mukherjee, “Failing to Deliver: Post Crisis Defence reforms in India, 1998-2010,IDSA Occasional Paper No. 18, 2011.

[12] For a useful overview, see Gurmeet Kanwal and Neha Kohli (eds.), Defence Reforms: A National Imperative (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, Pentagon Press, 2018).

[13] Arun Prakash, “The significance of the post of CDS lies in its potential for re-imagining national security,The Indian Express, January 10, 2020.; also see Anit Mukherjee, “The Great Churning: Indian Military Transformation,War on the Rocks, May 05, 2021.

[14] Anit Mukherjee, “Fighting, separately: Jointness and Civil-Military Relations in India” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1-2, 2017, pp. 6-34.

[15] Anit Mukherjee, The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[16] Sunil Srivastava, "Civil-Military Fusion in India: Promising Pathways,Synergy, Vol.2, Issue 1, February 2023, pp. 1-26.

[17] Narendra Modi, “PM chairs Combined Commanders’ Conference on board INS Vikramaditya at Sea,” December 15, 2015, Prime Minister’s Office.

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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Nishant Rajeev

Nishant Rajeev

Nishant Rajeev is a Senior Analyst at the South Asia Program in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University ...

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