What India’s defence reforms mean for Australia — and India

This article by Kim Heriot-Darragh was originally published in The Strategist on Thursday 4 April 2024.

Image: PradeepGaurs via Shutterstock

India’s military is likely to establish several new joint commands this year in one of the most significant restructures in its history. The country is one of Australia’s closest partners, with one of the world’s biggest militaries, so how it approaches its defence priorities matters deeply to us, and to the Indo-Pacific.

But India’s proposed commands are just one part of a broader suite of reforms, including changes in its defence ministry. The reforms are designed to be mutually reinforcing and are best judged for their cumulative effects over decades.

In the interim, two implications for Australia are clear. First, the reforms could substantially heighten Indian defence capabilities—if implemented thoughtfully and with sustained political backing. Second, they are paving the way for deeper defence cooperation with Australia.

India established a new military position, the chief of defence staff (CDS), in late 2019. Before then, the navy, army and air force operated in parallel. Their chiefs coordinated with each other but reported separately to the defence minister (often through a tri-service committee, but not an overarching commander).

The CDS changed things. He doesn’t command the service chiefs, who share the same rank as he. But he’s a very experienced professional who drives policy and acts as a single point of military advice to government.

He’s also politically appointed. Current CDS General Anil Chauhan initially retired as a lieutenant general and was serving as a civilian defence adviser to the highly influential national security advisor before re-entering military service to take the CDS position on promotion in 2022.

Chauhan carries the implied weight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to reform a complex system with many conflicting, if legitimate, priorities. In turn, he can probably shape the political discussion on national security better as CDS than he could if he were one of several service chiefs.

For Australia, the CDS represents a positional counterpart with which our chief of defence force to engage. This goes a long way to foster rapport and sustain momentum between two armed forces that operate differently to one another, and don’t always have direct equivalents.

One of the CDS’s primary responsibilities is to better integrate navy, army and air force capabilities to ensure their collective power is greater than the sum of their parts—to foster a joint approach to military affairs. Implied in that task is eliminating financial inefficiencies across the services.

India’s forthcoming joint commands are at the heart of this process. They will be staffed by personnel from multiple services organised to fulfil core functions, such as defending India’s contested borders with China and Pakistan, and to leverage resources across all services to consolidate India’s maritime power.

This is welcome. India’s three services already collaborate, particularly at the tactical level. But the strategic process of forming shared objectives, culture and approaches to military operations is endless, as are the potential capability dividends.

The modestly sized Australian Defence Force is well placed to collaborate on this. It relies heavily on leveraging all three services, and its international partners, to achieve its objectives. Some of its approaches won’t be relevant to India. But they offer useful test cases for what worked, and didn’t work, for us.

Once established, India’s joint commands could facilitate more defence cooperation with Australia. Amphibious exercises or cooperative humanitarian assistance missions, which depend on inter-service collaboration, should be easier to plan if the need to liaise with multiple siloes on either side is eliminated.

But India’s journey to a joint approach is about more than integrating military capabilities. Civil-military cooperation is also key. New Delhi’s creation of a new government department within its defence ministry deserves as much attention as military commands do.

Led by the CDS, the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) is primarily staffed by military officers seconded to the ministry.  It exists to better integrate military and civilian perspectives within the defence bureaucracy.

This is significant. The military has been instrumental in shaping India’s national security conversation at times. But its early political leaders were cautious about becoming too reliant on military advice, lest serving officers exert undue influence. Simultaneously, conventional appraisals of Indian military capabilities emphasised the need for civilian leaders to respect military expertise.

According to this logic, the military would perform best when given space to conceive and execute operations without unhelpful meddling from above. Strategic policy, senior appointments and defence budgets were a civilian domain; operations were for military personnel.

This approach arguably helped consolidate civilian supremacy over India’s armed forces while preserving space for the military to achieve its missions. But it also created siloes between civilian defence officials and their uniformed counterparts, in a dynamic that Anit Mukherjee calls an ‘absent dialogue’ in his excellent book.

Military and civilian officers collaborate daily in Delhi. But, when frustrated, a civilian ministry official might complain that military officers lack political or strategic nuance. Their uniformed peers might retort that civilians, who are often assigned to the defence ministry from unrelated portfolios, don’t have the expertise required to wield their enormous power over priorities and budgets. These perspectives are likely familiar the world over.

Establishing the DMA hasn’t been India’s first attempt to better integrate military and civilian voices within the military, and its impact will take time to judge. But any progress matters. Military operations work best when they incorporate civilian perspectives, from within government and among civil society. And no national security strategy can be taken seriously if it isn’t underpinned by robust military advice.

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