CDS: From Infighting to Warfighting; From Integration to Jointness

Editor’s Note

With the announcement by the Prime Minister during his Independence Day Speech, it’s apparently a done deal. India will have a Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). Whoever he might be, he would perhaps take office in the not-too-distant future. Quite a bit has been said and written in the past few days about the tortured, meandering path, as well as the imperative need for a CDS. This article looks at some possible implementation steps and the journey to the eventual purpose that Defence Integration and Joint War Fighting ought to achieve. 

This first appeared on "" on 20 Aug 2019.


Selection Options for CDS

The government could consider either of the two options. First, to appoint one of the current Service Chiefs as the CDS. Thus, the first CDS would be one of three; the next would be one of the other two incumbents of the other two services; in the third and following iterations, there would really be no selection. If a two-year tenure for a CDS is envisaged (as was the suggestion for a Permanent Chairman of the COSC- Chiefs of Staff Committee), then it’s possible that a Service Chief would be plucked from his office in a few months and appointed CDS for a rather short two years tenure. Sometimes, this would happen even if a three- year tour of duty is mandated. Overall, this may not be an effective approach and would be similar to the revolving door system that Indian jointly- tenable senior billets have had for decades. At the highest level of CDS, the negatives of a metronomic, automatic rotation accompanied by almost no selection process, would matter even more. 

The second option is to broad-base the selection pool by choosing one of the twenty or so CINC (commander-in-chief)/equivalent officers. Even if this is to be by rotation of services, selections would be possible for the best possible CDS candidate from at least five very senior officers at the minimum. Once he is promoted to a four-star ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) as CDS, he could be given a full three- year tenure. 

There would be, quite naturally, arguments and preferences for one or the other within the armed forces. It would be argued that the US selects its Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) from one of the four –stars. That is true, but as mandated in the Goldwater-Nichols Act (GNA), 1986, this is from a pool of more than 20 of the 40-plus four-stars to choose from. Furthermore, the President may well select someone who may not meet the stipulations of the GNA if he so deems fit (Article 152 of the Act). In Australia, the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) is chosen from among the three service chiefs and the VCDF, but they are all three stars and the CDF is the only four-star officer in Australia. They no longer follow a foretold sequence of service-wise rotation. 

In our case, selecting from the larger pool might be the better and more effective recourse in the long-term. Someday, if there is a government decision to have joint theatre CINCs as four-star officers, they could form the pool from which to select. 

Rank, Protocol, Equivalence

In our warrant of precedence and protocol- conscious social and official structures, the positioning of the CDS vis-à-vis the other members of the COSC, and with key senior bureaucrats like the Cabinet and Defence Secretary, unfortunately, remains an issue to be addressed. Some “cultural” changes that seek to loosen the bolts of hierarchy and the functionally less relevant aspects of precedence, protocol and seniority have been made by the NDA government in its previous term across entrenched verticals. In due course, one hopes we become a culture where what one accomplishes is invariably seen as more important than where one sits or stands or chairs a meeting. In the interim, three factors may be considered: 

Firstly, that there would be no earth-shaking harm if the CDS has an equivalent protocol with the Cabinet Secretary. Like in Australia and the UK, the CDF/CDS also form a very workable, functional “diarchy” with their defence secretary/permanent under-secretary. The institution of the cabinet secretary, as it evolved in Britain and elsewhere in the Commonwealth is a very important one. This is the second factor, below. 

Therefore, the second factor: The original motivation for a Cabinet Secretary in the UK may be a useful one to recall. An officer from the Royal Marines, Lt Col Maurice Hankey was the Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence from 1912 and in 1916 was made the first Cabinet Secretary in David Lloyd George’s War Cabinet. Thus, the genesis of the position itself was in the need to wage war more effectively. In fact, Hankey remained in that position until 1935 just as new war clouds were forming over Europe. His successor, Edward Bridges, retained several Prime Ministers’ trust in the important chair through WW II until 1946. Bridges had also served in the Army in WW I. 

The third factor is that this government has perhaps recognized the vital roles that a more effective arrangement of a “diarchy” in which the CDS, Chiefs and the Cabinet and Defence Secretaries work in cooperation and consonance to strengthen deterrence and war-fighting capabilities. All it would take is for continued maturity from all sides, putting the national interest first and casting turf sensitivities aside. Should the old model of “divide and try to rule” yield to “unite and get on with governance” in general and with specific reference to a happy and taut diarchy? The government does seem to think so.

