Symbol or Substance? Modi’s Decision to Appoint a Chief of Defense Staff


India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi revels in making bold decisions and upsetting the status quo. In September 2016, in response to a terror attack in Kashmir, he authorized an unprecedented cross-border commando raid on suspected terrorist camp a few miles across the Line of Control in Pakistan. A few months later, in a nationally televised address, he announced the demonetization policy that — overnight — invalidated 86 percent of the existing currency in circulation. In February of this year, in response to a deadly suicide attack, he ordered an air strike on an alleged terror camp in Balakot, deep within Pakistan. In August, the Modi government abrogated the provisions of Article 370 of the constitution, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

All of these moves have been loved and loathed in good measure. Analysts argue that demonetization failed in its stated goal to recover black money and instead contributed to the present economic slowdown. The military strikes in 2016 and 2019 were popular, but it’s unclear whether they will deter Pakistan from using terrorist groups to achieve its foreign policy goals. Likewise, Kashmir still remains in partial lockdown, its future far from certain.



In a similar vein, on August 15, Modi announced the creation of the post of chief of defense staff. The decision was widely hailed by members of India’s strategic community. The creation of this position has been a long-pending demand and is expected to enhance jointness (defined as the ability of the army, air force, and navy to operate together) and provide coherence to overall defense policy. With the decision, Modi seems intent on transforming the Indian military.

However, such an effort will be incomplete unless Modi truly empowers the chief of defense staff, forces the services to create joint theater commands, and transforms the Ministry of Defense by, among other measures, integrating military expertise into it. There will be significant institutional resistance to such measures from both civilians and the military. Ironically, for inspiration, Modi should look towards China’s President Xi Jinping, who has successfully ushered in major changes within the Chinese military. If he is unable to follow through on these initiatives, critics can rightly argue that his military transformation policy is another instance of a symbolically important move that has little substance.

India’s Military Structure Remains Unchanged

The Indian military, the third largest in the world, faces considerable challenges. In addition to dealing with domestic insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeast, the military must also plan against its two nuclear-armed neighbors — Pakistan and China. In facing border disputes with both, troops have to physically deploy to inhospitable and physically demanding terrain. The military might be reasonably confident in facing the threat posed by Pakistan, but it is less assured about dealing with China and has nightmares about a simultaneous “two-front” war.

The Indian military’s organizational and command structures have remained largely unchanged since independence in 1947. Its system of higher defense management was created by Louis Mountbatten — the last British viceroy of India and its first governor-general — along with General Hastings Ismay — Mountbatten’s chief of staff. The key feature of this structure is the prominence of the chiefs of each military service. However, within a few years, Mountbatten himself was lobbying successive Indian prime ministers to usher in changes. This was based on his often secret correspondence with senior government functionaries including the prime minister, defense minister, service chiefs, and the defense secretary. Based on these exchanges, and perhaps because he himself was serving as Britain’s second chief of defense staff, he recommended to Indian leaders various measures including creating a joint staff headed by a chief of defense staff and incorporating military officers into civilian dominated ministry of defense.

But these efforts were in vain. Over the years the Indian defense establishment has been characterized by a constant civil-military dysfunction and strong single-service approach — the individual services (the army, air force, and navy) train, operate, adopt doctrines, and plan in their service-specific silos. In India’s case, this approach is so entrenched that none of the geographical commands of the three services are co-located and, worse, their operational boundaries do not align.

After the 1999 Kargil War, which revealed military weaknesses and intelligence failures, there actually was a greater push towards defense reforms and there were some organizational changes. Chief among these was the creation of a joint Integrated Defense Staff intended to enhance jointness. However, without a chief of defense staff these reforms have proven to be largely ineffective. The military needs a single-point military advisor to transcend inter-service rivalries and compel the armed forces to act together. Jointness in the Indian military remains more of an aspiration than a reality. For decades, India’s strategic community — journalists, academics, and think-tank analysts who work on defense issues — have debated the necessity of reforms and of this and wider problems in the management of defense.

Principal Fault Lines

Principally, there are two major fault lines that prohibit progress in making the Indian military a more cohesive, joint force. One fault line runs between civilians and the military, and the other runs within the military itself. The civil-military divide is evident in the tense and conflictual relations between civilian bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defense and military officers. Some tensions between civilians and the military is inevitable, but as one Indian analyst memorably put it, in India’s case the pattern is that of a “depthless interaction.”

Progress hasn’t been made on reforming India’s defense command structure because politicians have, to a great extent, left the military to its own devices. Indian politicians have largely stayed away from actively shaping or interfering in issues considered to be in the military’s domain. This is a legacy of the defeat of the Indian Army in the 1962 border war with China, which has been blamed on political interference in military affairs. While this interpretation is oversimplified — it ignores failures within the military during the war — as a norm, politicians have mostly stayed away from “interfering.”

Perhaps inadvertently, political withdrawal from this role gave significant procedural powers to civilian bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defense. Ordinarily, this should not be exceptional. such functionaries play an important role in exercising civilian control in Western democracies like the United States, United Kingdom, and France, among others. However, in India’s case, these bureaucrats generally lack expertise and, moreover, the defense ministry has very little representation from the uniformed military. Due to this feature of institutional design, there are considerable tensions between civilians and the military. In sum, India’s defense ministry is more focused on (and content with) civilian control rather than effectiveness.

