A Milestone in India’s Military Modernization

By Swadesh M Rana

   The appointment of its first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) along with the creation of a new department of military affairs is more than an institutional reform of the Indian armed forces. Announced on 31 December 2019, and long overdue since the Kargil war of 1999, it is a new charter for better preparing India in facing the challenges of modern warfare. Fought at an altitude of 16,000 to 18,000 feet and lasting 70 days with neraly1000 casualties on each side, the Kargil war was the 4th Indo-Pak war since 1947. It was also the first for the Indian army to be fighting as easy targets for the enemy air power before the Indian Air Force reclaimed the Kashmir mountains occupied by Pakistani military forces. 

Besides facing the limitations on the capabilities of the Indian Air Force for fighting on higher altitudes, the undetected Pakistani occupation of the Kashmiri mountains under Indian control exposed critical flaws in the synergies between the intelligence-surveillance services and communications gaps between the India’s army and air force. If the Kargil experience was the watershed in assessing India’s war fighting capabilities, the charter given to the Chief of Defence Staff to foresee and forestall a repetition of another Kargil is a milestone in India’s military modernization.

         Ranking today as the world’s 4th military power, India is nonetheless the 70th country in the world, and the last one among the top 5 military powers, to institute the position of a single point military adviser for its Ministry of Defence.  Known as the Supreme Commander in Chief of the Russian armed forces, the earliest known such position goes back to 1812 in the Russian Empire and the latest to 2016 with its first designation of a Joint Chief of Staff Commission of People Republic of China.  The first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the USA was appointed in 1942 during World War II and the Chief of the Staff of the Armies in France in 1948. The post of Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in the United Kingdom was created in 1959 with the first CDS coming from the British Armed Forces. India’s choice of a designation of the position and its first occupant from the Indian Army is very similar to that of the United Kingdom.

      The Chief of Indian Army before being appointed as India’s first CDS, General Bipin Rawat is entrusted with the responsibility of modernizing the Indian armed forces to face the challenges of modern warfare. And while doing so, the specific tasks urgently ahead for him are:

  •       A better management of India’s strategic and nuclear resources.
  •       A more integrated streamlining for the procurement and acquisition of military hardware for the Indian Army, the Air Force and the Navy.
  •       A greater synergy among the all the three services of the Indian armed forces.

The official job description of the CDS on 31 December 2019 took care to ensure that:

  •       While the CDS would be the principal military adviser to the Minister of Defence (MOD) on tri-service matters, the three service chiefs would continue to advise the MOD on matters exclusively concerning their respective services.
  •       The newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) in the ministry of defence would play a key role in maximal resource utilization through   joint exercises in training, staffing and procurement for the three services. To be composed of a team of civilian and military experts, the DMA would be headed by the CDS to reduce the civil-military divide.

  After taking charge on January 1, 2020, and at the tri-service guard of honor accorded to him, General Rawat declared that he considers himself to be a first among equals and his focus would be to ensure the best and optimal use of resources allocated to the three services. Present on the occasion were the successor to General Rawat and Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane, Air Force Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhaduria and Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh. The presence of tri-service chiefs was all the more remarkable since each  of the three services had expressed interest in getting the post with some expectation that it could be a rotating charge for the three services. 

   Within less than a fortnight as the CDS, General Rawat pointed out the importance of ensuring that ‘1+1+1’ combine of the three services adds up to ‘5 or 7, not 3’ through synergized action that should be more than the sum total of whole. Subsequently he has also talked about closer interaction between the armed services, the coastguard and the territorial army.

    Specifically mandated to set up joint theater commands for all three services with the first one functional in the next 3 years, General Rawat has given the highest priority for an early establishment of a joint air command for defence. As of now, the Indian military has 19 commands in all of which only two are tri-service: the Andaman Nicobar Command and the Strategic Forces Command in charge of nuclear assets. In charting a blueprint for a joint air defence command General Rawat would have some benefit of hindsight from his initiative as the Chief of the Indian Army in launching war games to test India’s preparedness for swift offensive into enemy territory through Integrated Battle Groups (IBG’s). Comprising major elements from the army and with close support by the air force and the navy when necessary, these self-contained IBG’s are geared to strengthening Indian military capabilities for becoming more efficient in managing the budgetary allocations for national defence and prepare for future military conflicts.          

Within his broader mandate to help the Indian military in facing modern warfare, two interconnected challenges in modern warfare have come up on the CDS roadmap. One: acts of terror in a foreign country by non-state actors with or without a sponsoring state. Two: violent acts of radical extremism operating from within or at the fringes of state authority in the country of origin.

General Rawat has drawn attention to the Pakistani program of de-radicalization for dealing with the first. Led by the military it entails setting up of military trial courts for speedy justice, institution of death penalty or imprisonment for proven convicts with continuing surveillance of the latter following their release after serving the sentence. In dealing with acts of terror with non-state actors, the CDS points towards the USA military response to the Taliban led attack on the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11/2001 by invading Afghanistan to capture the suspects in the country of their origin.

        To say that the fulfillment of the original and derivative mandates of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff would be less than daunting is an understatement. At the same time General Rawat’s presence at the 71st anniversary celebration of India’s Republic Day in Delhi on January 26, 2020 would enhance the symbolism and substance of India’s rising stature as a major global military power. He is the chief marksman for a milestone in India’s military modernization and having accorded a top priority to setting up India’s joint Air Defence Command, he may be getting unspoken fly-past salutations from the tricolor flag makers over the Indian skies. Here is wishing all the attendees safe, spectacular and sunny 71st anniversary celebration of the Indian Republic in Delhi and worldwide.


Former Senior Political Analyst in the Executive Office of Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, Swadesh M Rana was the Chief of the Conventional Arms Branch in the Department of Disarmament Affairs at the United Nations. She is a Gold Medalist for Masters in Political Science from Panjab University in Chandigarh and a Ph.D in international affairs from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

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