India’s next Chief of Defence Staff and his remit

As Gen Bipin Rawat takes charge as CDS, PM Modi says institution reflects hopes of 1.3 bn Indians
[Prime Minister Modi and the late General Bipin Rawat, CDS]

Soon after the death in a helicopter crash of General Bipin Rawat, the first Chief of the Defence Staff and Secretary, Department of Military Affairs (DMA), the army began canvassing for its chief, General MM Naravane, to fill the CDS post on the basis of seniority.

Whom seniority favours at any given time is happenstance, not a qualification. Had this accident occurred, say, a week or so before the navy chief retired November-end, Admiral Karambir Singh would have been a shoo-in. As a naval pilot, moreover, he had the experience to deal professionally with the air force and army aviation and hence the army — the sort of background few chiefs of staff possess, and Rawat lacked (whence his dismissal of the Indian Air Force as a “supporting arm”). Seniority is a bonus not a prerequisite and, in any case, was ignored by the government when appointing Rawat as army chief in 2016 superseding two officers.

Rawat’s appointment was no bad thing because CDS is a quintessentially political post. To prompt the military to get on with integration required both the political will of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to drive the process and a CDS, au fait with his vision, to thrust jointness down sometimes resisting throats of the military services too bureaucratically entrenched to fall in readily with the restructuring demands made of them. The PM’s confidence in Rawat was due to the latter’s native Pauri-Garhwal connection with Ajit Doval, his National Security Adviser, whom Modi trusts. Having made the political decision to re-order the armed services, Modi needed someone he could rely on to not botch things up.

The Modi-Doval thinking on the subject of CDS and military integration can be outlined thus: First establish the CDS post, next install a person of choice in it, and then hope he carries out their remit within the constrained bureaucratic ambit he is placed in, but help him out by backing him in the inevitable bureaucratic tussles.

It helped that Rawat was the senior most service chief when he was made CDS. It pre-empted the carping that follows any military promotion not based on seniority. Even so, Rawat faced covert defiance because the government avoided doing the one thing in a hierarchy-minded military that would have eased his dealings with the serving chiefs of staff — raised CDS to Field Marshal or equivalent 5-star rank to establish a clear line of authority and obviate foot dragging. But that would have raked up the politically sensitive matter of installing a military supremo, which has been anathema to the country’s political leadership and government. The Modi regime instead vested “the first among equals”-notion with bureaucratic heft the nascent CDS system cannot carry, unless future CDSs are guaranteed the same access to the PM and NSA that Rawat was, which’s unlikely.

Scanning the senior serving ranks, including the chiefs of staff, no name jumps off the page in terms of visioning capacity, broad-based professional competence or, importantly, proximity to Modi (or Doval). A former Defence Secretary G. Mohan Kumar has suggested sifting through retired four and three star-rank officers of note. By this reckoning Admiral Karambir Singh is a frontrunner, as is the former Deputy Chief of the Army Staff (Plans), retired Lieutenant General Subrata Saha responsible for pushing indigenous procurement by the senior service. There is a democratic precedent for such decision. President John F. Kennedy appointed retired army General Maxwell Taylor as Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Alternatively, Kumar mentions “deep selection” preferably of an officer with tenure on the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). But hoisting a CDS junior to the services’ chiefs is recipe for ruction. His solutions to unburden the CDS of “paper work” by reverting “statutory matters relating to appeals, representations” to the Defence Secretary, and appointing a Special Secretary reporting to the CDS to handle the “drab [administrative] work” of the DMA, however, are worth considering.

Still, the military integration process has, in a manner of speaking, been initiated. There is a plan, albeit army-friendly, that Rawat and the IDS worked on. Consider the schema Rawat publicly sketched out on 15 September. It envisions four theatre commands — for the Pakistan front, the China front, national maritime security in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and the Andaman and Nicobar Integrated Command tasked with the defence of island territories. Further, while cyber warfare and Space/air defence have merited separate commands, not so logistics, intelligence, and Special Forces as was talked about earlier, which are the necessary adjuncts, along with cyber and Space/air defence, to the theatre commands.

This design has faced tremendous resistance from the armed services and not just because it involves collapsing 17 military commands into just six Commands — four theatre commands plus the two commands for support functions, and the concurrent loss of administrative and operational control by the services’ chiefs. But because it, prima facie, seems slapdash and insufficiently thought through.

