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  • Yagnesh Sharma

60 Years in the Making: India's First Chief of Defence Staff


The Indian armed forces have been held in high regard across the world for their sheer grit and determination. The one noticeable thing in all of India’s armed conflicts has been the individualistic approach of each force. The three forces are engaged in different conflict zones and have different operational ideologies. This submission presents the necessity of the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff and the operational improvements that the post would entail. The submission also explores the history of the post of Chief of Defence Staff, the issues with the creation of the post. It also looks to the changes in Indian national security policy that could occur via comparison with global powers like France, UK and USA.

Keywords: CDS, defence, command, global, military.


The announcement from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi by the Prime Minister on Independence Day of the creation of a post called the Chief of Defence Staff(CDS) seemed to come as a surprise. However, while being an imperative introduction in the Indian armed forces, this conversation is at least two decades old.

The position of the CDS is not a new introduction into the Indian context, let alone the global context. The majority of countries with a well-equipped army, air force and navy have long established a position of an overall chief of its armed forces. The global powers were quick to establish an overall head of the armed forces, with the experience of uncoordinated attacks and resultant disasters. For instance, when the British navy and army were unaware of each other’s plans during the attack at Gallipoli in the First World War[i], the necessity of a joint command for the three forces was highlighted.

Even with the announcement of the post by the Prime Minister, there are multiple questions that are left to be answered. Will the CDS be the overall commander of the armed forces or just the first among equals? Will the CDS be the permanent chairman of the Chief of Staff Committee? What changes will this appointment herald in Indian national security policy?

History of the Post

The need for a joint commander of all the armed forces was realized all the way back in 1962 during the Sino-Indian war[ii]. The level of miscommunication between the executive and the military was horrendous. The approach of the executive was complacent and the military barely had any orders to follow from the top. The Army was working on inferences from orders given by lower ranked officers from the Ministry of Defence.

Even after the loss suffered in 1962, the government failed to realize the need of uniformity and coordination in the decisions between the military and the government. The idea was again floated in the aftermath of the 1971 war, where for the first time all three wings of the armed forces were heavily involved in combat. However, there arose the question of erosion of power. This question was posited by the Air Force Chief Pratap Chandra Lal who stopped any further work on the idea by threatening to resign as the Air Force chief[iii].

The most important phase, however, for the post of the CDS was with the end of the Kargil War. The Kargil Review Committee and the Group of Ministers recommended various norms to answer the intelligence problem that led to the conflict and suggested the creation of the post. Most recently, a high level committee under Lieutenant General D. B. Shekatkar Committee in 2016 also came up with the recommendation of the appointment of a CDS[iv].

Early last year, in a first across-the-board consensus, the three services agreed to appoint a permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC). The chiefs’ sent a proposal requesting a fourth four star officer to be appointed as the chairman of the CoSC to the Prime Minister. The CDS, which Modi opted to announce instead, is a massive step-up from a permanent chairman[v].

Effect on National Security Mechanisms

The creation of the post of the CDS is merely a stepping stone in the unification of the three services of the armed forces.  Some recommendations from various committees were accepted, such as the integration of the Services Headquarters with Ministry of Defence and its christening as Integrated Headquarters. However, the operational reality remained unchanged with the civil bureaucracy still effectively in control. The most effective solution was the appointment of a CDS.

Multiple doubts remain in the minds of various commentators as to the creation of such a post. In 2001, when all the preparations were made to appoint a CDS, the government halted the process in order to consult the other parties and take a decision with an overall consensus. This effectively meant the end of the CDS appointment[vi].

The 2001 scenario can be attributed to the overall fear of the political parties that single leader of the armed forces could stage a coup and overthrow the government. However, this seems to be rather irrational as the practice in all other global powers appoints the CDS only as a supervisor of the services and a direct single military advisor to the relevant authorities. Furthermore, India has never seen an instance where the military was threatening to overpower the government and to bring up such claims now would be rather unfounded historically and logically.

Secondly, the civil supremacy will remain unfettered as the only role being played by the CDS is to coordinate the decisions of all three commands oversee the development of the forces. The authority over major decisions will still be with the government and its bureaucracy. Lastly, there have been fears of resentment from the air force and the navy with the idea of a CDS because they feel it would reduce their power. A simple answer is to maintain a rotation between the service from which the CDS would be appointed.

To examine the changes in the national security mechanisms, the examples of countries like France, USA and UK who have long adopted the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff.

The structure for there being three independent defence chiefs to take charge of all matters in their respective force was supposed to be temporary as created by Mountbatten. Mountbatten himself suggested the establishment of the post of CDS[vii], but has somehow continued till date. Global powers like UK, USA have long integrated their three commands and have had a supervisory officer. This has led to their capability of launching joint attacks even in distant corners of the world due to the closely-linked operational tactics and methods of all three forces.

In France and the UK, the CDS holds effective operational command oversees everything related to combat activities. He/she has several subdivisions working under him/her that look after training, acquisition and maintenance of the three forces.

The USA, however, only gives the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee the power to act as the transit point of all information between all chiefs and the President. The President does not instruct the Chairman as to all combat operations but the unified combat commanders themselves. This clear demarcation arises from the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the USA and India could benefit heavily from having a policy or Act itself clearly demarcating the power and role of the CDS. This will go on to quell the fears regarding supreme power with the CDS and overpowering of the civil by the CDS.