Five-Star CDS Not Workable

In the same breath, thinking of a five-star rank for a CDS is not a good idea for at least three reasons. First, the rank does not exist functionally anywhere in the world and in terms of military diplomacy and interaction, it could even be a disadvantage. Second, it would ultimately be an ineffective way because it would try and leverage protocol for better functionality. In reality, it does not work that way. Third, there is a possibility that within the armed forces a five-Star CDF may remain trapped in the web of parades and protocol while in effect and not much would change in terms of preparing for the future of warfare that the Prime Minister spoke about.  

Integration and Jointness

It might be useful to make some distinctions between integration and jointness. Integration should be seen primarily as an input that has its main focus in New Delhi in terms of the “wiring diagrams” of HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), the Service HQs (SHQs) and the current avatarof the MoD (Ministry of Defence). Besides, integration would be required with other Ministries, Cabinet Secretariat, other agencies and organizations in the field of intelligence gathering, analysis and of course in the overall space and cyber domains. This could be a relatively slow, deliberate and very carefully thought out process. 

In the process of integration, existing expertise, output, speed of work and economy in resources must be kept in mind while ensuring that core functional autonomy, firewalls for security (amidst increasing cyber threats) are maintained and needless crossed-wires minimized. In either case, the change should be underlined by a dynamism to alter course to overcome hitches.

Jointness should be primarily seen as an output, not input. For too long we have tried out increasing amounts of jointness at the input end in terms of military education and training. This is important but by itself, not enough. For instance, if joint training at the earliest stage were effective, then the National Defence Academy should have become a very effective catalyst for jointness. After all, beginning in the mid-1980s, a great majority of starred- billets were occupied by ex-NDA officers. From the early 1990s, almost all Chiefs of Service have been ex-NDA as have been many most CINCs due to advantage in the age factor. None of this has translated into effective jointness in a military sense. The social camaraderie, “Academy spirit” and so on are of factually little relevance. 

For several decades now, we have had a Defence Services Staff College, College of Defence Management, National Defence College, joint capsules in war colleges and several other shorter courses. It can be said that no other major armed forces have had as much of joint training and education as an input at all stages of an officer’s career than the Indian Armed Forces.

It can also be said, regrettably, that we simply have not demonstrated sustained joint output and potential for future needs of jointness to the extent that several nations, bigger or smaller seem to have. Yet, one frequently hears of suggestions for even more joint training and input in the classroom whether within the syllabus in NDA or combining all three war colleges in one, etc. 

There is little evidence that officers from institutions other than NDA are any less able to be joint. (This writer is ex-NDA!). There is also a great need for enhancing single-service competence at the early stages of an officer’s education. Single-service academies are still prevalent in most countries. The Indian Navy was right in setting up a separate academy, Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala towards its future needs and while NDA continues to be a feeder, its proportionate numbers are small. 

A Road Map?

From some reports and views in the media, one supposes that a step-by-step approach is envisaged from appointing a CDS, and then crafting the road-map for integration followed by jointness as a war-fighting output mechanism. The main cautions to be observed in doing this are perhaps along these lines:

  • While leaps towards full integration and joint theaterisation are not advisable, very small incremental steps may encourage all stakeholders—not the least, the Services themselves—to put spokes and dampeners in execution. This helps in reiterating the “merits” of the status quo and the “why fix it- if- it-ain’t-broke” positions. The lack of interest SHQs showed in the ANC (the Andaman and Nicobar Command, India’s first tri-services command), once it was raised, is a good example.

  • “Theatre Commands (TCs) are not required in our context” is a bogey we have had enough of. What is so special about our context that doesn’t require integration as an input and jointness as an output? The principles are the same even when modalities may be adapted to our situations.

  • “We do not have adequate resources” for TCs also should be put to rest. The “context and resources” argument is mainly voiced by the IAF (mostly veterans). In response, one could say that:


    • There never would be adequate resources for assigning separately to each command. That would be wasteful, expensive and is done, nowhere. For instance, much of CENTCOM (US Central Command) forces are on attachment from mainland US, EUCOM (US European Command) and PACOM (US Indo-Pacific Command). It has been that way since 1991. If required they would be reassigned to a new hot-spot.

