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Higher Defence Reforms in India: Review of Recent Developments

While the debate is revolving around the nomination of Chief of Defence Staff, other weighty issues such as theater command, structural placement of DMA and a joint track for professional progression of armed forces are equally important. Transparency and discussion may bring about integration an operational necessity of the hour. Here is a brief look at recent developments in higher defence reforms in India.

Defence reforms in India have moved by fits and starts either after the shock of a setback or on being surprised by the opponent – 1962 China and 1999 Kargil intrusions are a salient example. This is however not unique to the Indian system transformation in any field in many ways is a post failure response to a crisis.

At other times transformation takes place through the vision and strength of personalities or collective sense of need to review the war fighting structures and doctrines such as the Ditch Cum Bund in the plains sector and the mechanization of armed forces undertaken by Generals V K Krishna Rao and Sundarji respectively.

The need of the hour is integration of armed forces – the army, navy and the air force amongst others. The most recent war in Ukraine highlighted the necessity for integration which was seen as a major factor in the delays experienced by the Russian forces to achieve their objective. The Russians replaced integration with mass and could afford the same given the vast inventory of arms and munitions of their military industrial complex.

Indian Armed Forces on the other hand are equipped to fight a war for a period from 10 to 30 days based on the intensity, the actual equipping is based on a 10 days Intense conflict. Under the circumstances efficiency through integration is essential to meet a two front threat – China and Pakistan.

Some of the organsational reforms for integration are promoting joint service organization, theaterisation or integrated theatre commands and appointment of a joint commander to head the same – a Chief of Defence Staff.

Brief Look at Military Integration

Higher defence reforms were taken up earnestly post a review of the Kargil intrusion by Pakistan in 1999 and comprehensive directions by a Group of Ministers led to establishment of the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff vide Government of India, Ministry of Defence letter number MoD/IC/1027/32/IDS/5843/2001 dated 23 November 2001.

The aim was to give an impetus to jointness in the services.

The first integrated theatre command the Andaman and Nicobar Command was established the same year. The Strategic Forces Command has evolved on a some what different track.

However, despite these developments, jointness in the services remains to be institutionalized. This is evident from the fact that in the last two decades or so, the ANC has had sixteen commanders as top leaders in the armed forces saw it as a stop gap before they went on to take an in service C in C. Thus rotation before completion of a two year tenure which is essential for a C in C was the norm.

Quite evidently even at the highest echelons of command, attachment to the parent service remained primary which was possibly a function of loyalty to the organization borne out of long years of service.

Joint command continued to remain a second choice.

Top Down Approach

To bring the services command at par and create a sense of jointness integrating the 17 service specific commands into theatre commands was an operational necessity.

However, this was never seriously examined even though tomes were written and many discussions held by defence analysts, services think tanks and the rest.

One hindrance possibly was there was no direction from the top either political or military.

Examination of higher defence reforms in other armed forces shows that this has been a top down process.

For instance, in the United States the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 gave an impetus to jointness by empowering U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) over the Joint Chiefs as a whole, making combatant or theatre commands responsible for military operations and “created a joint career track and a requirement that an officer serve in a joint billet before promotion to general or flag rank”.

In China for instance President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping introduced integration and theaterisation in 2013 in a top down process of reforms.

Chairman Chiefs of Staff

In India the system till 2020 was individual services command with Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee or COSC being the principal adviser to the government. Chairman COSC was the services chief who was the senior most in protocol seniority and but for the ceremonial cane that was handed down, had very limited powers as the Chiefs of the services wielded the real clout.

While weighty recommendations were made for the need for nomination of Chief of Defence Staff, despite a number of deliberations including Committees such as the Naresh Chandra [which recommended a permanent Chairman COSC] actualization came about in 2020 with nomination of General Bipin Rawat who took up the august post on January 01 of that year. Along with the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) the government also created a Department of Military Affairs headed by the CDS who now wore two hats.

Possibly the aim was to introduce reforms in a gradual manner and General Rawat took upon himself the onerous task in the next step of creation of theatre commands.

CDS Succession Planning

Discussions were initiated with some rough encounters particularly with reference to creation of the Air Defence Command, a Maritime Peninsular Command, a Northern Command exclusively for the Army, an Eastern and Western Command amongst other such proposals.

The untimely demise of General Rawat on December 08, 2021in a helicopter accident has been a major setback to this process as it is now revealed that there was no fallback option that was created along with nomination of the CDS.

While the process of succession of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force Chief has been streamlined over the years, , who will succeed General Rawat as the CDS is an enigma that has been debated and discussed with multiple speculations over the last six months.

While creating the appointment of CDS norms for succession and planning should have been put into place but it appears that these were not formalized.

Criteria for Nomination of CDS

The Government has amended the respective Services Act providing for eligibility of three star officers of the Army, Navy and the Air Force eligible for the post of the CDS.

“The Central Government may, if considered necessary, in the public interest, so to do, appoint as Chief of Defence Staff, an officer who is serving as Air Marshal or Air Chief Marshal or an officer who has retired in the rank of Air Marshal or Air Chief Marshal but has not attained the age of 62 years on the date of his appointment,” the notification issued under the Air Force Act 1950 with similar wordings for the Army and the Navy appropriately changing the nomenclature of the ranks has been published in the Gazette. The Chief of Defence Staff can serve up to 65 years.

By inclusion of a retired three star officer, the Gazette has once again led to much speculation that the criteria for selection is tailor made to suit a general officer who is a strong contender for the post.

Here it would be not out of place to note that the late General Bipin Rawat was also considered to be favoured by the government of the day and had been nominated as the Army Chief superseding two theatre commanders in chief.

This is not in any way to suggest that he was not suitable for the post but only highlighting that the process could be tweaked at the will of the powers.

CDS Selection Criteria – Review

The gazette notification for selection of the CDS no doubt widens the pool of professional talent at the highest level including retired officers.

Why retired officers have to be brought in is a moot question? Is the existing talent in the higher command of the services C in C’s inadequate or an exceptional commander who has retired is available is not clear. Only time will tell once a nomination is made.

In case a retired officer is selected, he may be seen as a defence adviser to the government on the lines of the National Security Adviser (NSA) who has been generally a retired foreign or civil/police services officer and is a political appointee with the status of a Minister of State.

Will this circumscribe the role of the CDS in some ways and leave the command of the services to the three chiefs, what are the contours of theaterisation and how will operational command devolve thereafter remains to be seen?

Another facet is the control of the Department of Military Affairs, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Defence that is the Defence Secretary.

The CDS in precedence is senior to the Defence Secretary. So will this anomaly continue or the DMA will be divested from the CDS is another question that needs debated.


While the government may take time in nomination of the CDS, there is a requirement for structuring the entire process of appointment, role and functions including the DMA, theater commands and jointness through a public debate in a transparent manner for modernization of the Indian armed forces high command. So how this course is taken forward remains to be seen?

An important criteria set for an officer of the US armed forces career progression by the Goldwater Nichols Act 1986 was service in a joint organization. In fact enforcement of this criteria is very stringent and exception can only be given by the US Congress.

There is no such provision in the Indian armed forces, thus in the present hierarchy of C in Cs there is limited exposure if any to a joint organization.

Emotional affiliation through long years in the “purple,” at various points in the career path may be seen as a moot point but is essential as the United States armed forces emphasizes.

Promoting jointness through an executive or a parliamentary act is as important as nomination of the CDS.


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