The creation of CDS is undoubtedly a much-needed step, albeit a few decades late. It will require to be followed up with resolute political actions to reconfigure the armed forces and the ministry to meet India’s aspirations to become a global power
Arguably, the most significant announcement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Independence Day speech on August 15, 2019 was announcement of the long pending demand for the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to ensure better coordination between the three services. CDS has been recommended by both the Kargil Review Committee led by K Subrahmanyam in 1999, as well as the Committee of Experts set up by Ministry of Defence under the chairmanship of Lieutenant General Shekatkar. Although there is considerable ambiguity and speculation about the exact charter as well as status and responsibility assignment of the CDS. However, CDS going by various recommendations and media reports would be a four-star military officer (equivalent in rank to the three chiefs, in the pay grade of Cabinet Secretary), who would act as the single point adviser to the government on military matters. CDS, being the first amongst equals, would also coordinate with the three armed forces and tide over the differences between them, if any.
Modern warfare cannot be won by any country, as long as each service plans and fights its battle independently. To further worsen the situation, present Indian Armed Forces structures are primarily colonial in nature and were configured by the British to serve their interests during the World Wars. There has been a crying need for restructuring of armed forces, as future wars are going to be short intense affairs, where all organs of the state are likely to be employed simultaneously. Such a scenario would require complete unity of command. Such unity is only feasible when the country has a unified command structure led by CDS. However, ignorance about matters concerning defence within the political establishment has allowed the bureaucrats to manipulate the system to prevent the CDS from being appointed as they felt it would weaken their stranglehold over the Ministry of Defence.
K Subrahmanyam, considered the doyen of strategic thinking in modern India, and a rare bureaucrat, who placed national interests above nepotism, in Kargil Review Committee, recommended a CDS and a Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS), a Group of Ministers headed by then Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani examined it and recommended CDS with a tri-service joint planning staff. Accordingly, Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQIDS) was created in October 2001, but the bureaucratic machinations successfully stalled the appointment of CDS by creating fear psychosis in the minds of politicians. (Somehow a perception was created that it would be far easier for a CDS to stage a coup). So, an extremely comic situation was created wherein an organisation was set up and kept functioning without its organisational head for last 18 years.
CDS will eliminate the huge void in Indian defence system, as it would make the forces more effective. However, the mere creation of CDS will not eliminate the problem. This will need to be augmented by restructuring of Ministry of Defence (MoD) and creation of integrated theatre commands. Already there are murmurs of dissent within the bureaucratic circles. Long used to having authority without any accountability, they are unwilling to cede power to the CDS. In a bureaucracy with total feudal mindset, both the IAS and IFS are unwilling to report to any other government employee, who does not belong to their cadre. Consequently, Kargil Review Committee’s recommendation to have a senior IFS officer in HQ IDS, remains unimplemented to date. Consequently, the CDS not only needs to understand the working of three services, he also needs to understand the subtle nuances of the functioning of the government as well as the global security environment. He therefore needs to be a cerebral warrior, who should not be appointed merely on the basis of seniority and rotation. The government must select one, only after interviewing all the top officials of the three services.
Despite PM’s announcement, it is not going to be a smooth flow. There is bound to be opposition from entrenched interests. Besides bureaucratic resistance, the three armed forces afraid of losing their turf are bound to create hurdles in the functioning of CDS. The government may have to take a leaf out of US Goldwater-Nichols Act and push the three services. To begin with all defence land and capital budget must be put under CDS and Defence Estate department and FADS should be brought under his control. In the three services, appointments in inter service organisations must be made essential for further promotions. Most significantly, for CDS to be effective, he must have direct access to the Defence Minister and through him to the Prime Minister at least once a month.
Finally, the MoD needs to be reorganised with induction of serving and retired defence officers, at the same time bureaucrats and diplomats should be placed in military command structures. The time has come for the establishment of integrated theatre commands, who should be directly responsible to the Defence Minister for all combat operations. Each service chief should only be responsible for equipping, organising and training of the forces.
The creation of CDS is undoubtedly a much-needed step, albeit a few decades late. It will need to be followed up with resolute political actions to reconfigure the armed forces and the ministry to meet India’s aspirations to become a global power.
(The writer is a former naval officer and presently is Director, India Foundation and adjunct professor at New Delhi Institute of Management)