Higher Defence Management of India: A Case For The Chief of Defence Staff

V.K. Shrivastava, Senior Fellow, IDSA


The Past

In the pre-independence era the leaders of the Indian National Congress (INC) had justifiably applied themselves to the freedom struggle and had devoted little or no time to the aspects of defence. Besides, in their collective wisdom, they were fairly convinced that a non-violent India, having no territorial ambitions in the neighbourhood, would be free of external threats on attaining freedom. As can be well appreciated Pakistan was not a consideration then. It was also argued that the world powers, exhausted during the World War, would surely avoid the high political cost of engaging India militarily. Thus, the INC came to power without having had time to formulate a well deliberated defence policy.

Freedom and the accompanying partition, created a situation bordering on a civil war and kept the leaders fully occupied in attending to the resultant upheavals. Militarily the partition entailed division of nearly half a million officers and men, with their military hardware and immovable assets across undivided India. It was done under the supervision of Supreme Headquarters that remained functional till October 1947. Nehru, who had stated as early as 1928 "when freedom comes we shall develop our Army and strengthen it and make it more efficient than it is today",1 relegated the subject of defence needs to a much lower priority. Surprisingly even the warning signals of operations in Jammu & Kashmir went unheeded.

Before independence the status of the Commander in Chief (C in C) in India was second only to that of the Viceroy. As a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council he was also the de facto Defence Minister. He was served by his uniformed Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) and the Defence Secretary who, incidentally, was below the PSOs in the order of precedence. The role of the Defence Department was not to examine proposals, or to sit in judgement over the Army Headquarters, but was restricted to issuing orders in the name of the Government of India.

In the interim government of the transitional period a Defence Member was included in the Viceroy's Executive Council. Soon after independence the War Department and the Department of Defence were merged to form the Ministry of Defence (MOD). It was then enlarged suitably to take on such other higher functions of defence management—threat assessment, force levels, budgeting, defence production and so on—which till then were attended to by the Service Headquarters in the United Kingdom (UK) or Whitehall.

Independence also necessitated creation of structures to establish parliamentary control over the military. It must be noted here that in the years immediately preceding independence the Army had a very strong and visible presence in India since it was called out often enough, in aid of civil authority, to deal with the Disobedience Movement. Therefore, many a leader of the time had harboured misplaced notions of the defence forces—the sword arm of the state—exploiting their eminent status and strength vis-à-vis the emerging political systems and fragile institutions of the young free India.

In 1947 a committee of three senior Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers had suggested structuring of the MOD on the lines of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and, in the process, had also aimed at lowering the standing of the military officers much in the same way as that of the police officers in relation to the ICS. It was Lord Mountbatten who ensured that the Service Chiefs retained their status higher than the Defence Secretary. He also asked his Chief of Staff, Lord Ismay, to draw up a higher defence organisation for India. Conditions prevailing then did not permit setting in motion of large-scale changes that could have unhinged the ongoing system. Therefore, Lord Ismay did not propose a restructured organisation but recommended a number of committees to ensure a well-coordinated effort for national defence.

In essence the decision-making process was to have the benefit of independent inputs from the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), the Defence Minister's Committee (Service Chiefs were members of this Committee) and the Defence Committee of the Cabinet. These in turn signified representation of the Services, mechanism for the bureaucratic processing, and of course political control. The functioning of the latter two Committees gradually degenerated into short-circuited ad hoc procedures. This came about particularly during the Nehru—Krishna Menon period. In the process it was the Service Chiefs who got marginalised from the decision-making bodies. Their re-designation in the mid fifties, from C in C to the Chief of Staff of their respective Services, and repeated lowering of their order of precedence, further reduced not only their standing but also their ability to actively participate in the decision-making.

It is not the intention here to give a step by step account of the events that followed. Suffice it to say that the more the system gave the impression of a change for the better, the more it remained the same. For example, the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, and the Indo-Pak war of 1965, saw the adoption of some short-lived emergency procedures and also some cosmetic reforms. Similarly, in 1971 the erstwhile Emergency Committee of the Cabinet, set up in 1962, gave way to the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA). Further, the Committee for Defence Planning, which came up a little later, applied itself to reviewing defence plans. It apparently made no significant contributions and has not been heard of in recent years. Thus, the Service Headquarters have continued to remain outside the government's decision-making machinery and the MOD, (read bureaucracy), had taken control of all defence matters—whether futuristic plans for modernisation or the promotion and postings of senior officers. In short, while remaining responsible to ensure the defence of India, the armed forces have no control over the machinery that sustains such endeavours.

