What should India’s joint command structure look like?

The Chief of Defence Staff must spell out India’s strategic interests as part of a vision document

Updated - February 28, 2020 02:12 am IST

Published - February 28, 2020 12:15 am IST

The massive restructuring of the military command structure has dismantled the old civil-military relationship, with far greater powers in decision-making now being bestowed on the armed forces. Madanjit Singh and Anit Mukherjee discuss this complex transformation in a conversation moderated by Atul Aneja. Edited excerpts:

Admiral Singh, following the Kargil War of 1999, the imperative to create a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) assumed great importance. What were the takeaways of the debate back then on tri-service integration and how much do you think it influenced the current appointment of the CDS, the decision to set up theatre commands, backed by the formation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA)?

Madanjit Singh: After the Kargil War, a decision was taken to overhaul the higher defence organisation as several weaknesses were detected, especially in the conduct of joint operations by the three services. Many senior officers from the services headquarters and the government spent several months in compiling the report. Besides, we reviewed procurement and indigenous production, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, manpower issues, etc. We were very conscious that military and civilian organisations have a strong sense of history and a deep cultural ethos. In a nutshell, they are extremely reluctant to change.

As I understand, there was a comprehensive review of the entire command structure after the Kargil War, which was followed by specific proposals for reforms in view of the Revolution in Military Affairs, which also demanded doctrinal changes. A nuclear dimension had also come into the equation, following the 1998 nuclear tests, the ‘no first use’ doctrine, and the need for a second strike capability through a nuclear triad. Could you weigh in on the nuclear dimension, and its broader implications on command and control?

Madanjit Singh: Yes, the task force did that [discuss the nuclear dimension]. We were of the view that we should keep the strategic assets separate from the conventional assets. We also discussed who should be on board the Nuclear Command Authority. We laid down the concept for that. We also proposed the formation of a Department of Defence Services. We did not call it DMA. We recommended that it should be headed by the Vice Chief of Defence Staff and not the CDS. We also deliberated on the theatre command concept but had recommended formation of regional commands.

It has been quite some time since the post-Kargil recommendations came. But real action is taking place now, with the appointment of the CDS, a decision in principle to form theatre commands, along with the DMA machinery. How do you explain the timing?

Anit Mukherjee: I do not think anybody knows why they created the CDS now. It’s all conjecture that the Doklam crisis with China and the Balakot air strikes in Pakistan were the trigger points. Or perhaps it was a call by the Prime Minister — that these issues were festering for too long and something decisive had to be done.

Madanjit Singh: I think the decision was more financially driven. You have all heard: in the services we don’t get enough money. The Navy had a wishlist of 200 ships, the Air Force targeted 45 squadrons. It made some people sit up and consider that with the change in the nature of warfare and limited resources, we needed to look afresh, pool and share costly assets, bring down the costs, but also sharpen the combat edge through streamlined tri-service operations.


Anit Mukherjee: But perhaps there were other issues brewing beneath the surface as well. For instance, the patchy experience with the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command, the first tri-service command, set up in 2001 to focus on India’s interests in southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca. This joint command was not allowed to succeed because the three services did not want to share their assets, and did not post their best officers on it. So, with this negative experience in the background, the current leadership may have gone all out and appointed a powerful CDS capable of sweeping aside resistance from individual services. So, I want to give full credit to this government for creating an empowered office of the CDS.

While the CDS heads the DMA, is the Principal Adviser to the Defence Minister and the Military Adviser to the strategic nuclear forces, he is not — at least not yet — an operational head of the tri-service theatre commands unlike, say, the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee in the United States. Do you think this can cause problems in command and control?

Madanjit Singh: That’s a moot point, that is about the apex body... should we follow the U.S. style of Joint Chiefs of Staff model, or what other countries such as Germany follow. I think we need to clearly think this through, perhaps by appointing a dedicated task force in which the three services are involved, with a six-month time frame to define the concept, which addresses command and control aspects, which cover theatre commands and the assets they command, within the framework of our limited resources.