There are some obvious deficiencies in the Rawat plan. Are Space and landbased and airborne surveillance and air defence systems banded together just because, as Rawat said, some artillery shells reach 15 kms into space, this when anti-satellite weapons for offense and retaliation will be in vogue in future conflicts? Where’s the sense, moreover, in splitting the navy’s focus between the open seas and “island defence”, or in the Coast Guard being relegated, implicitly, to a naval auxiliary? And why in the maritime security domain are the coastal/brown water roles not the Coast Guard’s bailiwick, true blue water missions not the preserve of the navy, and the Andaman Command not tasked expansively to consolidate Indian military presence on either side of the Malacca, Sunda and Lumbock Straits? In the event, wouldn’t the goal be better served with a capability and missions based integration? It would entail, for example, the aviation assets in all the Services being concentrated — with the exception of aircraft carriers — in distinct national commands for helicopter and fighter aircraft-based Ground Support, Air Defence, Strike and Transport.

Military integration is too important an issue for the Modi government to make a hash of by implementing a bad plan. Hopefully, the next CDS will present to the government for approval a more balanced and coherent jointness scheme featuring capability-cum-mission based integrated Commands.


[Published in my occasional ‘Realpolitik’ column in Dec 14, 2021, at ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Cyber & Space, Decision-making, Defence Industry, Defence procurement, domestic politics, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian para-military forces, Indian Politics, Indian state/administration, Indo-Pacific, Intelligence, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, satellites, society, South Asia, South East Asia, space & cyber, Special Forces, United States, US., Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to India’s next Chief of Defence Staff and his remit

    • San Mann says:

      Prof Karnad — with worsening tensions between US & Russia over Ukraine being said to be approaching a 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis level of confrontation, then should India be worried about China taking advantage of this to launch its own 1962 against India? Back during the original Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, China did see the US-Soviet confrontation to be a useful opportunity to attack the Indian border. Should we be worried about a repeat of this in the event that brinksmanship between Washington & Moscow reach acute levels?

      • San Mann@ — Beijing had in fact used the Cuban missile crisis to attack India in 1962. Xi’d like nothing better than to repeat Mao’s success. But the India of 2021 may not be what many of us’d have hoped it’d be, but it is no pushover either.

  1. Email from Lt. General Ajay Singh (Retd)

    Tue, 14 Dec at 6:48 pm

    Bharat just two points to add to what you have articulated:
    – Gen Saha has not been an Army Cdr , also was a BJP candidate for Bengal polls. He therefore can’t be a choice .
    -Naravane has a good chance , was in sync with Govt on Ladakh also, May appoint him till end of Gen Rawat’s tenure , that will enable a wider choice then
    Regards , ak

    • Sankar says:

      Could you please clarify the following two points when you say:

      Ajay Singh@–
      1. “… has not been an Army Cdr , … therefore can’t be a choice” – is being an Army Cdr [or equivalent] a prerequisite to becoming CDS?
      2. “Naravane … in sync with Govt on Ladakh” – do you mean with Modiji when he announced, “Koi andar ghus ke nahin aya hai” which later Rajnathji also said publicly? In your book, does “sync” imply subservience to Modiji? If that were the case what is the reason that the Army is holding endless negotiations with PLA for clearing Depsang and other areas?

  2. Sherwin Tulley says:

    Wanted your opinion: what are your thoughts on having a former commander from SFC taking over as CDS? ( Vice Adm. Vijay Shankar , etc.) ?

  3. From Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, former High Commissioner to Pakistan and currently Vice Chancellor, Jammu Central University
    4:07 PM
    A very well-written piece by Bharat Karnad on giving teeth to inter-services cooperation, spearheaded by the CDS.

  4. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    As if next CDS will set the Ganges on fire. The establishment will find a sycophant for the post. Plenty of Tom, Dick and Harry’s or rather Ram, Shyam and Ghansyhams are in the queue.

  5. andy says:

    Nice write up,but details are a bit sketchy, a more elaborate enunciation of your thoughts on what shape the theatre commands should take and the various pros and cons that entails, after all it’s a massive restructuring exercise deserving of your attention. Maybe a few sensible ideas may be implemented by the next CDS.

