Current Affairs

Defence Reforms in India

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    20th Jan, 2021
Defence Reforms in India


South Asia is the second-most unstable region in the world and India in this context faces the most complex threats and challenges spanning the full spectrum of war from nuclear to sub-conventional. Apart from these conventional challenges the rapidity of technological advancement has created a new landscape that needs to be protected from the national security perspective. These landscapes include maritime space that cater well over 90% of India’s trade by volume, cyber space onto which we depend on almost all day-to-day functioning, and outer space onto which our communication, navigation and surveillance system depends. With this context in mind India’s armed forces must be reformed to be at par with the contemporary challenges India faces in its terrestrial or extra-terrestrial environment. In this article we will first look broadly at the India’s defence infrastructure, then we will explore the prevailing conditions that demand the overhaul and reforms, after that we will discuss the reforms undertaken and in the last part of the article, we will try to find some solution and way forward that would help bring our armed forces at par with the current challenges.

India’s defence infrastructure: an overview

The Indian Armed Forces are the military forces of the Republic of India. It consists of three professional uniformed services: the Indian Army, Indian Navy, and Indian Air Force. Additionally, the Indian Armed Forces are supported by the Indian Coast Guard and paramilitary organisations (Assam Rifles, and Special Frontier Force) and various inter-service commands and institutions such as the Strategic Forces Command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command and the Integrated Defence Staff.

The President of India is the Supreme Commander of the Indian Armed Forces. The Indian Armed Forces are under the management of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of the Government of India. With a strength of over 1.4 million active personnel, it is the world's second-largest military force. The headquarters of the Indian Armed Forces is in New Delhi and the entire armed forces are split into different groups based on their region of operation. The Indian Army is divided administratively into seven tactical commands, each under the control of different Lieutenant Generals. The Indian Air Force is divided into five operational and two functional commands. Each command is headed by an air officer commanding-in-chief with the rank of air marshal. The Indian Navy operates three commands. Each command is headed by a flag officer commanding-in-chief with the rank of vice admiral. There are two joint commands whose head can belong to any of the three services. These are the Strategic Forces Command and the Andaman and Nicobar Command.

Apart from the three professional uniformed services the Central Armed Police Forces, which are referred to as 'Paramilitary Forces', are headed by civilian officers from the Indian Police Service and are under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs. These are central police organisations and mandated to defend the national interest mainly against the internal threats. The Indian coast guard that is mandated to do coastal security also works under the Ministry of Home affairs.

At the intelligence front India has various intelligence agencies, of which the Intelligence Bureau (IB) is the oldest. Created in 1887, IB reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs and is responsible for India’s domestic intelligence, internal security, and counter-intelligence. The Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), meanwhile, is the country’s foreign intelligence agency. Formed in 1968, it comes under the direct command of the prime minister. Legally speaking, R&AW is a wing of the Cabinet Secretariat. Established in 2004, the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO; erstwhile National Technical Facilities Organisation), is the technical intelligence agency of the Government of India. NTRO comes under the National Security Advisor and is part of the Prime Minister’s Office. There is also the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) that is tasked with anti-smuggling intelligence; it was set up in 1957, and falls under the Ministry of Finance.

At the apex level, the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), headed by the National Security Advisor (NSA), was set up by the NDA government following the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests. In 2018, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), a body created to aggregate and analyse all intelligence from the various agencies, was subsumed into the NSCS.

Prevailing Challenges: Need for reform

  • The geopolitical compulsions make it imperative for our defense forces to be ever-ready for any contingencies. South Asia is the second-most unstable region in the world after West Asia and we must not be complacent based on our past military achievement.
  • With a rising possibility of a two-front war on Western and North-Eastern front, the rising Chinese aggression, India faces a serious threat to its territorial sovereignty.
  • The Strategic angle of the Belt and Road initiative has been a cause of concern for defense experts.
  • Not only these traditional threats, increasing instability in the world order, US pulling out of Afghanistan, the threat of Taliban forces eying India are important concerns.
  • Indian defense planning has been mostly retrospective rather than pro-active which are laced with knee-jerk reactions to emergency situations despite the imminent threats.
  • There is a lack of funds for the modernization of the defense forces and infrastructure. For long the defense budget has been less than 2% of the GDP.
  • The post parliament attack mobilization delays put forth very fundamental issues with respect to force deployment.
  • Various committees in the past have had concerns about tri-services co-ordination.
  • While there have been some committees that studied the situation of defense preparedness, their approach was mainly of incremental changes.