The Present

Fortunately, except for the debacle of 1962, India has managed to scrape through various military ventures without serious harm. Importantly however, each of these did leave behind unmistakable signs indicating inadequacy of the system that left much to be desired. Yet there have been no serious and sincere efforts ever to remodel the present higher defence organisation, which cannot, but be called archaic. Unlike any other developed country in the world, the requirements and the proposals of the Indian armed forces are subjected to three tiers of procession controls—secretarial, financial and ministerial. The existing system thus results in infructuous paper work and inordinate delays as superficially conversant civil servants take decisions on matters military. What is more to the point is that the system does not stand scrutiny on grounds of authority vis a vis responsibility and accountability. Regrettably, our political leaders continue to remain uninformed and indifferent towards the requirements of the armed forces and their justified aspirations. Parliamentary debates are poorly attended. For example, "Incredible though it may seem but (sic) the sad, indeed shameful truth is that there were three long stretches during the three day discussion on defence—which apart from being a matter of life and death costs the country close to 6000 crores—when there was not even a quorum in the House. At times the number of those present did not exceed 20.2 It is quite unlike a debate in the House of Commons in UK where a point may well be raised "Will the Secretary of State for Defence say what advice the Chiefs of Staff have given him in this matter?" At the best of times a defence debate in India has merely generated heat, never light. So striking has been India's level of apathy and disjointed efforts in matters of defence that it prompted Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) to come out in 1994 with a publication titled "India's Ad Hoc Arsenal: Direction or Drift in Defence Policy"?3

To ascertain the efficacy of its own ongoing systems, the government often appoints committees. One such committee, called the Estimates Committee, examining the national structures that support India's defence policy, had tabled its report in parliament on August 20, 1992. A chapter of the Report deals with the formulation of the defence policy, the process of defence planning, tasking of the defence forces, and the aspects of higher direction. Therein the Committee have found serious flaws in the present system. The Committee noted with concern the absence of a document called the National Defence Policy. Also that the existing statement of the directive "To defend the territorial integrity of the country is needless over-simplification".4 Similarly the Committee are "Deeply disturbed at the absence of such a doctrine (on national security)".5 The committee also felt that "There is confusion in MOD----on the effectiveness of the decision-making process in the Ministry".6 What is even more noteworthy is the Defence Secretary's admission before the Committee that "The time has now come when this (defence management) cannot be played by common sense. It requires background, experience, knowledge and awareness".7 Shortfalls of the existing system need no further elaboration.

A digression would be appropriate here to take a quick look at the course of reformatory events in UK. To start with, after the First World War, it was the coming into being of the Royal Air Force that led to the formation of the COSC. This step, taken as early as 1923, attempted to ensure inter service balance and co-ordination. When the British MOD first came into being in 1946 it was essentially a co-ordinating office for the three single Service Ministries. "The post war explosion of weapons technology and acceleration in the rate of military change, with its related defence costs inflation, enforced the appointment of Ministers of Defence and Chiefs of Defence Staff".8 A unified MOD, assimilating all the three Service Ministries under a single Secretary of State for Defence came into being in 1964. While creating the new structures, Lord Mountbatten—Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) from 1958 to 1965—fell short of achieving total integration of the three Services and the Ministry. The system continued for the next two decades when a need was felt—because of the lessons of the Falkland War and also UKs futuristic visions of national security—for further reforms. The process was set in motion in 1985 under the dynamic direction of then Defence Minister, Michael Heseltine. With that a truly integrated apparatus came into being.

In the new system the CDS and the Permanent Under Secretary (PUS) have become the principal advisors to the Secretary of State. Neither of these is subordinate to the other. With the presence of the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS), yet another PSU, Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief of Defence Procurement, the Service Chiefs have only a limited role to play in policy formulation. Even so, they have been allowed the privilege of direct access to the Prime Minister. That apart, the level of integration can be gauged from this simple example: "The Director of International Organisations, an Army Brigader, reports to a civilian Under Secretary, who in turn reports to a civilian Deputy Secretary, who answers to the 4-star military VCDS".9 Viewed in its totality what has changed is "The recognition that defence is a coherent activity, which must increasingly be managed on a tri-Service basis. Much development has been focussed on the central machinery (emphasis added) for achieving this through the concentration of policy making in the MOD Headquarters, with military and civilian staff working in integrated hierarchies".10

The aforesaid example is noteworthy not so much for the model it provides but for the range of perception, and the political will, displayed by successive British governments in initiating and implementing the changes necessitated by notable happenings—national security perspectives, financial compulsion, advent of technology, lessons of military ventures et al. With that summative observation it is time to return to the point of digression and to the Indian system.