The second fault line, then, lies within the military itself. Free from civilian pressure, the military perceives few incentives to pursue reforms. Simply put, the services have significant autonomy and have been resistant to jointness. Despite much talk, the services have resisted the idea of joint theater commands with the refrain that they are more suited to expeditionary forces. In fact, they have gone the other way and, in practice, have “subverted” the idea for the joint command that was created at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2001. In effect, the Indian military has rejected widely accepted notions for joint war-fighting.

Jointness, or the lack of it, is symptomatic of a larger problem — the military retains considerable autonomy to shape its force structures and doctrines. The army therefore relies on ever-increasing manpower, the navy on huge capital ships, and the air force on high-end fighter aircrafts, with little dialogue on how all this would serve political ends. The dominance of the single-service approach therefore is not just financially wasteful but also hampers military effectiveness. Crucially, the status quo is convenient to all stakeholders and as astutely observed by the late K. Subrahmanyam, the doyen of India’s strategic studies, “politicians enjoy power without any responsibility, bureaucrats wield authority without any accountability, and the military assumes responsibility without any direction.”

India Needs an Answer to China’s Recent Military Reforms

When Xi Jinping assumed office in 2012, the People’s Liberation Army was not yet ready to deal with rapid response contingencies or joint operations. Its command and control structures were outdated, and — as Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders highlight — the military was skewed heavily toward the ground forces at the expense of naval, air, and missile forces. Beginning in late 2015, Xi announced a series of radical reforms, cutting manpower in the army by up to 300,000 soldiers, creating joint theater commands, emphasizing naval and air force modernization, and revamping professional military education, among other measures. The creation of the Strategic Support Force — responsible for waging war in space, cyber, electromagnetic, and information domains — is seemingly an initiative without parallel in Western militaries.

To be sure, these ideas had been debated in the Chinese system for decades, and the changes were more evolutionary than is popularly believed. However, Xi’s sustained intellectual attention and ability to overcome bureaucratic resistance was important in the success of these initiatives. In 2014, he created a new bureaucratic entity to work on these issues called the Leading Group on Defense Reforms. Composed of select military officers working directly under the president, the group has been at the forefront of conceptualizing and implementing these reforms.

A Potentially Transformational Moment, or Not

Like his Chinese counterpart, Modi needs to overcome significant opposition to enact military reforms. The prime minister should empower chief of defense staff to adjudicate inter-service disputes, incentivize joint appointments so that jointness becomes a habit and not just an aspiration, and appoint the right people to carry out necessary reforms. Without this support, the position would end up being more symbolic than anything else — an apprehension frequently expressed by members of India’s strategic community.

Reform should not stop with appointing a chief of defense staff. Beyond this immediate measure, Modi should also shift his focus to transforming the Ministry of Defense and recasting professional military education by establishing the long-overdue national defense university. The former requires focusing on the capacity, expertise, and staffing of the ministry and might require institutional re-designing including by integrating the military in it. The latter requires a serious examination of the development of strategic and area studies, among other measures.

Perhaps most importantly, the prime minister should select a team of reformists, including serving and retired officials and qualified experts, to drive this process and not rely exclusively on advice from serving military officers. Intriguingly, he seems to have created the space for such an arrangement by strengthening the National Security Council Secretariat. There is therefore considerable speculation in New Delhi about the policy prescriptions emanating from this phase of reforms.

From Big Idea to Policy

Modi has not displayed an interest in defense reforms until recently. To his credit, the prime minister prioritized emotive issues like building a war memorial and made it a point to visit troops serving in difficult areas during important festivals — an unheard-of tradition within India. However, from the perspective of defense policy, he has had a lackluster first term, failing to live up to his own vision. In December 2015, he gave a forward-looking speech on the subject, challenging his senior military leaders to cut manpower, enhance jointness, and restructure higher defense management. But little substantive progress was achieved on any of these issues.

Modi should ensure that defense reforms are not one-off, check-the-boxes type of measures but are sustained and continuous. Surely, the prime minister has learned a lot on the job — perhaps that is why, within a few months of his re-election, he announced the post of a chief of defense staff. Without a single-point military advisor, it will be hard for Modi to advance his objectives in the military. The military skirmish triggered by the air attack at Balakot in Pakistan earlier this year was also an important learning experience for the government. Despite the triumphalist media narrative, Modi is surely acutely aware of shortcomings within the military.

If, however, India fails to substantively reform its defense structure, including creating theater commands, then one can justifiably infer a pattern. Modi’s bold policy moves may be unveiled with great symbolism and flourish, but perhaps they lack substance. The prime minister should be commended for his willingness to challenge the status quo, but big ideas only matter if they are translated into policy. The consequences of this proposition — of compromised military effectiveness — should be worrying, for both Modi and for India.



Anit Mukherjee is an assistant professor at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and is the author of The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Northrup)