Do you think this theatre commands framework is something which is desirable for India, given its present and future interests? Is this the right approach structurally, to create theatre commands; dedicated tri-service commands that are to be deployed along the northern border with China, the western border with Pakistan, an air defence command, and in the maritime domain, a peninsular command. Do you think we are pursuing the right model here?

Madanjit Singh: I think before we start moving concretely in this direction, we need a clear, realistic vision document about what our strategic interests are, and flowing from that, specific roles that the theatre commands need to be perform.

Anit Mukherjee: It is very important that within the next six to eight months the CDS should come up with a vision document explaining his plan. Regarding the relevance of theatre commands, if you ask me personally, I think theatre command is something that we required day before yesterday. In the absence of theatre, you will have a duplication of functions, duplication of roles. But alongside we need to ask tougher questions of all three services as well. To the Army we need to ask: how can you go in for modernisation and increasing or maintaining manpower at the same time? To the Navy: do you really need three aircraft carriers? So, I think these are the debates that need to be had for the future of India, for the future of Indian taxpayers.

Madanjit Singh: Theatre commands work best when you have dedicated assets. The main point is, how do you allocate the resources, the permanent resources that need to be allocated, to a theatre command? The Andaman and Nicobar Command did not take off precisely because nobody allocated resources. I also wish to make one more point specific to the Navy. Given the vast maritime frontiers, the formation of one peninsular command, as recommended, is simply not good enough. If you look at the vastness of the Indian Ocean... now we are also looking at Asia-Pacific, we have got the Quad with the U.S., Japan and Australia on the radar. We need to get rid of this prolonged ‘sea blindness’ so to speak.

Is the three-year time line for rolling out theatre commands as indicated by the CDS, General Bipin Rawat, realistic? Are we creating artificial time lines here?

Anit Mukherjee: I would say three years is good enough. Because I do not think the same impetus and urgency will be there if the bureaucracy is given as much time as they want. They will keep prolonging it, and avoid difficult conversations. Of course, in the process there will be institutional winners... it won’t be painless. But I don’t think it ought to be kicked even further down the road.

In the formation of the DMA, which is a key pillar of the ongoing military reforms, the uniformed personnel for the first time appear to be in the cockpit of decision-making. Have we got the balance right here, in terms of decision-making between the civilian bureaucracy and the armed forces?

Anit Mukherjee: I have not seen this model discussed previously. It was not a part of the Committee on Defence Expenditure, not a part of the Kargil Review Committee, and not a part of the Naresh Chandra Committee. As a scholar, I have studied institutions and systems, but I cannot think of any other country with a similar system. I’m a little sceptical. But perhaps this is what you get when the civilian bureaucracy has been dragging its feet on developing a more rational model of civil-military relations. And I think after a while, perhaps somebody lost that patience with the civilian bureaucracy and went ahead with the current model.

But we have to ask a deeper question here. Under the DMA, the military has been asked to perform complex administrative roles, but I think professional military education within the armed forces is still geared far too much towards operation and training and not enough towards education. So, it is important to encourage your officers to get a wide education and not just go to the Army War College, Naval War College, Air War College, which all create their own echo chambers because exposure to the civilian stream is minimum. When I look at the U.S., at European countries, education means awareness of the wider society. So, I have been advocating for a long time the setting up of the Indian version of the National Defence University.

The National Defence University should not be the exclusive preserve of the armed forces, because the armed forces are not experts on higher education. We need to have a greater discussion among civilian policymakers, academics, military officers to think about what sort of education we are going to give to officers to equip them to perform complex inter-agency roles as demanded by institutions such as the DMA.

Anit Mukherjee is a former Army officer and assistant professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore; Madanjit Singh is Vice Admiral (retd.), former head of the Western Naval Command and member of the task force for the review of the management of defence, set up after the 1999 Kargil War

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.