The 2019 election campaign of PM Narendra Modi swung around national security and hard power. With the resounding mandate with which the NDA came back to power, it was quite expected that India will see some movement in strategic sectors such as defence, space, energy and internal security. By scrapping Article 370, the Modi Government not only restored its voters’ confidence but also fulfilled its ideological commitment. India is the fastest developing economy in the world. Considering the unfriendly neighbourhood and India’s influence on Indian Ocean diplomacy, disruptive reforms in national security and defence policy were long awaited. 

In his first Independence Day speech on 15th August 2019 after coming to power for a second term, PM Modi laid down one of the biggest policy reforms in the National Security Policy of India. He announced the establishment of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for the three services, namely, the Indian Army, the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force. The move is intended to maximize efficiency and provide effective leadership at the top level. 

The position of the CDS is coveted as well as complicated. The CDS, conventionally, is expected to be a ‘first among equals’, a five-star officer who will be senior to the three Service Chiefs. 

The institution of CDS is a high-powered military office that oversees and coordinates the working of the three Services. It offers a coordinated tri-service view and single-point advice to the Prime Minister on long-term defence planning and management including manpower, equipment and strategy, and optimises coordination in operations. 

Defence economists believe that a two-decade-old bureaucratic reform cannot solve the deep human problem the Indian military is facing. However, the Secretary of Ministry of Defence (MoD), essentially a civil servant with neither any background in military strategy nor any experience in planning military operations, was not serving contemporary needs either. 

The proposal for a CDS has been around for almost 20 years. It was first made by the High-level Kargil Review Committee (KRC) headed by K. Subramanyam in 1999, which recommend higher military reforms. Then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee constituted a group of ministers (GoM) headed by his man Friday, Deputy PM L.K. Advani, to review the recommendations. The GoM was in confirmation with the Committee’s recommendations, but coalition politics and bureaucratic pressure led to failure in consensus building, and eventually, the recommendations did not see the light of day. Subsequently, a decade after the Kargil war, given the resistance within the defence structure, the Naresh Chandra Committee Report watered down the proposal to appoint a CDS and recommended the creation of a permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC).

In 2018, the three Services finally agreed in principle on the appointment of a permanent Chairman of the CoSC, but due to its structural lacunae, the institution has so far remained a toothless tiger.  The senior-most among the three Service Chiefs is appointed to head the CoSC till retirement. The present Chairman CoSC is Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, who took over from the former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lamba on May 31. When ACM Birender Singh Dhanoa retires in September 2019, he would have served as Chairman CoSC for a trifling four months.

In 2015, then Union Minister for Defence Manohar Parrikar had said, “the CoSC arrangement is “unsatisfactory”, and its Chairman is a “figurehead”. The post did not further tri-service integration, resulting in inefficiency and expensive duplication of assets.” Later, the Defence Planning Committee was created in 2018, with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval as its chairman. The Secretaries of foreign, defence, and finance (dept. of expenditure) ministries, and the three Service Chiefs were members.

A majority of the advanced military countries have a Chief of Defence Staff, but the power and authority of the institution may differ according to the country’s system of governance. In the United States of America, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) is extremely robust, with a legislated mandate and influence on policy making. The Chiefs of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and National Guard are also members of the Committee. In the United Kingdom, the CDS is the senior most military adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister.

Being the single military adviser to the Indian Government, the success of CDS will depend on consensus building and bureaucratic optimisation at the Cabinet level. The CDS will also be the coordinating link between the Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Home, Ministry of Finance and the Prime Minister Office for policy formulation. 

India’s military structure still faces conventional challenges such as disproportionate procurement of weaponry, lack of standardisation of equipment and other logistical issues. India has signed various defence MoUs and deals in the last few years, and it would be upon the CDS to monitor implementation of contracts and prioritize procurements. The autonomy associated with the post will also ensure joint military planning and operation. Hence, it is important that the CDS acts not just as a strategic arm of the Government, but also as an institution that advances the security interests of the nation in the long run.

(This article was first published in The Tilak Chronicle.)

Adithya Variath

Adithya Anil Variath is a lawyer based in Mumbai. He is presently doing his Master of Laws at Dharmashastra National Law University.


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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