India currently operates seventeen single service commands over the country, and only one trilateral command at Andaman and Nicobar Islands which is being effectively run by the navy since 2015. The French and British models of command by the CDS would greatly help India, with these seventeen commands being reduce to three or four operational theatres where all the forces are unified in their respective theatres[viii].

Creation of additional commands, as has been done by these three countries to answer contemporary threats such as cyber warfare is also a necessity. Effective logistics divisions and training is also key to the three CDS in France, UK and USA.

The defence budget of India is unlikely to see a radical increase. In times of budget constraints, the appointment of a CDS is essential to have expedited training and cooperation between the joint commands. It also makes possible effective disposal of resources in the three services. An important part of the CDS’s duties could be the command of the Strategic Forces Command, responsible for the execution of nuclear missions. In India, all nuclear related decisions are taken by the Nuclear Command Authority, where the CDS would logically serve as an advisor.

In the USA, all nuclear decisions solely reside with the President, however, in France reports suggest that the CDS is also involved in the process. In UK, the CDS does not seem to be involved in the nuclear affairs of the state[ix]. However, the one common thing between the UK, USA and France that will most definitely be adopted would be the role of the CDS as the single point military advisor to the NSA, PM and any relevant authority or council.

The First Chief of Defence Staff

While rumours were afloat as to the responsibilities of the CDS, there was a possibility that the CDS would simply be made the commander of the Integrated Defence Staff. This would still benefit the services but might lead to drawbacks in terms of civil and military cohesion[x].

The government did come out with the overall responsibilities and powers of the Chief of Defence Staff. The government went on to appoint General Bipin Rawat the first CDS of India on his retirement as Chief of Army Staff on the 31st of December,2019[xi]. While there were multiple opinions as to what would be the powers of the CDS, the announcement by the government seems to be representative of an amalgamation of all such opinions.

The government has been very clear in defining the stature of the CDS. The CDS shall be a four star general, like all service chiefs, but will be treated as the first among equals. The CDS will be the military advisor to the government with regard to all tri-service matters (the service chiefs will continue advising the government for matters concerning specific services). The Defence Secretary will continue to be the defence advisor.

The announcement of the role of the CDS came with the announcement of the creation of a Department of Military Affairs with the Ministry of Defence. The secretary of this department would be the CDS. The Department of Military Affairs will include all three services, the Integrated Headquarters as well as the Indian Territorial Army. The CDS will not have military command over the three service chiefs to remain impartial and objective in advising the government. The CDS will, however, have the power to create theatre commands wherever deemed necessary.[xii]

Speculation arose as to the clash between the possible redundancy between the posts of CoSC and CDS. Among his various roles, General Rawat will also serve as the CoSC. He will have a seat in the Defence Acquisition Council and will function as military advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority. General Rawat will have the additional task of adding cohesion and compatibility in all three services. This is a task specifically laid out for the first CDS which is to be completed in his tenure of three years.


All in all, the creation of the post of the CDS has been long overdue in the Indian system. The probable fears regarding the post can be ignored due to its benefits and the lack of rationale behind such fears. The post will definitely lead to increased cohesion within the three forces. Unified theatres of command and increased efficiency in the operations of the armed forces will be a natural offshoot. It marks the ushering in of the era of military reforms that Indian armed forces have needed for the past 73 years.


[i] Christopher Klein, Winston Churchill’s World War Disaster, History (May 21,2014) accessed at

[ii] Varun Ramesh Balan, A History of the Demand for a Chief of Defence Staff, The Week (August 15,2019) accessed at

[iii] Lt. Gen.(Retd.) S.K. Sinha, The Chief of Defence Staff, Journal of Defence Studies 2007 Vol.1.

[iv] Abhijit Singh, The Chief of Defence Staff needs an enabling institutional structure, The Hindu (August 28, 2019) accessed at

[v] Sandeep Unnithan, Chief of Defence Staff: Can the new superchief call the shots?, India Today Magazine (September 2,2019) accessed at

[vi] Supra note at 5.

[vii] Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Harwant Singh, A CDS For The Armed Forces Must Come With Full Play, The Economic Times (August 20,2019) accessed at

[viii] Vijai Singh Rana, Enhancing Jointness in Indian Armed Forces: Case for Unified Commands, Journal of Defence Studies 2015 Vol.9.

[ix] Whose Finger Is on the Button? Nuclear Launch Authority in the United States and Other Nations, Union of Concerned Scientists ( September 22, 2017) accessed at

[x] Anit Mukherjee, Symbol Or Substance? Modi’s Decision To Appoint A Chief Of Defense Staff, War On The Rocks (November 27,2019) accessed at

[xi] Manjeet Singh Negi, Army chief General Bipin Rawat named India’s first Chief of Defence Staff , India Today (December 30, 2019) accessed at

[xii] Press Information Bureau, Cabinet approves creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff in the rank of four star General, Government of India (December 24,2019).

This blog is a part of RSRR Blog Series on National Security Laws. By Yagnesh Sharma, 2nd Year, Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai (MNLU).


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