    • The IAF has a valid point about the indivisibility of airpower, but only up to a point. For administrative, maintenance training and operational purposes, it has its own de facto TCs. The geographic CINCs and the Air HQs play a complimentary, cooperative and cohesive role in combat. They would continue to do so under some changed frameworks. Under the new labelling and framework, the criticality of airpower would be as central as before and perhaps increasingly so.

    • The Army informally voices concern about not having forces “under command”. This usually means they want all forces sort of permanently assigned to them. Ostensibly, this is for more cohesion, inter-personal relationships and training. These are not serious drawbacks for the TCs with rapid assignment and reassignment of forces working on SOPs, common operational and tactical planning as well as joint execution. The reality often amounts to the reporting channel which is conflated with the chain of command.

    • The Navy’s apprehensions are more subtle. It tends to over-emphasise the angle of autonomy, distant operations and perhaps an over-interpretation of an idea of maritime conflicts instead of conflicts with maritime dimensions.

  • The “Civ” part of the “Civ-Mil” relationship (Civil–Military relations) in India is unique because of the overweening influence and authority of a generalist bureaucracy. There is merit to this argument, but again not as much as is voiced. Consider these aspects:


    • A strong, often young, civilian bureaucracy exists in most ministries/departments of defence in democracies. Ours may be more pervasive, protocol and turf conscious than others, but this also has to be compared with the oft-unrecognized bureaucracy that the uniformed services create not only in SHQs but downstream as well. In some totalitarian systems, the party bureaucracy co-exists at all levels. Some “apparatchiks” maybe without personal military experience but have considerable influence anyway. So, in its ways, most systems have their challenges of the Pol+Civ-Mil interfaces.

    • Integration could create a working relationship that is better underlined by mutual awareness and the inter-relationship of the “ends-ways-means” that has to be dynamically considered. One thinks that with integration, the adversarial under-tones to the current arrangements under the existing Transaction/Allocation of Business Rules would abate. Of course, portions of these rules also need to be re-written. The focus of integration should be at the Joint Secretary (JS) levels who are the pivots in Ministries. Since the sinews of national strategy comprise Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic (DIME) instruments, it would be very beneficial to have cross-postings of another JS from the MEA in MoD and of a uniformed two-star in the MEA.

    • It can be assumed that a fair amount of work has already been done by HQIDS and SHQs on possible contours of what has been called the Integrated Theatre Commands (ITC). Since these commands, like the current geographic commands of the single- services, would be in the warfighting business, it would be logically more accurate to call them Joint Theatre Commands (JTC) rather than ITC. As explained earlier, this is more than a semantic distinction. The government might think of a small transition and implementation advisory committee of a few individuals who could dispassionately advise HQIDS/ SHQs/ MoD and the DPC (Defence Planning Committee).


CDS and the COSC

The CDS would be the Principal Military Adviser (PMA). However, the roles of the Service Chiefs as advisers remain necessary and vital. In the US system, dichotomies existed from WWII arrangements and were most clearly articulated in the GNA 1986. In India, the term “single-point military adviser” (SPMA) is quite prevalent and is reflected in the GoM Report (Group of Ministers) itself that recommended the creation of CDS. It also mentions the CDS as the PMA and first among equals elsewhere. 

Essentially, for all vital security matters, any government would solicit collective views of the COSC which would be discussed with the CDS more as the PMA rather than any notion of him as SPMA. The US GNA rightly emphasises the role of the other members of the JCS and the benefits of even contrary views that are formally conveyed. The idea of a CDS as “first among equals” deserves serious consideration and respect for the other “equals.” On the subject of the GNA, some observations below may be of interest because some misconceptions about it persist: 

·      The immediate trigger for the US GNA ironically came not from politicians’ push to reform the system, but surprisingly from the CJCS (US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). In February 1982, General David Jones, USAF (US Air Force) and the then CJCS opened his testimony before the HASC (US House Committee on Armed Services, commonly known as the House Armed Services Committee), with honesty rarely seen at that level, by saying, “It is not sufficient to have resources, dollars, and weapon systems; we must also have an organization which allows us to develop the proper strategy, necessary planning, and the full warfighting capability. We do not have an adequate organizational structure today.” (The last sentence is what Locher calls the famous nine words!)