Presently a semblance of tri-service integration, and of a holistic advice to the government on macro issues of matters military, is being maintained through the arrangement of COSC. The very basis and the functioning of the system has some serious lacunae. First, the longest serving Chief of Staff in office becomes the Chairman of the Committee. The system thus ensures rotation of Chairmanship amongst the three Services. However, the Chairman continues to head his own Service. At the best of times therefore, the loyalties of the one in the chair do get divided. Second, a Service Chief gets a maximum possible stint of three years in office. The better portion of its passes by before one becomes "the longest serving Chief" and therefore the Chairman COSC. Thus, it is usual for a chairman to get a tenure of about an year or so. As can be well appreciated this is too short a period to allow any meaningful formulation, initiation and direction of any long term policy. In any case the Committee is not supported by any joint staff to sustain such endeavours. Third, the Chairmanship does not really bestow any elevated status on the incumbent. Therefore, "Within the Committees, and its web of sub committees, the quality of coordination is greatly dependent on the personality equation".11 Surely that is not the best way to work a system. Fourth, following from the last observation to retain a functional harmony within the COSC hard decisions are possibly avoided and compromises often resorted to. Lastly, and most importantly COSC continues to remain an entity outside the government. Not surprisingly therefore it has achieved or contributed little over the years. Inter service integration and coordination at all levels of formations below the Service Headquarters is even more unsatisfactory.

The Future

As an emerging power, nuclear India is also in the midst of eventful happenings all of which demand speedy transformation, infact overhaul, of our antiquated system of higher defence management. Some efforts in this direction have already been in the offing in the recent past. National Security Council (NSC) for example was set up in August 1990. Admittedly it never got into its stride and remained dormant for a few years. However, it was revived towards end 1998 and has been in the news in the recent months. Similarly, whereas the government must be credited for subjecting the ongoing system to introspection through the Estimates Committee, it must also be faulted for consigning it to the archives. The post-Kargil scenario has witnessed some inclination to integrate Service Headquarters with the MOD. The Defence Ministers announcement to "implement it within a month" has remained a distant dream even after a year and a half. Thus, whereas there is much concern in evidence, nothing much has evidently happened. Yet, it is in the overall context of the measures already afoot that the proposal for a CDS is relevant. A debate on this issue has ebbed and flowed before inconclusively. Merits of the proposal, together with reflection on some of the related facets follow in the succeeding paragraphs.

Ongoing trends of conflict resolution clearly indicate the changing nature of war making. Real time intelligence, seamless communications, accuracy and lethality of weapon systems, and increasingly automated battlefield demand that progressively the three Services need to be structured, trained, equipped and brought to bear in an integrated manner. There is commonality and overlap in many of the tri service arenas—surveillance devices, air space management, air defence, missile systems and so on. Technological advancements will only increase the linkages and secure the couplings further. Then there are the nuclear issues; the process of transition from successfully conducting nuclear tests to acquiring deterrence capabilities is a complicated one. An important aspect there would be to ensure intricate yet unmistakable interface between deterrence and conventional combat capabilities.

In short, the complexities demand well deliberated judgements and a single point military advice to the government on the full range of issues of higher defence management and higher direction of war—the grand strategy, desired military capabilities, force structuring, modernisation plans, technological upgradations, defence spending and so on. The necessity of a CDS and urgency thereof cannot be over emphasised. The CDS heading the COSC, with a status above the Service Chiefs, must be expected to examine issues in the overall perspective, consider options, identify inter-se priorities, present the case and the military advice to the government and thus participate in the decision-making.

Since the CDS would in fact be representing the three Chiefs it would be to his advantage to aim at general consensus. When such a situation is not obtainable he would do well to highlight the point(s) of dissent and proceed to place before the government his own objective assessments for a decision. At no stage must the office of the CDS ever venture to present the case before the public or the media. That must remain the prerogative of the Defence Minister or his spokesman.

As far as the jointmanship and coordination within the Services is concerned the charter of the CDS could gainfully focus on the doctrinal precepts to deter or wage a war, evolution of synergised operational plans, refinements in joint training, and enmeshing the tri service logistic support system for both war and peace. The coming into being of the CDS is sure to strengthen professional bonds of trust amongst the Services, reduce inter service rivalry, knit them better logistically and thus bring them closer together.

An important point of clarification regarding the division of responsibility between the CDS and the Service Chiefs is necessary here. The office of the CDS must have a policy orientation and should apply itself to the planning and advisory roles. The Chiefs should be responsible to keep their Services war worthy and must retain a distinct command and executive bias. It may be interesting to note that even in UK "The optimum balance between policy and management had not been resolved satisfactorily".12 Therefore, the span of control, and the degree of centralisation with the CDS, would require careful balancing to confer power and prestige to the CDS without lowering the status and station of the Service Chiefs.