  6. Sankar says:

    @Professor Karnad-

    I do not understand what you mean by “India of 2021 … is no pushover …”. implying India was pushover in 1962

    First, the Indian Army has been pushed out of Depsang plateau and other areas in Ladakh in 2021. Recently sometime back (2020?), it has been pushed out of Doklam ceding territory to China. As Professor Chellaney has pointed out, the Chinese strategy is by “salami-slicing” without firing a shot and It is working fine for China since the Indian Army is always stepping backwards by creating a so-called buffer zone as a compromise to PLA’s advances for maintaining “peace and tranquility” at the border. So the end result is the same as for “pushover”.

    On the contrary, the Indian Military was “no pushover” in 1962 in my understanding of the records of those years. There are available in IDR various columns by retd Indian military officers of what was wrong in 1962. I agree fully with the views there, in my understanding that was a total collapse of political leadership (Nehru-Menon), not that much of Indian military capability. In all wars, the aggressor has the initial advantage, but that peters out if the war is continued by the defender. It has happened in 1947 in Kashmir when the Pak so-called tribal army and regular army elements penetrated almost up to Srinagar. When Delhi woke up, these Pak invaders were thrown back. Same was the case in 1965, Pak made headway in Chamb-Jaurian sector and in the Kashmir Valley to some extent also. But when India hit back and continued the war, Pak army received a thrashing in Assal Uttar and its aggression was beaten back. Gen J N Chaudhuri wanted to continue the war in 1965 but came under political pressure to halt the war,

    Had India continued the war in 1962 with her full might, it could have been a disaster for China. China did not have a single air base in Tibet, PLA’s supply line was greatly overstretched compared to supply lines to Indian troops in the Himalayas. PLA was feeding their men from supply sourcing in Calcutta and Delhi was oblivious. PLA was battled hardened true from the Korean war, but they were also a tired army. It is noted (IDR) by an IAF high ranking officer, that he flew over Ladakh and Tibet, and he reported the matter to Krishna Menon that there was no air-base of PLA in Tibet , who listened to him carefully, but simply kept quiet for any action to engage the Air Force. Had that happened, India would have given a devastating blow to PLA in 1962 and turned the table on China. Tibet was then not fully controlled by PLA, and the Indian Army had the ideal setting to sabotage the PLA by guerilla warfare engaging the locals. Instead, there was no political will in Delhi to continue the war in 1962, India simply gave in. In fact, Arpi has noted in the the context of the 50-year celebration of the 1971 war, that China seriously considered in 1972 the possibility of India liberating Tibet just as East Pakistan was freed.

    In sum, India had the military capability to beat back the PLA in 1962, but the political masters in Delhi did not go for it and gave in without continuing fighting the war. Please give your assessment of what I have noted in the context.

    • For incomprehensible reasons, GOI is never prepared for any crisis. But being unprepared is not the same thing as being a pushover, as was the case in Depsang. In 1962, India was both unprepared and a military pushover. True, had the IAF been used by Nehru the results’d have differed from what actually happened, but not by much because our ground forces were simply not equipped for mountain warfare or to sustain Nehru’s “Forward policy”.

      • Sankar says:

        Well, in my view “GOI is never prepared for any crisis” is not true for the period when Indira Gandhi was at the helm. Indian diplomacy rightly analyzed the international political climate in 1969-1971 and prepared the armed forces well to stand up to the perfidy of Pak-China-Nixon-Kissinger to safeguard India’s sovereignty and the nation’s fundamental interest to consolidate the security. The armed forces also played a sterling role alongside the political leadership. Actually, Indira Gandhi rose to the occasion in an exemplary way. That recent historical event has been captured brilliantly by a (Bengali) journalist in his column to commemorate 50 years of the 1971 war:

        To quote from it:
        “… with India’s own military strength untested, and with the last moment opening up of the US-China rapprochement process, it was an unclear global power juxtaposition within which India had to undertake its most significant and dangerous strategic risk in going for an all-out support for the Bangladesh cause. It is my view that the role played by Indira Gandhi in support of our struggle for independence went far beyond the considerations of military balance between two rivals and gaining strategic and military superiority. The Indian leader’s support for us was based on humanitarian consideration and genuine feeling that a historic wrong was being done to a people simply wanting democracy, for which it was being subjected to the atrocities of the most bestial kind.”