What are some early efforts towards defense reforms?

The Sino-Indian Conflict in 1962 and its result mandated a new defense consciousness in the country after years of neglect, and efforts in defense planning began in 1964.

After 1964, various efforts were taken to reform the defence sector. Some of these are:

  • Defense requirements were assessed on a five-year basis and the First Defence Plan (1964-69) was drawn up.
  • A Planning Cell was established in 1965 in the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
  • The Second Defence Plan (1969-74) was instituted on a ‘roll-on’ basis. After a year was completed, an additional year was tagged at the other end so that the armed forces would always have a revised and updated five-year plan. This method was found to be impractical.
  • In 1960-70s The Committee for Defence Planning (CDP) was established under the Cabinet Secretary.
  • In order to integrate defense planning with the overall economic planning effort, defence and economic development plans were made co-terminus.
  • The only time a serious security review was undertaken in the recent past was after the Kargil Conflict of 1999 when the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) headed by the late K. Subrahmanyam was appointed.

What have been the weaknesses of early reforms?

  • While efforts have been made to improve defense planning, implementation of the reform process continues to be slow-paced.
  • Five-year defence plans rarely see government approval. The 10th and the 11th Defence Plan were not approved at all and drifted along on an ad hoc basis.
  • Annual defense budgets add an element of uncertainty to the planning process. The unutilized funds continue to lapse back at the end of the financial year.
  • The defense acquisition of new weapons and equipment by the armed forces remains bound in bureaucratic red tape and controversies of corruption.
  • There is a tussle of approaches between the aspiration of technological self-reliance in the political leadership and the desire of the services to import arms and equipment based on immediate operational exigencies.
  • The disconnect between R&D, production agencies, and the defense demands remains unresolved. This delays the indigenous production process.

Armed Force Reforms: Committees and Recommendation

The first significant committee that looked to overhaul the defence infrastructure was the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) under the chairmanship of Mr. K Subrahmanyam. The committee was set up "to examine the sequence of events and make recommendations for the future". After tabling of KRC report government constituted a Group of Minister to review the national security system in its entirety and in particular, later most of the recommendation of KRC was accepted through recommendations of the GoM.

Naresh Chandra committee recommendation

  • Appointment of another four-star post, a permanent Chairman of the present COSC(Chief of Staff Committee)COSC to provide single-point advice to the CCS on military matters.
  • For operational requirement – appointment of CDS and simultaneously creating Integrated Theatre commands for joint warfare in future conflicts.
  • Creation of three new tri-service commands: 1. Special Operations Command Aerospace Command and 3. Cyber Command

    Theatre command and its need

    It is a joint command which unified and places the resources of all forces i.e., from the IAF, the Army and the Navy at the command of single senior military commander.

    In joint command all services work together and maintain their independent identity while in Integrated command each service seek to merge individual Service identities to achieve a composite and cohesive whole.

    These ‘unified combat commands’ are organized either on geographical basis with a defined mission in a specific ‘area of responsibility’ somewhere on the globe or on a ‘functional’ basis.

    Major military powers like the US and China operates via theatre commands. China restructured its military in 2015 to come up with six theatre commands, whereas America’s theatres – the Unified Combatant Commands – are global in scope.

    India has 19 commands (14 geographic commands, 3 functional and 2 joints).

    Theatre commands are seen as better for pooling resources and improving efficiency.

    Air force doesn’t have enough resources — fighter squadrons, mid-air refuelers and AWACS — to allocate them dedicatedly to different theatre commanders.

    In the heat of the battle, differences between the two services will inevitably crop up and that can very seriously affect our effectiveness. Hence, a theatre command with one commander is the need of the hour.