Some aspects regarding the appointment and the tenure of the CDS merit a mention. First, it would be unfortunate if the process of selection gets impaired by politics. It would be a loss to the government and to the armed forces. For its own credibility, and to ensure the strength of the system, the government would be well advised to keep the process apolitical. Second, while nominating the CDS, one with a spoken reputation of a vision, and a high standing amongst the three Services, should be preferred. Third, it goes without saying that the one selected should have headed, or be heading, his own Service with distinction. Fourth, whereas the CDS could be from any of the three Services, the appointment need not necessarily be in rotation. Lastly, to ensure a degree of continuity a fixed tenure of three years for a CDS is considered appropriate.

As far as the tri service staff and the secretariat support for the CDS is concerned the present assets of the Defence Planning Staff, Joint Secretary (Military), and the numerous committees of the COSC can be suitably reformed for the purpose. It is a mere matter of detail and is not being laboured upon.

Viewed in its totality, a CDS as a part of the MOD, makes good bureaucratic and managerial sense. Impulses generated by the post and the practice will surely influence professional orientation, enhance organisational efficiency and will ensure overall economy. Most of all, in consonance with the ongoing revolution in military affairs, it will keep the defence forces ready and relevant for the challenges ahead. Likewise, it will also meet the justified aspirations of the Services to share the center stage of the decision-making.

It is only fair to expect opposition to the proposal from different quarters and for a variety of reasons. Whereas most of the objections are unlikely to be weighty enough, there are the three well set attitudinal apprehensions that would need to be overcome. The first one emanates from the vastly different sizes of the three Services. The smaller two tend to be wary of the Army's possible predominance in the new scheme of things. There is no evidence to substantiate such fears and these must be put to rest for the common good. Then there will be the bureaucrats who will resist the change because of their own notions of "loss of importance". Surely the point needs no further amplification. Lastly, there are bound to be political reservations due to unfounded apprehensions of some of the elected members, of a CDS with much authority vested in him, unconstitutionally misusing his powers. All such thoughts must be set aside since the ground rules for the politico-military balance have been well established over the last five decades. Surely no further proof is required to establish the apolitical nature of the Indian armed forces. There are no Cromwells or Napoleans lurking in the wings to grab power. Thus on all three counts there are no valid reasons for misgivings. A firm policy decision by the government of the day will be sufficient to prevail upon these psychological reservations.


It must be stated in conclusion that the armed forces have risen to the national emergencies without fail. They have won wars, have kept the insurgency at bay and have unflinchingly lived upto their motto of "Service Before Self". In the process they have seemingly been taken for granted for long—for example defence forces are at least ten years behind their modernisation plans. However, "It is at the higher levels of political, civil and military interaction that deficiencies are excruciatingly evident".13

Corrective measures have been overdue and would require large-scale structural changes. Proposal for a CDS must be viewed in its totality—an active NSC, restructured MOD and the like. The new defence apparatus must have clearly identified roles and accountability for the political leadership, the armed forces, and the bureaucracy. Further, the creation of the CDS must be followed up by the next logical step to create Joint Theatre Commands—serious debate on the subject has not even started. Then there is also the aspect of India's nuclear force structure and the Strategic Command that must come into existence. The entire process needs to be hastened up.

Current defence efforts involve well over a million officers and men, a budget of around 3 per cent of the gross domestic product and a wide ranging play of defence forces in guarding and building the nation. Therein, the CDS has an important and a well-defined role to play. What is needed are not mere public statements but a sense of urgency and an assertive sincerity of purpose on the part of the government to set the entire process in motion. History will judge us harshly if we were to be found dragging our feet on this count.


1. Bright J (ed), The Speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru (Lahore: India Printing Works, 1946), p. 142.

2. Malhotra, I, "Defence Debate Paradox: Confidence and Apathy Co-exists" The Times of India, April 7, 1983.

3. Oxford University Press 1994.

4. Nineteenth Report—Estimates Committee (1992-93), p (v).

5. Ibid, p. 48.

6. Ibid, p. p. 52-54.

7. Ibid, p. 9.

8. General Sir William Jackson, Field Marshal Lord Bramal, The Chiefs, [Brasseys (UK) 1992], p. 442.

9. Indian Defence Review, July-September 1995, Editors Choice, UK's Defence Reorganisation, p. 99.

10. Website MOD, UK <http//www.mod.uk/aboutmod/org.>

11. Chari, P R, "Reforming The Ministry of Defence", Indian Defence Review, January 1991, p. 47.

12. General Sir Jackson, See n. 8, p. 443.

13. Admiral VS Shekhawat, "Restructuring of Defence Forces Including the Ministry of Defence", USI Journal, (July-September 1999), p. 326.