        The 1971 victory rattled China as in its aftermath Chou-en-Lai weighed the pros and cons of India liberating Tibet. It is pathetic to see Modi’s backwardness and moral bankruptcy how he deliberately avoided uttering Indira Gandhi’s name when the 1971 war was remembered in Delhi a few days ago.

      • 1971 was an exception because India realized a strategy it had alighted on. So there was no question of being unprepared.

  7. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Today I came across the following write up;

    I would like to get the views of Professor Karnad and fellow readers on the aforesaid.

  8. Sankar says:

    @Gaurav Tyagi:
    I dismiss this Nepali journalist Bhurtel totally. He is one of the typical India bashers likely an ISI implant in Nepal an easy ISI den for anti-India activity due to the open borders of India with Nepal. Even in this article, he fancies the power structure “West” which is a myth – the divide between “East” and “West” on the world stage has disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is a vast gulf separating the US and Western Europe. France is backing up India to the hilt for India to stand up to China. India is far advanced than China in epidemiology and perhaps the most important nation in manufacturing vaccines and the distribution of vaccines in the world. Interestingly, here is a great article that recently appeared in IDR:

  9. Ayush says:

    Dr Karnad,do you think the time has come for a “live”test of Agni-5 in the andaman sea.Xi has got the ultimate opportunity he has been waiting for with skyrocketing US-Russia tensions.He knows his temporary military edge over India is rapidly fading away.If I were him I would strike now.The cat and mouse game going on at the LAC is textbook repetiton of the prelude of the 1962 war.We are certainly in position to impose costs but i doubt that that is enough to deter an attack.We have to take a leaf out of Kim jong-un’s playbook ASAP.The winter olympics in feburary will free him from the last remaining political restraint.Coincindentally,that’s exactly when snow melts in Ladakh and Russia invades Ukraine.There are also ominous reports coming in from Eastern Ladakh, including from Foreign policy magazine.The Pentagon is reportedly rattled at China’s buildup.A megaton Agni-V will surely silence XI and the CMC.

    • Ayush@ — Have been pleading for a series of A-5 IRBM tests with full mockup nuclear payloads since E V E R [2002!!]. And, no, the targeting of, and threatening to take out — as in reducing to smoldering radioactive ruin — the entire wealth-producing eastern seaboard of China and hinterland will, I argued in my 2002 tome ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’, more than adequately deter and dissuade China. Have also contended ever since that resumption of underground tests of high yield (megaton) thermonuclear ordnance is a must. All this requires strategic vision, political will and sheer gumption and a risk-acceptant attitude that Indian leadership — across the board — has proved it is incapable of summoning.

      • Sankar says:

        @Professor Karnad:
        In my memory, the past BJP PM ABV had signed (after the 1998 Prokhran test) a “guarantee” to the international nuclear watchdog (non-proliferation group observers – or some other authority) that India will not undertake any more testing in the future of nuclear explosives. In that case, the US (and China? – Russia may be in the league) could come down on India with a ton of bricks and impose economic sanctions. And India will have to return to the US (George Bush’s imposition) all the nuclear reactors and material supplied for peaceful energy generation to date. If that conclusion is true, what choice has India to go for nuclear testing?

        On an aside, it has been reported that the Russian S-400 air defense systems are being installed on the Punjab border – not in Ladakh or Arunachal. Do you have some more information concerning this strategy?

      • Ayush says:

        Our defence brass are sensing what’s going to happen next summer.Thats why we have been carrying out open ended missile test this month.But they don’t have the guts to test fire an A-5 with a live two/three stage warhead.That is what is needed to silence Xi.A-5s warhead might very well work.We have Kim to thank us for that.He leaked highly sensitive photos of him posing with his thermonuke.veteran Indian weapons designers could easily extract vital info and reverse engineer his design.A-5s 1.5 ton payload can even accommodate a three staged weapon as China’s India-specific DF-4 has got 2200 kg payload and 3.3 Mt warhead.You modernize the electronics and scale it down to 1.5 ton.

  10. Amit says:


    Am reading your book ‘Why India is not…’. Great source of information on Indian military, bureaucracy and the political establishment. Amazing how rotten things were a few years back relative to China. Not sure if even with all the recent changes it will be enough. Was amazed by the lack of India’s capabilities in thermonuclear weapons, the will to address it, and the IAF’s and IA’s reluctance to support indigenous production among others. These are problems that exist even today! There has to be public pressure for positive change.