Shekatkar Committee: Mandate and recommendation

It was expected to study and recommend policies and actions to enhance the combat potential of the armed forces and re-balancing defense expenditure with an aim to increase the tooth-to-tail ratio (i.e., the amount of military personnel it takes to supply and support each combat unit).

On Economy:

  • Roll-on defence budget, so that enough capital expenditure can be made available for modernization instead of the current practice of surrendering unspent capital budget at the end of the financial year.
  • Increase the defence budget to 2.5-3% of the GDP.

On Interoperability between the services:

  • Reiterated the Naresh Chandra Taskforce recommendation of Appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for transforming single service organizations to integrated fighting units.
  • Devising an integrated War approach by Indian Army, Navy, and Airforce.
  • We should create three integrated commands instead of existing 17 separate commands
  • The Tri-Service intelligence should be made.
  • There Should be a Joint Service War College which will conduct the course of one year for mid-level officers from all the forces

On Manpower optimization:

  • There should be more focus on the tooth-to-tail ratio that includes not only armed forces but also related organizations like the organizations that function under the MoD such as the DRDO, OFB, DGQA, defense estates, CGDA, BRO, the defense PSUs and not least of all, the MoD itself.
  • Optimization of non-combat support in the army i.e., the supply corps, ordinance, and engineers. A performance audit of the role of non-combat organizations was also recommended.

Response to the recommendations

  • The government accepted the long-awaited recommendation of appointing a Chief of Defence staff.
  • The Ministry of Defence approved 65 of these recommendations pertaining to the Indian Army, in August 2017.
  • The government has accepted to boost border road projects.The Border Road Organization has been delegated enhanced procurement powers from RS. 7.5 crores to Rs. 100 crores.

Review and restructuring after 2017-18:

  • In 2017, the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) initiated an exercise in collaboration with NSCS to review the system.
  • The NSCS is consequently being expanded, to induct domain experts from within and outside government.
  • Its work is now organised in four verticals, three headed by Deputy NSAs and the fourth, the military vertical, headed by a Military Adviser of the same rank.
  • An anomaly created in 1999 has been corrected in 2018, with the reconstitution of the SPG, with NSA as its Chairman.
  • A Defence Planning Committee (DPC) was notified by the MoD in April 2018. It was chaired by the NSA and included the three service chiefs, the defence, foreign and expenditure secretaries and the Chief of IDS.
  • In October 2018 a Defence Space Agency (DSA) was constituted as a platform for integration and optimal use of space resources.
  • In June 2019, the CCS approved the contours of the DSA, which would include representatives of the armed forces, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and would be tasked with developing a range of platforms to protect Indian assets in space.
  • Establishment of a Defence Cyber Agency to develop measures and strategies to defend India’s military assets, including critical infrastructure, against cyber threats.
  • The functioning of the NSAB has also been reviewed to see how it could be made more responsive to the needs of the national security establishment.
  • In January 2019, a diversity of domain expertise has been introduced in NSAB, including (among others) foreign and strategic affairs (including neighbourhood experience), intelligence, internal security, international commerce, finance and emerging technologies.
  • In 2019, Centre approved the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the Department of Military Affairs as the fifth department within the Ministry of Defence.

The Chief of Defence Staff:

  • Ministry of Defence (MoD) created the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to provide “effective leadership at the top level” to the three wings of the armed forces.
  • Bipin Rawat has been appointed as the country’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
  • The post of Chief of Defence Staff created in the rank of a four-star General with salary and perquisites equivalent to a Service Chief.
  • The post is created to
    • promote jointness in procurement, training and staffing for the Services through joint planning and integration of their requirements.
    • facilitate restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands.
    • promote use of indigenous equipment by the Services.
  • Central government has set 65 as the maximum serving age for the CDS.
  • The Chief of Defence Staff will also head the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), created within the Ministry of Defence and function as its Secretary.
  • He would be primus inter pares or first among equals. He is also vested with the authority to provide directives to the three chiefs.
  • CDS will act as the principal military adviser to the defence minister on all tri-services matters.
  • The three Chiefs will continue to advise Defence Minister on matters exclusively concerning their respective Services.
  • CDS will not exercise any military command, including over the three Service Chiefs, so as to be able to provide impartial advice to the political leadership.
  • He will serve as the permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC) which comprises the three service chiefs.
  • As the Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee, CDS will perform the following functions:
    • CDS will administer tri-services organisations including those related to Cyber and Space.
    • CDS will be a member of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by the Defence Minister and the Defence Planning Committee headed by National Security Advisor
    • Function as the Military Adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority.
    • Implement the five-year Defence Capital Acquisition Plan (DCAP) and the two-year roll-on Annual Acquisition Plans as a follow up of the Integrated Capability Development Plan.
    • Assign inter-Services prioritisation to capital acquisition proposals based on the anticipated budget.
    • Bring about reforms in the functioning of three Services aimed at augmenting combat capabilities of the Armed Forces by reducing wasteful expenditure.

