Among the many announcements made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address
was that of the decision to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff. The PM said that the debate on reform in the defence sector, had been an ongoing one in the country involving successive governments. Many commissions have looked into the issues and their reports are more or less in agreement of the fact that while there was commendable coordination among the services, in today’s technology-driven world, the nature of war is changing and we cannot afford to think in separate compartments. For greater integration and to ensure that all three Services move lock-step, he said that he was announcing the creation of the post of CDS to give the three Services “effective leadership at the top level”.
What Modi has done, in his typical style, is to cut through thirty years of procrastination, often induced by vested interests in the armed forces, the civilian bureaucracy and the political class itself. Throughout the world, such moves have been resisted and have required the political authorities to ram them down the throat of the existing military bureaucracies, which tend to be conservative and status quo-like.
So far all we have is an announcement. In the coming period we will get a better idea of how the government plans to implement it. Hopefully, they understand that the appointment of the CDS is only the beginning of a process, not its end. It signals the government’s decision to integrate the functioning of the armed forces as the PM has said clearly. But there are other issues involved as well such as the integration of the armed forces and the ministry of defence, the overhaul of the acquisition process, the creation of theatre commands and so on.
Making an appointment of a CDS is the easy part, the more difficult one is on shaping his mission and supporting him by making the necessary changes in the government’s rules and regulations. All this can be well understood by going back into the history of the CDS issue.
Though there had been talks about the need for a tri-service commander earlier, the first formal move came through the 2001 Group of Ministers Report on Reforming the National Security System (GOM
) which is the most extensive set of reforms in the country’s history. New procedures were adopted, institutions modified and strengthened and new structures created. Indeed, all the recommendations of the GOM were accepted, yet when the report was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security on May 11, 2001 it was decided that the recommendation with regard to the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff would be considered later “after the Government is able to consult various political parties.”
The GOM envisaged that the CDS would provide “single point military advice to the government,” have administrative control over India’s Strategic Forces Command, be responsible for intra and inter-Service prioritization of acquisitions and projects and finally, ensure the required “cohesion” in the armed forces.
He would be the permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) with the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS) as a Member-Secretary. For the purpose of facilitating the CDS, an Integrated Defence Staff headed by a Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (CIDS) was also created. This post was to be held by rotation among the three services.
The GOM did not seek to make him senior to the service chiefs, but they were clear that he would be “primus inter pares in the COSC and function as the “Principal Military Adviser” to the Defence Minister.”
A key goal of the GOM reforms was to enhance the “uniformity” of the armed forces. The CDS/VCDS system along with the creation of a defence staff and the cross-posting of officers in the operations, intelligence and plans directorate in the service headquarters were to be the first major steps in this direction. Another step in that direction was the creation of a joint Defence Intelligence Agency, as well as the tri-Service Andaman & Nicobar Command, both of which were to come under the proposed CDS.
From the outset it became clear that the position of CDS would not get approval immediately because the NDA government wanted political consultations before making a decision. However, it later transpired that the United Progressive Alliance government was also not in favour of appointing such a person and the result was that the UPA tenure saw the position unfilled and the integration of the armed forces and planning process was severely constrained.
When it became clear that the CDS and VCDS appointments were not happening, the government created the Integrated Defence Staff in 2001 with a three star officer appointed as its chief. In the absence of a CDS, the IDS became the secretariat of the existing Chairman, COSC, a position held by the senior-most serving chief which rotates among the three Services. As of now, it is the COSC who advises the defence minister and, through him, the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs on all matters relating to military affairs.
The real weakness of this system is that the tenure of the Chairman COSC is limited and, furthermore, since he is also the chief of his branch of the armed forces, not only is he not seen as an impartial arbiter on inter-Services matters, but he simply lacks the time to devote himself to the significant responsibilities that came with the creation of the IDS.
In the absence of the CDS, some of proposed functions of the CDS were taken over by the Chairman COSC who, through the IDS, assumed the supervision of the tri-service Andaman & Nicobar Command, the integrated planning and the supervision of the DIA. In recognition of the importance of the IDS, its chief, though a three star officer, was given the status of a non-voting member of the COSC.
In 2012, the Task Force on National Security headed by Naresh Chandra
revisited the issue and in view of the resistance towards the CDS, sought to find a way by re-labeling the position as the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). This would provide a fourth four-star officer to the COSC, but who would be primus inter pares
among the chiefs of staff of the three services. He would be assisted by a 3-star chief of staff heading the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) which already existed.
The permanent chairman COSC would: a) coordinate and prioritise the 15 year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP), the Annual Acquisition Plan, b) administer the tri-service institutions and agencies c) exercise command over the Andaman & Nicobar Command, the Special Operations Forces and forces involved in out of area contingencies d) have administrative control over the Strategic Forces Command e) plan and conduct joint service exercises which could be used to prove a future theatre command concept f) encourage the creation of integrated logistics, training and administrative mechanisms involving all three services g) be the source of coordinated advice on matters relating to two or more service h) prepare an annual defence status report which would lay out the readiness posture of the services.
Aware of the pitfalls of the earlier committees, the Naresh Chandra Committee also strongly recommended that the duties and responsibilities of the PCOSC be written into the government of India’s rules relating to the allocation and transaction of business. These rules define the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence as being “responsible for the proper transaction of business” related to the Ministry. They are silent on the role of any uniformed officer.
In beginning of the reform of the higher defence management of the country, there is need for a wider shift of the paradigm. A great deal of resistance to the idea of a CDS had come from the political class who in the words of Steven I Wilkinson
, had structured India’s higher command “to minimize the risk of military intervention in the country’s politics.” Indeed, the UPA’s hesitation in appointing a CDS came from Sonia Gandhi herself, who felt that this could endanger democracy.
Actually, when theatre commands are set up, their commanders will be the one with operational forces. Neither the CDS, nor the Service Chiefs will have direct command over them. The former will be involved as a link between the political masters and the theatre commanders, while the latter will merely be in-charge of provisioning their respective forces and training them.
After the disaster of 1962, the political class went to an extreme and left the operational issues to the armed forces and relied on the non-expert bureaucracy to exercise supervision over them. But war today involves an overlap of nuclear, conventional, sub-conventional war with law fare, cyberwar, spywar and info war.
The space between the strategic and operational have been squeezed, as is evident from the fact that an attack on the Golden Temple in 1984 had nation-wide consequences. In short, politicians need to be more, rather than less, involved in military issues and be so at all levels, strategic, operational and tactical. Furthermore, they need more sophisticated advisers, both civilian and uniformed. So far, politicians have tended to rely on non-expert civilians to supervise the military personnel and have excluded military personnel from playing a role at the strategic level. The appointment of a CDS and its attendant reforms should ring in change in this state of affairs.
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