    Excellent book! Would definitely recommend to anyone interested in Indian security and foreign policy.

  11. Sankar says:

    Further to my previous post, I need to point out the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) that came into existence in the world somewhere around 2000 which stands in the way for India to conduct any further (underground) nuclear explosion (fission on thermonuclear). This was made possible by the unanimous agreement of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the US, Russia, Britain, France and China!

    India has lost its way to enter the “nuclear club” effectively since then. This was the reason the Vajpayee Government was forced under military pressure to go for the Pokhran testing at the last minute (1998) in anticipation of CTBT coming in 2000. If India undertakes any testing now, it could face the wrath of the Security Council – economic sanctions like that imposed on Iran.

    CTBT has clearly defined the world power structure. It is the glaring hypocrisy of the Security Council permanent members, all of whom have done enough nuclear testing since the 1950s to perfect the technology themselves – they do not need any further experimentation to build nuclear weapons. In fact, China had openly tested in the atmosphere many times in Takla Makhan in north-western Tibet. polluting the atmosphere of Tibet. CTBT has created a hierarchy of world power structure by banning the non-permanent UN members of the SC to venture into nuclear weapons technology – it spells out who are entitled to rule this world, i.e. who are the superpowers? It resembles the “missile control technology” which is a ploy by the superpowers to disqualify other nations to go for ICBM when these superpowers have themselves perfectioned and advanced their own technology in that domain.

    To recall India’s own progress in the context, the very first PM Nehru put cold water on the scientist HJ Bhabha’s proposal to develop a nuclear capability in the early days (1960s) by enunciating his “peaceful rise of India” state policy. China tested its nuclear explosion capability in 1964. It was only after Indira Gandhi came to power, she had ordered nuclear testing in 1974. Since then, India has made some progress in nuclear weapon technology for sure, but will be stuck there until a bold and drastic change in India’s statecraft takes place.

    • For a comprehensive take on the evolution and current status of the “Jason-faced” (Nehru’s phrase for) the country’s nuclear energy policy, programme, and weapons-related thinking and strategy, see my 2002 book, with 2nd edition published in 2005 — ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’ [Macmillan India]

      • Sankar says:

        Thank you. I shall.

      • Amit says:


        Given the current geopolitical situation, do you think either the US, France or Russia will veto any sanctions on India in case it does a thermonuclear test? Each country has its own logic for supporting India or not. Also, what would this do for India’s obligations with the Wassenar group and potential impact from NSG?

        Additionally, given India’s good progress on missile tech, can the creation of a rocket force blunt the conventional edge China has (and will have for the foreseeable future)? The reforms on the conventional side India is undertaking are a work in progress and not guaranteed to proceed as planned.

      • The problem is not the sanctions but GOI’s fear of sanctions that external powers use to pressure India to desist from doing this or that, especially N-tests.

  12. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Given the history and the present state of affairs, people in the GoI cannot be blamed remembering the lessons well. Its fear that controls greed. Whoever relies on Americans is cursed to a worthless existence and will end up undermining the future of their countries.

    ‘ -28 Dec, 2021- ‘Lavrov went on to accuse the West of wanting to foment a conflict in Ukraine and put the blame on Moscow for any subsequent provocation. “I don’t rule out that there’s this desire to fuel militaristic sentiment, to wage a little war, blame us and then impose a round of sanctions to suppress our competitive ability,” he said. – Swallowing the humiliation – Inder Malhotra : Mon Jul 12 2010 – Infuriated by India’s criticism of American bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong in the course of the Vietnam War, the irascible Texan put food shipments on such a tight leash that India literally lived from ship to mouth. With every morsel we swallowed a little humiliation. When told that the Indians were saying exactly the same thing as the UN Secretary-General and the Pope were, Johnson had retorted: “The Pope and the Secretary-General do not need our wheat.” Many in India started demanding that we should say no to American wheat. Sensibly, Indira Gandhi said nothing. Privately, she told some confidants: “If food imports stop, these ladies and gentlemen won’t suffer. Only the poor would starve.” ….. In 1949 the Indian food situation was as difficult as in the ’60s and the foreign exchange position even worse. In November that year Nehru made his first visit to the US amidst a tremendous welcome. During his talks with Harry Truman he did mention the scarcity of food in India. Truman’s response was positive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.