Exploring one head three hats of CDS DMA COSC

Higher Defence organisation should not be left as a political football, being removed or reinstated as per political colours, by mere act of a Government notification.

Such a vital decision is normally announced once the implications and the modalities of implementation have been comprehensively analysed and more or less finalised.

By Col RS Sidhu (Retd)

A camel is a horse designed by a committee”. – Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the famous Mini car in 1959

The Context

A head adorned with three unequal sized hats would normally be material enough to generate a flurry of witticisms by the standing comedians!The powerful bureaucracy in the Government of India has managed to pull off this coup while finalising the critical appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the senior most appointment in the armed forces of the country.

First, the CDS has been given the Hat of a four star rather than the desired five star military status, which would have helped him to outrank the Chiefs Of Staff of the three services, subordinated to him. Second,CDS is also anointed with the Hat of Secretary, Department of Military Affairs (DMA), in Ministry Of Defence (MOD), which is a lower hierarchical status to that of a 4 star rank. Third, he has been adorned with the Hat of Permanent Chairman of Chiefs Of Staff Committee (COSC), with three other four star ranks forming part of the committee, and where decision making by consensus is the norm.

It is reason enough to evince curiosity.Why should the Government,ab initio itself, seriously handicap the senior most military appointment in the critical sphere of national defence?


15 August 2019 – The Prime Minister (PM) announces the decision to appoint a CDS for Indian armed forces.

23 August 2019 – Formation of a committee under the National Security Advisor for formulating the role and powers of CDS, with a report to be submitted within six weeks.

24 December 2019 – The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the apex decision making body on security within the country, approved the creation of the post of CDS and DMA. CDS to also be the Secretary DMA, Permanent Chairman of the COSC and to act as the Principal Military Adviser to Raksha Mantri on all tri-services matters.

30 December 2019 – Cabinet Secretariat implements the decision by suitably amending the Allocation of Business Rules 1961, vide Government of India (Allocation of Business) Three Hundred and Fifty third Amendment Rules, 2019 (5).

01 January 2020 – First CDS assumes appointment.


For the PM to publicly announce a decision with far reaching national security implications is quite natural. But with such powerful political backing, it is generally not usual for the implementation process, thereafter, to be stretched over a four months span. Such a vital decision is normally announced once the implications and the modalities of implementation have been comprehensively analysed and more or less finalised. Under the circumstances, it would not be out of place to infer that the PM took recourse to a public announcement to short shrift the opposition to the proposal of CDS in the corridors of high bureaucracy.

The short timeline of six weeks for completing the consultation process by a high powered committee, comprising of PM loyalists, is also indicative of the political capital invested to force a swift consensus to cut the Gordon’s knot.

The fact that the appointment is the outcome of a Government Order, rather than an Act of Parliament, also lends itself to infer it being an ‘experiment in progress’ or an attempt by high bureaucracy to scuttle or emasculate an appointment, which they regard as antithetical to their parochial service interests.

The three Services themselves were not unanimous in instituting the office of CDS, as were influential voices in MOD at odds with the announcement of CDS.Quite probably the founding of CDS with diluted powers, via the route of a Government Order rather than an Act of Parliament, is a temporary measure to overcome initial opposition. Interestingly it may also be conjectured that a separate secretariat for CDS, rather than be with COSC secretariat, was considered prudent to avoid internal drift and delay by powerful vested interests opposed to institutional reforms in higher defence organisations.

Here it needs to be admitted that these inferences are drawn from organisational awareness, rather than evidence.


The unfortunate circumstances leading to the vacancy in the office of CDS notwithstanding, two years since creation of the appointment is a good enough time to carry out a comprehensive review for instituting course correction for its functioning. But whatever be the fate of the inevitable reforms, the new incumbent shall have his time cut out to deliver on critical reforms which his office in turn is responsible to roll out.

Dichotomy in Chain of Command of Proposed Operational Theatre Commands

The Government Order (GO) on creation of post of CDS and secretary DMA, specifically states that CDS and the three Service Chiefs shall not be in the operational chain of reporting of the Theatre Commands. The direct reporting to the Defence Minister is fraught with its own consequences, as his office is not equipped for review of operational matters. This creates a critical dichotomy in the operational reporting chain and needs to be resolved. Ideally, the Theatre Commanders should be reporting to the Defence Minister through the CDS, but this entails suitably augmentingthe CDS Secretariat/COSC Secretariat.   