·      Unlike the oft-held impression, the very purpose of the GNA was not to make the CJCS more powerful but to reiterate civilian supremacy and improve the quality of military advice that went beyond inter-service squabbling and was often merely a consensus on the least common denominator, quite literally like the Common Minimum Programme of coalition politics! The very  first sentence of the 88 pages that make the GNA is explicit on this:

An Act to reorganize the DOD and strengthen civilian authority in the DOD, to improve military advice to the President, NSC, Secy of Defense, to place clear responsibility on the commanders of the unified and specified combatant commands to accomplish the specified missions….” 

·      Another way of putting it that the purpose was not to make the CJCS more powerful but more effective and this should be the fundamental attitude and the principal motivation of all during the next few years as the Indian defence establishment reorganizes itself. The PM’s speech is explicit about this.

Transition of CDS as CDF

Eventually, the CDS and his HQs, with the active lateral frameworks linked to SHQs and of course the JTCs, should be in primary charge of the application of national military force in its multiple dimensions. This process could be completed during the tenure of the second CDS in say, a six-year span that allows for reduced interim disruption in case of a sudden conflict and the orchestrated settling- in of the various JTCs and functional commands. Thus, while we could continue to call him the CDS as in the UK, he would be the CDF (Chief of Defence Force) as in Australia and the UK and different from the CJCS in the US. It is quite significant that the ADF is the “Australian Defence Force” and not “Forces.” This is in line with the important thought that there are “three services but one force” as they put it. Semantics aside, this transition would have some benefits:

·      The Service Chiefs would transit to the primary, but equally vital roles of “Raise/Train/Sustain” and shed a large part of their operational roles in conflict to HQIDS/ JTCs.

·      All the above functions of the SHQs would benefit from the central strategy planning process for overall military strategies in terms of force planning and force-building processes. Among other things, this would help true indigenization and self- reliance without which India cannot be a great power.

·      An important consequence of integration and jointness could be—rather must be—the rise in effectiveness accompanied by the reduction of personnel strength. 

·      Once the CDS begins slipping into the driver’s seat for operations along and beyond our borders, the quality of joint exercises is bound to improve in a way that better utilizes existing resources and charts the way for harnessing new resources in terms of “people, ideas, things/hardware” as John Boyd put it. 

·      HQIDS’ involvement in scheduling, planning and learning to execute major exercises could begin in the near term so that the contours of the JTCs could be envisaged more clearly.


There are hopes and confidence that all elements of the Pol-Civ-Mil senior leadership will ensure that this major first step and the even more vital follow-on steps take India on the path to a much greater level of war fighting effectiveness across the spectrum of warfare. The PM’s speech clearly points out that the changing global security environment, the changing character of warfare and the need for all three services to march in step requires a CDS to be the catalyst of the reforms that are required. Therefore, one could leave the reader with three thoughts:

·      In his book, Victory on the Potomac: The Goldwater-Nichols Act Unifies the Pentagon,  James Locher writes in words that could not have said it better, instead of “Duty, Honor, Country…I was hearing something different. It sounded like “Turf, Power, Service.” 

·      In a paper this writer wrote 15 years ago on the lessons for the civil-military relationship that could be learnt from the President Truman-General MacArthur rift during the 1950-53 Korean War, leading to the latter’s dismissal, a sentence may be relevant here. “The lesson I may want to learn is that a strong, quietly opinionated JCS is the crucial interface between civilian leadership and the CINCs. Secondly, an emasculated JCS may provide a psychological edge to civilian egos, but is a wartime disadvantage as other wars show. The civil-military combined team must win wars and not internal arguments. The PM’s words about a CDS providing impactful leadership at the apex levels to all three Services are quite clear and reflective of the benefits that a strengthened COSC would bring to our security framework.

·      Finally, isn’t it time to actualize what the tentative title of a monograph this writer is working on conveys: “From Symbolism to Substance; From Infighting to Warfighting; From Integration to Jointness?” 

Rear Admiral Sudarshan Y Shrikhande (Retd)

Image Credit: PTI