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Review the charter of CDS and DMA. Theatre command reform must not fail

In identifying areas of indigenisation, there is a need to strike the right balance between maintaining operational readiness and allowing time to promote indigenisation.

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Two years ago, India implemented its most significant reform in its higher defence organisational structure by appointing General Bipin Rawat as the first Chief of Defence Staff on 1 January 2020. His three-year tenure was sadly cut short by a tragic helicopter accident on 8 December 2021.

Gen Rawat’s legacy of his 23 months tenure has been to firmly implant the idea of transformation and integration of the armed forces in the psyche of the nation and the armed forces alike. It is imperative that despite the setback, the momentum of reforms is maintained, and the show goes on.

As we await the appointment of the next CDS, it would be appropriate to take stock of the current state of progress in each area of responsibility assigned to the CDS, viz. promoting jointness, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands; promoting indigenisation; formulating Integrated Capability Development Plan (ICDP); and reforming acquisition and budgetary process.

The most noticeable reform set into motion under the watch of the former CDS is the ongoing process of creating Integrated Theatre Commands, viz. Western, Eastern and Maritime and an Air Defence Command. A timeline of the commands being formalised by August 2022, and operationalised by March-April 2023, is being cited in some quarters. The overall rationale seems to be the “optimal utilisation of resources” by reorganising 17 disparate single Service commands into five integrated commands. This is being propagated as a panacea for the lack of tri-Service integration.

A clear distinction needs to be made between this being either an exercise in ‘optimisation of resources’ or in ‘enhancing operational effectiveness’ of the armed forces. The preference for the latter would help give greater focus to the organisational structure of the proposed integrated commands.

The real problem is not of mere ‘numbers’ 5/17— reducing 17 existing single Service commands to five integrated commands as is being envisaged — but relates to the current system of functioning. The prevailing single-Service perception -based and compartmentalised planning is detrimental to operational efficiency. Each Service makes its plans based on its own interpretation of the loosely defined National Security and National Defence Policy. In the absence of political direction from the Cabinet Committee on Security, each Service interprets its role and asset employment according to its own doctrinal thinking. Moreover, there is no authority at the theatre (Command) or the apex-level to institutionally coordinate inter-Service plans, reconciling perceptions and expectations. This basic drawback is further accentuated by the absence of a common intelligence picture, paucity of adequate resources, inadequate inter-Service communications and information networks, non-availability of commanders and staff trained in joint Services duties, and the like. Questions also remain about the optimum span of control (geographically and in the number of formations/troops) of a theatre commander. These issues are fundamental to planning theatre commands.

Also read: J&K as a separate theatre questionable. It should come under western continental command

What should be done

Under prevailing circumstances, the most preferred approach for creating theatre commands would be phased evolution of jointness for creating theatre and functional commands and building structures, processes and allocation of resources incrementally.

Considering the paucity of building blocks, the process would need to be spaced over a three to five year period. The first phase of initial integration, visualised to be completed by 2024-25,  should aim at evolving  the construct of a future battlefield environment; formulating integrated operational plans, including cross-domain contingencies; arriving at optimum size and structure of forces; inter-domain prioritised acquisitions for identified threat mitigation; honing of inter-Service connectivity; creation of a trained manpower pool and formalising the intricacies of the command and control structures. This phase would set the stage for the next phase of midterm integration whose contours would be informed by the initial experience. This may entail the creation of an overarching integrated operational HQ, modifying organisational structures (of Commands, Corps, divisions, brigades) and modifying channels of command and control. Even this process would need to go through simulation/wargaming and exercising phase.

Also read: PMO can help theatre command take off by finding a politician with defence background


Another significant achievement in the second year of the CDS institution has been the thrust given to indigenisation. The most noticeable aspect of this had been the promulgation of two ‘Negative Import (Positive Indigenisation) lists’ comprising 209 items, weapon systems and platforms, which were banned for imports over a staggered timeline. Yet another negative list of 351 sub-systems and components was announced on 29 December 2021 that will not be allowed to be imported under a staggered timeline beginning December 2022. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh recently indicated that the items in this list may reach over 1000 within this decade, suggesting a greater thrust to self-reliance and indigenous procurements.

While the momentum is creditable, these reforms also need to be carried forward with due diligence. It appears that the negative lists promulgated may have been prepared based on unverified assurances of the status of development and production of some of these items in the country. It is perhaps for this reason that within months of the lists being issued, the government set up an empowered Defence Indigenisation Committee under the CDS, to oversee the implementation of these lists. The committee will be empowered to allow exceptions for import if there is an immediate operational requirement or if the safety of soldiers is at stake due to inadequate indigenous product.

To streamline the process, the defence industry needs to be given an idea of the likely pattern of threat manifestation. The office of the CDS (HQ IDS) is best placed to define the contours of the future battlefield. Based on this, the defence industry, and the private industry in particular, would need to be counselled to invest in technologies and platforms relevant to the future battlefields, rather than explore prospects in the perceived ‘space’ created by the negative lists, in conventional weapon platforms. In the absence of this guidance, they may be unable to invest in equipment that has market relevance, domestically or internationally.

Also, in identifying areas of indigenisation, there is a need to strike the right balance between maintaining constant operational readiness (avoiding temporary capability voids) and allowing time to promote indigenisation as well as to consider the economies of scale.

Also read: India’s theaterisation being driven by a 1930s mindset. Can’t treat IAF as artillery

Capability development

Another significant charter of the CDS is capability development. In his role as the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), he is responsible for assigning inter se prioritisation to acquisition proposals, based on the anticipated budget.

The basic premise of prioritising capital acquisitions on the basis of the anticipated budget is flawed for two reasons.

One, the absence of an overarching defence strategy and visualised contours of the future battlefield; and two, because in the prevailing system, the defence budget is merely ‘apportioned’ out of the overall planned central government expenditure, without the rigour of working out the detailed requirements for threat mitigation and developing deterrence, akin to the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) in the US system.

Some recommendations to make the reforms successful are:

One, review the overall charter of the CDS and DMA, to prune down his administrative functions and allow CDS the focussed attention to nuances of defence planning. Two, evolve a doctrinal framework of likely threat manifestation, as applicable to the mid-term period (2030-35). This should serve as the base document for planning capability development, budget allocation and development of defence industrial base. Three, a phased, process-driven approach to the integration of services. Four, a detailed analysis of the process of theatreisation for enhancing operational efficiency, rather than for mere optimisation of numbers (5/17). Five, early reforms to the defence acquisitions system. Six, develop a concept of multidomain warfare and focus on creating building blocks for integrated tri-Service operations.

As we step into the third year of this reform, we need to remind ourselves that this is a reform which cannot be allowed to fail.

Lt Gen Anil Ahuja (Retd) is former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff for Policy Planning and Force Development and Secretary Defence Acquisition Council. He tweets @anil79er. Brig (Dr) Arun Sahgal is founding Director of the Office of Net Assessment, HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), and former Head of the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, United Services Institute of India. He tweets @brigarunsahgal. Both are presently on the faculty of the Delhi Policy Group (DPG).  Views are personal.

A detailed version of this has been originally published under the title ‘The Institution of CDS Evolves’. Read it here. It has been republished here with the authors’ permission.

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