Finally the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for a seamless integration of fighting capabilities of Army, Navy and Air Force is round the corner.
"Our forces are India's pride. To further sharpen coordination between the forces, I want to announce a major decision. India will have a Chief of Defence Staff. This is going to make the forces even more effective," Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared from the ramparts of the Red Fort during his Independence Day speech on August 15.
The art of modern warfare is changing fast. Fifth generation fighter jets are giving way to sixth generation ones to meet future challenges as technology has increased the danger by leaps and bounds. Era of supersonic jets will be soon over when the air warfare will see hypersonic struggle.
India cannot be left behind and has to formulate many of its strategic concepts given its two neighbours, China and Pakistan, showing perpetual enmity. The CDS appointment could be the first step going to the drawing board to tackle militant China, which has been a thorn in our flesh with its rapid militarisation and in coveting our territory. Even after 1962 War there were many incidents when Chinese forayed into our territory and still occupy parts of it. Doklam standoff of 2017 could have gone the wrong way but for Modi’s brave leadership in looking the bully in the eyes. Pakistani terror activities to destabilise Kashmir are major cause for worry thanks to China’s whole-hearted support to the rogue nation.
In the shifting sands of geopolitics re-think, future wars cannot be ruled out and India needs a seamless unified command for expeditious counter-offensive be it on land, sea or air. So far India has banked upon the efficacy of Army in fighting land wars with external support from Navy and Air Force. This has serious strategic and logistical difficulties and only a CDS can resolve by bringing depth through strategic planning all under one control.
The 1962 Chinese blitzkrieg took us by surprise. After that nothing was done to ease India’s worries vis-a-vis China’s territorial demand given the un-demarcated Himalayan border still a festering wound. New challenges have cropped up given China’s military and economic pressures. Chinese act of damming water flow from Tibet into the Brahmaputra River is a major cause for worry. And its frequent forays into our territorial waters in the Indian Ocean have resulted in continuous buildup of forces by both the countries not only in the Indian Ocean but along the land borders as well. A spark could trigger conflagration and India must not allow history torepeat itself.
Modi knows the importance of a unified theatre command especially when China has its own Western Theatre command to handle its entire 4057-km of LoC and Indian Army’s lack of a well-knit joint command if war suddenly breaks out. The Chinese are capable of rushing in a million men within 24 hours through the northern borders while all India can do is resist stubbornly. For a successful counter-attack strategic unification of the three forces are needed and only the CDS can address it.
When China was rapidly modernising its fighting capabilities, the then ruling Congress was lulling us into believing that fighting Pakistan is all there to it. Lot of water has flown under the bridge with ground rules of a modern warfare changing. It is also difficult to say who could be your enemy and who your friend and India must be prepared for any eventuality.
CDS not only can make Army, Navy and Air Force into one seamless, coordinated fighting force but can evolve strategy to face the threat of small, smart atomic bombs looming large. Quick reaction and quick counter measures are called for that spell difference between life and death.
Fortunately India already has Andaman and Nicobar tri-Command and Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) set up during Vajpayee’s tenure to deal with Chinese threat in Indian Ocean. Chinese submarines spy in our territorial waters and it has become habit of Chinese subs to collect vital information about the underwater operating environment of the littorals states and India, though Indian Navy is a dominant force in the region.
The role of a CDS was acutely felt during Kargil War. Former Indian Army chief General VP Malik has said a CDS can bring greater synergy in policy-making to fight better and execute a cost-effective war by proper channelisation of the powers of the armed forces. Present three separate command structures for Army, Navy and Air Force can be a spoiler when the foe is equal or stronger than us as China is. Strategic confusion militates against strategic cohesion and must be avoided at all cost.
Interestingly in search of strategic cohesion a CDS was mooted in the past. But it created fear and confusion among three chiefs of the armed forces. After the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chandra Lal had threatened to quit if the post of CDS was created. He feared CDS could ride roughshod over him. Later in 2001 Admiral Sushil Kumar was nearly made the CDS and a date too was fixed for his appointment when turf war broke among the three service chiefs. The idea of CDS was then scrapped.
If the CDS takes shape present Army Chief General Bipin Rawat could be India's first CDS given his seniority after the IAF Chief Birender Singh Dhanoa set to retire next month.
The concept of CDS is old dating back to Lord Mountbatten and to General KV Krishna Rao who had mooted it in 1982. Late Manohar Parrikar as Defence Minister too wanted it saying ‘CDS is “a must” to function as the arm of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).’ But officially the idea really took off in 2001 (after the Kargil War of 1999) when Kargil Review Committee in its report to Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by the then deputy Prime Minister LK Advani recommended a tri-Service joint planning staff HQ. The CCS did accept the recommendation but lack of political will led to its cold storage.
With Prime Minister's announcement for a CDS, a committee was formed on August 23 under the National Security Advisor. It comprises chiefly of Cabinet secretary, defence secretary and Chairman of the Chief of Staff Committee (C-COSC) to finalise powers and duties of the CDS. Its report expected in six weeks.
CDS role in today's era of hybrid warfare is critical as outcome depends on combined powers of the tri-service putting its act together to enhance overall combat capabilities. It comes not a day soon with many advanced countries having it.
Several defence experts have welcomed it. Defence expert PK Sehgal calls it “mega game-changer for restructuring and modernisation of the Armed Forces in integrated operations.”
While others like SP Sinha term the government decision “bold and commendable.” Praful Bakshi says that had there been a CDS India would not have lost 1962 war with China.
(The writer is Ahmedabad-based senior journalist)