Reforms post COVID-19 in Defence Sector: Atma-Nirbhar Bharat

  • A negative list for the import of defence equipment in India: The negative list essentially means that the Armed Forces—Army, Navy and Air Force—will only procure all of these 101 items from domestic manufacturers
  • A separate capital budget for indigenous weapons procurement,
  • Corporatisation of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and reforming the defence procurement.
  • Raising the sectoral cap of foreign direct investment (FDI) (automatic approval) from the existing 49% to 74%
  • The government has promised i) a time-bound defence procurement process, ii) overhauling trial and testing procedures iii) establishing a professional project management unit.

Reforms needed:

  • To combine India’s 17 widely-dispersed, single-service Commands into four or five mission/threat-oriented, geographically contiguous “Joint” or “Theatre Commands”.
  • To place the appropriate war fighting resources of all three services directly under the command of the designated Theatre Commanders; and
  • To achieve efficiency/economy by pooling of facilities and resources of the three services.
  • Traditional formation needed to change to Integrated battle group (IBG) to carry out swift strikes in case of war: It will be formed by integrating the existing elements of infantry, tank regiments, artillery, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), engineers and signals. It will have six battalions of infantry, armoured and artillery, commanded by Major General or Brigadier.
  • Change in Doctrinal Mindset: LOC mind set is not need at LAC, built in of reserve and quick mobilization of forces and resources rather than patrolling each and every sectors of the LAC.
  • Reform in Size: Indian Army size is approx. 13 lakhs. Increase is not needed rather through IBG and doctrinal mind set change economies can be created to raise more divisions of armies.
  • Fire power reform in the Indian Army: More artilleries over rifles. For example: Vajra K9 and Dhanush.
  • Promoting self-reliance: India imports majority of it arms, it takes over 9% of global imports.This external dependence for weapons, spares and, in some cases, even ammunition creates vulnerabilities during military crises.
  • Creation of Space command vis-a-vis US’s spacecom and U.S. Space Force (USSF) as the sixth branch of the armed forces to combat future warfare.


  • Critiques argue that India’s existing separate “Command Headquarters” for the Indian Army, Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force stand operationally time-tested by India’s wars with China and Pakistan. There is no need for theatre command. Each command has specific strength according to their geographical need.
  • The Northern Command has a vast mountainous terrain of the Kashmir region and the glacial and high-altitude mountains of the Ladakh region. Theatre command may lead to compromise in specific strength
  • Theatre Military Commands would need dedicated allocation of combat assets to each Theatre Military Command. This may create a tussle over scare resources
  • During the recent Air Force war game Exercise Gagan shakti showcased that its assets can shift from one theatre to the other within no time and putting them under a dedicated theatre would not be of much use in country with limited resources

Way forward

India’s military reforms are complex, the GoI needs to seriously consider the constitution of a Parliamentary Committee, with military advisers, to oversee and guide this transformational process. It must formulate a comprehensive National Security Strategy (NSS) and enhance defence budget to 3.0 per cent of the GDP for defence modernisation. Priorities long-pending such as defence procurement plans, such as C4I2SR, artillery modernisation, acquisition of modern fighter aircraft and aircraft carriers and submarines must be undertaken. To be future ready research and development on the use of artificial Intelligence to combat modern warfare should be taken.