“There are two thousand years of experience to tell us that the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old idea out.”

–(B.H. Liddell Hart)


Chief of Defence Staff is an appointment that exercises command over all three services resulting in operational, logistic, procurement, and force readiness synergies between three Services. The three Services in armed forces of India and Pakistan inherited the organizational ethos and professional values of the British Indian Army which essentially was a colonial organization meant to run the British colonial project in their “Jewel in the Crown” possession i.e India. While the British moved on and reorganized their own army in keeping with the requirements of the modern age Pakistan and India remained stuck in the old groove with three Chiefs of equal rank for Army, Navy, and the Air force without a central command authority. The modern armies like United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany Spain, and Italy have adopted CDS as the top military appointment with Australia having the similar model but with a different name i.e Chief of the Defence Force.

A Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee existed for both countries that comprised three Services’ chiefs and was meant to coordinate defence planning in the absence of a unifying Headquarters, other than the Ministry of Defence in case of India and an effete Joint Staff Headquarters in case of Pakistan. In India the need for jointness in command and operations was felt acutely in its three wars with Pakistan, especially the Kargil Conflict. It was the Kargil Conflict that brought to the fore the need for operational synergies and tri-service coordination for the Indian armed forces. The Kargil Review Committee instituted to identify operational and strategic shortcomings in the conduct of war and also recommended the creation of a new appointment i.e Chief of the Defence Staff to add necessary suppleness and punch to the conduct of operations in a Tri Service environment.

General V.P Malik writes in his book on Kargil that he had to do some serious convincing with the three Services Chiefs while asking for a tri-service response to the emerging threat. He ascribes some initial delay in employment of air to the same convincing effort and hoped that in any such situation in future the time would be taken by the forelock, instead of the desultoriness displayed during Kargil. The Indian Prime Minister Modi has recently announced during the Independence Day function that a new appointment of CDS will be created to “sharpen coordination amongst the armed forces.” It has taken India twenty years to recognize the need for the appointment of CDS which was recommended in 1999 by Kargil Review Committee, underscoring the universal applicability of the Liddell Hart’s famous aphorism quoted above.

An implementation committee will oversee the details of powers to be invested in the new appointment which will be created by coming November. The appointment besides fostering necessary jointness in operational response of the three services is expected to eventually pave way for the unified theatre combatant commands on the US model. There is one caveat however in Indian model being proposed. If the new appointment is to be created only for single source advisory function with the operational commands still with the Service Chiefs, then the whole purpose of the exercise would be defeated. There are bulwarks to the smooth implementation of the concept in India like the inter Service rivalry and the fear amongst the politico-bureaucratic of an all too powerful appointment. If the new appointment is not vested with the meaningful powers to oversee force readiness, promotions, budgeting, training, and operations then the necessary operational synergy, the basic driving force behind the new appointment, would be defeated.

Pakistan however has a different trajectory to the same concept. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the first democratically elected civilian leader who tried to introduce a new Higher Defence Organization. The Joint Staff Headquarters and the appointment of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee were introduced for unifying the command structure of the three services. The concept however could not be fructified into proper organization due to inter service differences over the powers and functions of such a Headquarters. What actually emerged was a watered down version of Bhutto’s dream. The new four star appointment which was supposed to head the Joint Staffs of the three Service Headquarters actually became Chairman of a committee comprising three services with Joint Staff Headquarters kept separately as an operational back water without any meaningful command or staff control over the Service Headquarters.

The present Joint Staff Headquarters which also oversees the Strategic Planning Division has only a coordinating role for budgeting, procurement, logistics, and medical services. The operational plans and strategies are prepared by the respective Services with the Joint Staff Headquarters merely coordinating those. Though a National Military Operation Centre (NMOC) is supposed to operate from JS Headquarters but effective command remains with the three Services’ Chiefs. The JS Headquarters in its present shape is grossly under- utilized. All the modern armies of the world have adapted to the concept of tri-service command with a unified command system. The Commander in Chief of the US military is the President of the USA having a four star ranked Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) as his principal military advisor. Following the 1986 Gold Water Nicholas Act, the US JCS has an advisory function with operational command vested in Combatant Commands.

The military command chain in USA goes from the President to the Secretary Defence and from there onwards to the Tri Service Combatant Commands headed by four star Generals, catering either to a geographic or a functional domain. In UK the appointment of CDS was introduced in 1959 to create necessary operational synergy between the three Services. The British CDS is a four star General who has three four star Generals under him heading Army, Navy, and Air Force. The present British CDS is General Nick Carter who earlier was commanding the British Army with the appointment of Chief of the General Staff. It is important to understand why the appointment of CDS is necessary for a resource starved and threat prone country like Pakistan.

At present the three Services lack the desired operational synergies both in peace as well as war due to their single service orientation. In modern wars where net centric warfare and revolution in military affairs have enhanced the battle-space and velocity of operations significantly, the need for quick and effective decision making makes a unified command environment de rigueur. A country famished of resources cannot afford three Services tugging in different directions wasting precious national resources. A unified command could reduce costs in training, procurement, medical services, logistics, engineering, administration, and welfare of troops; the areas where the three Services are casting their lone furrow without an effective check on top. The CDS should have powers of postings and promotions from one star above of three Services besides having control of the above mentioned subjects.

Due to the land centric environment and mainly the support functions of Navy and Air Force, the new appointment must reflect the reality of the military strategic environment by allowing a COAS to be automatically elevated as CDS after serving out his tenure. Apart from a military strategic environmental adaptation, the above measure would take care of the opposition to the concept by the most puissant component of our military triad i.e Army, paving way for a smooth and effective implementation of an idea whose time has come.