Recasting Chief of Defence Staff role: Need to generate a culture of strategic thinking in India

Potential Indian defence ministers will have to be qualified to carry out the duties and responsibilities of that office effectively. This will automatically generate a culture of strategic thinking in the political rank and file, writes Lt Gen (Dr) Yash Malhotra (retd) for South Asia Monitor


Be it the Kargil Review Committee (KRC), 1999; Group of Ministers (GoM) to review the National Security System, 2000; or the Naresh Chandra Committee,2011; all accepted the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for the Indian armed forces. Though delayed, the decision to actually appoint the CDS is undoubtedly an important milestone in the national security reform process. The Press Information Bureau (PIB) release of December 24, 2019, hailed it as a "landmark decision with tremendous reform in higher defence management in the country". While spelling out the creation of the CDS, the release also mandates the CDS to head the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) to be created within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and function as its Secretary. The Government of India's Gazette Notification of December 30, 2019 details the Allocation of Business (AOB) to the DMA (Description:

We now, therefore, have a Chief of Defence Staff as Principal Military Adviser to the Raksha Mantri (RM) or Defence Minister. Without getting into a debate on whether the terms Defence, Military Affairs or Security are mutually inclusive or otherwise, when it comes to military advice one wonders how the CDS will factor in defence production not meeting the defence requirements; defence research and development (R&D) projects preventing inescapable operational procurements, ex-servicemen welfare issues impinging upon the morale of the armed forces, without having a direct say in these matters. 

Moreover with "Defence of India and every part thereof including defence policy and preparation for defence and all such acts as may be conducive in times of war to its prosecution and after its termination to effective demobilisation” being the remit of the Department of Defence, any worthwhile policy proposal initiated by the CDS will have to go through the Defence Secretary and it will be business as usual with files being scrutinized yet again and attendant delay.

CDS must have more  powers 

Has anything changed at all? And if this arrangement is said to be an interim measure and the first step in a series of structural reforms, we must beware! India has an acute propensity for the temporary to morph into permanent.  The same AOB Rules in 1961 had kept the service headquarters, and in turn the service chiefs, from being directly involved with the decision-making process by giving the Mountbatten-Ismay model of higher defence organisation for India, a nasty bureaucratic twist. It has taken six decades plus for the chiefs to get back. Let national security not become a casualty once again!

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on more than one occasion,  has delved on transformative changes. Have we thought all this through, particularly when integrated/theatre commands, cyber and space agencies are on the horizon? The PIB talked of "tremendous reform in higher defence management" in the release. Let us focus on it for a bit. Higher defence management is really national security management and related apex decision making. The fact remains that, however, good the armed forces of the country may be, success comes only with effective political administration including oversight, leadership and direction. There is absolutely no room for a trust deficit in this relationship for first-class cogent and sage advice reaching the top.

If we really mean business, it has to be ensured that the CDS, in his final avatar, has directly under him defence production, defence R&D, ex-servicemen's welfare et al, while also being answerable for "defence of India and every part thereof, including defence policy and preparation for defence and all such acts……."  The Defence Secretary, of course stays, but now handles, amongst other duties the all-important fiduciary aspects, like say a Chief Financial Officer (CFO), of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). 

In the present climate, all this must be sounding 'blasphemous'? It, however, appears to be a fair way forward and indeed transformative. The mandarins in the Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT) will have to resolve the inter se rank structure, keeping in mind that the CDS is already a Cabinet Secretary equivalent and could handle four departments under him.

Command chain

With theatre commands coming in, the question arises as to what will be the chain of command the Prime Minister downwards? It could be: from the Prime Minister to the Defence Minister and then from him to Commander of the Integrated/Theatre Command. As an expedient in the first instance, it may be advisable to have all communication from the Defence Minister to commands through the CDS. If the system and much talked of 'jointness' has to succeed, all will have to measure up to demands that get thrown up.  

Sufficient number of 'joint speciality' officers will have to be trained, in addition to the professional requirements of their parent arm/service, in what may be termed as 'joint matters'. 'Joint matters' would imply the integrated employment of land, sea and air forces. Depending on the level being addressed, it could include matters relating to command and control of combat operations in integrated commands; national military strategy; and strategic and contingency planning. Our training institutions will have to take note.

A word about the training of our parliamentarians. Potential Indian defence ministers will have to be qualified to carry out the duties and responsibilities of that office effectively. This will automatically generate a culture of strategic thinking in the political rank and file and in turn the country, perhaps also finding a place in party manifestos, not just to garner votes but as promises to be kept to improve things. It goes without saying that this will substantially improve the quality of strategic guidance and oversight of the defence establishment.

While there may be many other anomalous areas to be addressed, the aspects outlined are vital, and if they fall in place all else will be taken care of. Nobody is advocating immediate adoption of the changes. But if we do not want this opportunity to slip away, there is a case to fix timelines, or better still, mandate them through an act of parliament for all to follow and implement or be questioned!
(The writer is an Indian Army veteran and a strategic analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

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