CDS: From Infighting to Warfighting; From Integration to Jointness

Editor’s Note

Immediately after the Prime Minister had announced the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff in 2019, we at had published three articles by RAdm Sudarshan Shrikhande (Retd) looking ahead at what shape the higher defence reform process could take. Nearly two years down the line, these thoughts remain relevant and provide food for thought. Here’s the first of the three-part series we are reposting.


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

Image Courtesy: SP’s Aviation

CDS: From Infighting to Warfighting; From Integration to 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 avatar of 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:

CDS and the COSC

Image Courtesy: The Indian Express

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:

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….”

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:


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:

Rear Admiral Sudarshan Y Shrikhande (Retd)

This article first appeared on 20 August, 2019, at

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