Progress Creation of Integrated Theatre Commands and Integrated Functional Commands

Two aspects of the Theatre Commands proposed to be implemented merit attention. First is placing theArea Of Responsibility(AOR) of the Northern borders under three separate Theatre Commands,Northern Theatre Command, Eastern Theatre Command, and the stand alone J&K Command, as per statements to the media. It would defeat the very purpose of establishing the Theatre Commands as this would imply adding another layer of command and control organisation to coordinate the response of the three proposed Theatre Commands against China, leading to decision delays.China’s interest in POJK is so enmeshed that any operations undertaken there are bound to be impacted by China’s stance and possible intervention. China being a stronger adversary than Pakistan, a strong case exists to place J&K and Ladakh in AOR of Northern Theatre Command.Pir Panjal range should be the ideal boundary between proposed Northern and Western Theatre Commands.

The second aspect pertains to having a single Maritime Theatre Command. It would create two powerful naval appointments of near equal status, dealing separately with operational and administrative aspects. The resultant push and pulls shall not be in overall interest of the Service and the State.A strong case also exists to bifurcate the Maritime Theatre Commands owing to the geographical spread and diverse operational commitments in the Eastern and Western maritime regions.

Roadmap for Development and Absorption of New Weapons and Technologies

Galwan 2020, despite the higher leadership flaws that led to it, has the potential to be a watershed in enhancing our military competency, provided the right lessons are drawn and internalised.Despite the initial strategic surprise, our military responses showcased the strength of the organisation. But the inability to press home the advantage, displayed an intangible weakness in our overall military posture. We were poorly equipped to fight the war of the future that our adversary was willing to impose.  

The CDS shall have to lead the effort for preparing the armed forces to be prepared to fight the war of the future by laying a well defined roadmap for developing, introducing, and absorbing world class new weapons and technologies in the shortest possible realistic time frame.

Comprehensive Cadre Review

The scheduled restructuring of the armed forces shall be the time of greatest uncertainty and resultant imbalance in our overall defensive posture. A concomitant and most comprehensive cadre review will be an imperative. It shall need extraordinary leadership skills to strike the right balance. The laughingly inadequate tenures in higher appointments, technical upskilling of manpower to absorb latest technologies, anomalies in length of service in various verticals and ranks, outsourcing of services, infrastructure development for effective employment of future technologies, shall have to be planned in great detail.

The CDS will have to employ all the political capital at his disposal to ensure lateral absorption of released personnel into alternate sectors. This crucial aspect has equal opposition from powerful quarters as for the institution of CDS, hence needs to be handled at political level.

Focus on Ethos of High Leadership to Weed out Rubber Spines

The military has no dearth of competent leaders in its hierarchy, and it is by far one of the most professional organisations within the country. But it is equally clear to the savvy, that there are one too many rubberised spines within the armed forces senior most leadership. How else do you explain the consistently weak kneed performance of senior operational leadership over three decades, during Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka, operational lapses leading to India being surprised in Kargil, and the military surprise inflicted by the Chinese incursions in Ladakh in 2020.The infamous Adarsh Housing and Sukhna land scams leading to the very top, also hint at a deeper malaise.The creeping VIP culture at social events with separate enclosures for senior and junior officers, also does not augur well for the battle winning ethos of the organisation. In this age of social media activism, where adverse geopolitical and strategic developments are first reported by the media, it is futile to continue with time tested brushing of unsavoury events under the carpet. 

A sustained institutional effort, driven from the very top, needs to be instituted to root out the rubber spines. This issue should be top of the reform agenda for the incoming CDS.

An Opinion

That leaves us with the question, should we persevere with three unequal sized hats to adorn the head of CDS or usher in the new tenant along with reforming the known anomalies?  Hopefully, the delay in announcement of the new CDS may be an indicator of such ongoing comprehensive review, leading to a more efficient functioning of the higher defence organisation. But is it hoping for too much?

Rightly CDS should be a five star appointment, the Secretary DMA should be a three star service officer with indirect reporting to the CDS, the COSC needs to be done away with and its secretariat merged with the office of CDS.

Higher Defence organisation should not be left as a political football, being removed or reinstated as per political colours, by mere act of a Government notification. There is a strong case for replacing the Government Notification by an Act of Parliament, for it to be a permanent solution.

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran and can also be accessed at his blogspot http://www.valleysandvalour.blogspot.com . He is also the author of two books, ‘Success from Being Mad’ on entrepreneurship ventures by veterans, and ‘Elephant on the High Himalayas’ on India China discourse. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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