If there is one thing that India’s armed forces have lacked since independence, it has been a single commander of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
When the British Empire ruled India, the post of Commander-in-Chief of India was last held by Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, with authority over all three services. He received the title of Supreme Commander for a brief period following Partition.
In 1947, the Government of India requested Lord Louis Mountbatten and his Chief of Staff, Lord Lionel Ismay, to formulate a system of higher defence management for independent India. Their suggestion was to create a Commander-in-Chief for each service, as well as a Chiefs of Staff Committee to coordinate with the centre.
After independence, this arrangement was discarded in favour of having chiefs of staff for each service, with the powers of the Supreme Commander given to the President of India. A wary civilian government placed the Service Headquarters (SHQs) as attached offices under the Ministry of Defence (MoD), ensuring decision-making remained under civilian control.
Following independence, each service was placed under its own Commander-in-Chief, with the title renamed in 1955 to Chief of the Army Staff, Chief of the Naval Staff and Chief of the Air Staff.
A series of panels and committees were set up to advise the government on higher military management, with the Chief of Staff Command (CoSC) amongst them. Incidentally, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa is the incumbent chairman of the CoSC and, along with Army Chief Bipin Rawat, a likely candidate for the post of CDS.
Till the 1960s, the Navy and Air Force were headed by three-star officers, though they were chiefs of staff. The army was headed by a four-star officer. This ensured the primacy of the army. Parity was brought about after the 1965 war with all three services getting four-star chiefs.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day announcement that the Armed Forces would soon have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is, therefore, a landmark shift in policy, answering decades of calls for a single commander of the armed forces.
A history of seeking “jointness”
The need for a unified command was made apparent following the 1962 war against China and the 1965 war with Pakistan. Writing in 1965, General P.S. Bhagat highlighted the lack of coordinated defence staff and the manner by which civilian leadership was developing military policies without consulting the military. Bhagat warned, “Whatever the circumstances, it should be clear that at no stage should political objectives be fixed which are beyond the military means of the country.”
Mountbatten, in a letter written to Lt. Gen. M.L. Chibber, recalls Jawaharlal Nehru as being in favour of appointing a CDS just prior to the 1962 war — with General Kondandera Subayya Thimayya as his preferred choice — but as being unable to appoint one due to opposition from his defence minister, Krishna Menon. Mountbatten recalls that Nehru had earlier opposed such a post because “it would give to the Indian politicians the idea of perpetuating the idea of the great ‘Commander in Chief in India’, of whom the last one, of course, was Field Marshal Auchinleck.”
Mountbatten states that he repeatedly urged Nehru to create a CDS prior to the war, and also, that he had appointed many Supreme Commanders under the title of “Unified Commanders-in-Chief” in the Near East, Middle East and Far East, all of which “went very well”.
The turning point came with the formation of Kargil Review Committee, which was formed after the Kargil War to review the events leading up to the war and offer recommendations for the future. The report, led by K. Subrahmanyam, highlighted several shortcomings that stemmed from a lack of coordination between services.
For example, as Stephen Cohen points out in his book Arming Without Aiming: India’s Military Modernisation, the use of air power, though instrumental in the Indian victory, was approved three weeks after intruders were first detected by shepherds on May 3.
Writing in Force in 2016, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis gave a detailed account of the decision-making process to involve the IAF in Kargil, saying that there was a “Total lack of army-air force joint staff work.” In his account, the Army requested helicopters that were not capable of flying at such altitudes or against enemy SAMs, while the Air Force was willing to provide fixed-wing air support but only with civilian government permission — for which, the request had to be made by the Army.
That year, a Group of Ministers (GoM) was formed, part of whose goal was to oversee the implementation of the Kargil Review Committee. They made far more wide-ranging recommendations, meeting 27 times and issuing a scathing critique of the military’s cohesiveness.
One of its foremost recommendations was to bring the SHQs into the government, as opposed to being “attached” offices under it. The next was to form a CDS to provide single-point military advice to the MoD, who would be a four-star officer drawn from the services on a rotating basis. The CDS would not be able to return to their service after finishing their term.
The Kargil Committee and GoM reports had wide-ranging impacts on Indian polity. As per its recommendations, a national security advisor (NSA) was appointed and an Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) was formed with a chief of IDS who would be part of the office of an eventual CDS. Additionally, in keeping with the recommendation to issue ID cards to Indian citizens in border areas, the Aadhar project was initiated.
The integration of service HQs with the MoD — a key recommendation of both the GoM and Kargil Committee report — was notionally undertaken in the early 2000s, but was limited in scope.
There were two missing links — one was the creation of the CDS (which is now being implemented), the other was the integration of the service commands into territorial commands or theatre commands.
At the same time, the Arun Singh headed Task Force discussed the many points of contention within the Armed Forces for having such a CDS. For one, the IAF feared that its assets were coveted by the other services, having already lost Maritime Reconnaissance to the Navy and Air Observation Posts (now Army Aviation Corps) to the Army. For this reason, the IAF’s position was to delineate the roles and mission of each Service before management structures could be changed. In addition, the civil services were against granting of autonomy to the Armed Forces, feeling that the current arrangement of having Attached Offices was sufficient. The Navy and Army offered support for “jointness”, in varying degrees, while the Strategic Forces Command (India’s nuclear command authority) initially opposed the idea.
The idea of the CDS remained on the back burner for ten years, until the Naresh Chandra Committee was appointed in 2011. This, too, echoed the recommendations of the earlier committees in calling for a permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staffs Committee.
Examples around the world
While there are fears that a unified CDS could be in a position to stage a coup, former Indian Army General S.K. Sinha says that of all the military leaders who have conducted coups around the world, none have had the position of a CDS. Sinha feels the position is better described as an “Inter-Service professional coordinator” with “individual service chiefs having the right of direct access to the head of the government.”
Examples of a CDS exist in many other countries: The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, the Chief Head of Defence (CHOD) position within NATO countries, and in India’s neighbourhood, the CDS in Sri Lanka and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee in Pakistan.
Canada experimented with a more unified CDS model in 1967, dissolving its armed services to merge them into the Canadian Armed Forces under the CDS. In 2011, their original names were restored but their unified status was preserved.