On August 15, the Prime Minister announced, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the government’s decision to institute the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to usher in better jointness, cohesiveness and integration in the functioning of the three defence services. The institution of the CDS would be a great reform in the edifice of our national security structure.
A Group of Ministers (GoM) , as a part of the Kargil Review Committee in 1999, had astutely judged that there was an institutional divide between the civilian and military leadership which was very counterproductive.
They had thus recommended an urgent reform of the ministry of defence (MoD) and higher defence organisation.
The recommendation was that the appointment of a CDS should be created to, (i) offer a single point military advice to the government, (ii) rationalise competing interservices interests and arrive at balanced solutions, (iii) bring in jointness and integration amongst the three services, and (iv) to serve as an important link in the chain of National Command Authority to assist the National Security Advisor (NSA).
Accordingly, a headquarters (HQ) of Integrated Defence Staff was set up in January 2001 with approximately 40 officers, headed by an Army Commander-rank officer. This HQ, even though still headless, presently has over 100 officers and is contributing commendably.
Here, it will be in order to take stock of the magnitude of the work that already awaits CDS. There is a Strategic Forces Command and Andaman and Nicobar Command; a Cyber and Space Command is on the anvil with a Cyber Agency already set up; a Special Forces Command is in progress, and so is a National Defence University; and there remains a gap in coordination tasks with the Coast Guard. All these joint forces commands/institutions will fall within the span of responsibility of the newly appointed CDS. In case of any out-of-area contingencies, like earlier in Sri Lanka and Maldives, the planning and operational control would also be exercised by the CDS.
In his work, he will be greatly guided if a National Security Policy is laid down by the government. The CDS can then draw out the National Security Doctrine and the desired Force Structure, with the help of the three services. From this will be drawn a ‘Long Term Perspective Plan’ for the services. He will coordinate and exercise control over capital acquisitions and joint services matters like joint military doctrine, force structuring and joint training and budgeting. This coordination will help in weeding out duplicities, redundancies, and hence result in optimal utilisation and saving of funds. A CDS will thus have his hands more than full.
Most of India’s western land borders remain in a continuous state of war and volatility due to infiltration, incursions, and possible threat of territorial encroachment and misadventure. All these are a result of an ongoing proxy war for the last 30 years. Under these conditions, the army has to be in a perpetual state of readiness along its 7,500km long western and northern borders. Such situations can only be best handled by the Army Chief himself. In service-specific operational command and administrative matters, the primacy of the service chiefs would have to be retained.
That brings me next to aspect of creation of Integrated Commands/Theatres. We do not have such quantum of resources available to be dished out to different operational theatres. Moreover, that would also be at the cost of losing strategic flexibility and mobility, especially in case of the Indian Air Force and even for the Indian Navy. We should not copy countries like the US or the UK, which operate expeditionary forces well away from their borders. In such cases, the resources have to be allotted specifically to those theatres like Iraq and Vietnam because of the extensive distances from the homeland.
The CDS will also be primarily required to render single point advice to the government.
However, in case of differences of opinion, which cannot be mutually resolved, these matters will have to be discussed by all the chiefs together with the political leadership like in the US and the UK.
Finally, the CDS is not recommended to be a five-star appointment as he is neither meant to be a Commander-in-Chief of the three services nor a sole advisor on operational matters. No major country in the world today has a CDS or equivalent with a five-star rank. Moreover, the introduction of the five-star rank will bring in the problem of his equivalence with the Cabinet Secretary and down gradation of the status of service chiefs, which will be most undesirable.
Alongside the introduction of the CDS, necessary reforms in the MoD, including the changes in ‘rules of business’, are imperative. The responsibility for the defence of India should lie with the minister. True integration would be considered to have been instituted when almost fifty percent officers, at the decision making level in the MoD, would be from the services.
(The author is a former Army Chief and Chairman, Chief of Staff Committee)