CDS should not become another bureaucratic layer

NewsCDS should not become another bureaucratic layer

Armed forces need to be better coordinated and the country should have a single point military advice.



Chandigarh: The government is expected to announce the much awaited post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) by this yearend. This has been a long-standing demand by large sections within and outside the armed forces who for over five decades have been opining ad nauseam that there is need for the armed forces to be better coordinated and for the country to have a single point military advice, considering how vast, complex and important India is, especially with its myriad security challenges.

The announcement that a CDS would be created was made by the Prime Minister in his Independence Day speech this year. It had taken the defence community by surprise since previous governments had been hesitant to take this decision.

The discussions about appointing a CDS have been among the longest hesitations in India’s post-Independence defence history. The other long hesitation has been India’s overt nuclear weaponisation, a discussion that lasted 24 long years (1974-1998). The discussion and debate for creating a CDS arose in some earnest after the debacle of the Sino-Indian War (1962), in which India lost to China a part of the Union Territory of Ladakh and following the “lost victory” of the Indo-Pak 1965 War which had witnessed coordination problems between the Army and the IAF (Indian Air Force) among several other problem areas. The debate for a CDS developed momentum after the short-lived Janata Dal-led National Front government appointed the Committee on Defence Expenditure, better known as the Arun Singh Committee, in 1990, to review the existing defence structure and to recommend practical solutions to rationalise military expenditures.

By then there had been a number of landmark defence and security related developments. India had militarily defeated and politically dismembered Pakistan (1971) and exploded a nuclear device (1974). The 1980s was arguably an even more militarily intense decade. In April 1984 India pre-empted the Pakistanis by establishing a permanent military presence in the world’s highest, coldest and most expensive to maintain Siachen Glacier vide Operation Meghdoot and launched two hasty and ill-conceived operations—Operation Blue Star (June 1984) and the tri-service Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka (1987-90) that went on to become “India’s Vietnam”. Both resulted in the tragic loss of many soldiers and loss of national image. In the same decade India engaged in two major controversial military exercises named Brass Tacks (1986-87) and Chequerboard (1987) that almost resulted in wars with Pakistan and China, respectively. On a positive note, India engaged in a short and successful tri-service Operation Cactus (1988) in Maldives on the latter’s request.

The demand and debate for a CDS intensified over the last two decades following the May-July 1999 Kargil War, in which the entire Indian defence and intelligence apparatus was caught by surprise and that too for the third time vis-à-vis Pakistan since Independence. A Task Force on Higher Defence Management, appointed by a Group of Ministers (GoM) Committee soon after the Kargil War ended, specifically recommended the appointment of a CDS as the principal military advisor to the Government of India. This recommendation was endorsed by the high powered GoM Committee. The BJP-led NDA (1998-2004) had then accepted this recommendation in principle, but had sought a political consensus for creating the post of CDS. But that exercise was never completed. The Congress-led UPA did not make it a priority during its ten-year tenure (2004-2014) as did neither the current BJP-led NDA in its first term (2014-2019).

In keeping with India’s “committee culture”, the UPA government did, however, towards the end of its tenure, appoint a Task Force headed by Naresh Chandra, a former Cabinet Secretary, which, in May 2012, recommended creating the post of a Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, a seemingly “compromise solution” if not another part-measure. But as is the case with many committee reports in India’s post-Independence history, this too remained a paper exercise.

India’s attempt at creating a CDS has until now involved incremental measures, which could also be termed as half-measures. The armed forces are currently coordinated at the top through a Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, a rotational post held by the senior most Service Chief, who has rarely been effective in putting up a joint front in matters pertaining to policy, planning and operations. The next incremental measure was taken in 2001 (after the Kargil War) when the government created a Chief of Integrated Staff (CIS) to head an Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), a tri-services Secretariat for an until now elusive CDS meant to enhance synergy between the three Services which includes planning Forces structure, making joint assessments, engaging in inter-Service prioritisation of capability development plans; developing short, medium and long term integrated perspective plans; and planning joint training among several other jointness-oriented issues. This, however, has seemingly become yet another layer in military bureaucracy in the absence of an effective CDS. Besides, there have been few takers within the IAS and the IFS for slots allocated to these key services in the CIS-IDS Secretariat.

Around the time when the CIS-IDS was established, the government created a supposed and first-ever tri-Service Theatre Command in the form of the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) in 2001 followed by a tri-service Strategic Forces Command in 2003. The ANC continues to depend on the Eastern Naval Command for infrastructure and ranks low in the pecking order of the currently total 19 Commands spread across the three Services.

Then in April 2018 the government announced the formation of a Defence Planning Committee to facilitate “comprehensive” planning for the defence forces besides focusing on military doctrines to deal with emerging security challenges for India. In July 2018, the armed forces released a Joint Doctrine which provides for a broad framework of concepts and principles for joint planning and conduct of military operations across land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. And finally in May this year, the government took its first step towards probably eventually creating three more tri-Service functional commands by establishing a Special Forces Division, Defence Cyber Agency and a Defence Space Agency—all headed by a two star officer of the Army, Navy and Air Force, respectively.

It is thus not known whether the government will create a CDS on an incremental basis and with what mandate and role. For example, how effective will a CDS be in the absence of joint or combined Theatre Commands considering that India, which is one third in geographical size compared to both the US and China, currently has a staggering 17 single-Service Commands (seven each for the Army and the IAF and three for the Navy) and one Theatre Command, none of which is co-located. In addition, there is one Functional Command and three tri-Services specialist agencies/divisions. China, in contrast, has five Theatre Commands (recently reduced from an earlier seven), while the US, which operates in a global scale, has six geography-based Theatre Commands and four Functional Commands.

If the CDS is to be a four-star general, as is currently being speculated, then it only makes him a first among equals to the three Service Chiefs senior only in age with a slightly longer service. What will then be the role of the three Service Chiefs? Will the role and effectiveness of the CDS be dependent on his personality in such a situation? If, however, the CDS is a five star general, then that would make him senior to the Cabinet Secretary in the warrant of precedence. Where would the Cabinet Secretary rank in this situation and what would be the status of the Defence Secretary who is currently one rank lower in the warrant of precedence to the Service Chiefs.

Or, will the Ministry of Defence witness a major restructuring in which the armed forces and the civilian bureaucracy will be merged to function together? This raises the next point. Defence officers need to be made more aware of the Indian Constitution and its functioning, be made more aware of India’s political situation and of the functioning of the civilian government. Armed Forces the world over function in a prism of black or white, right or wrong, friend or foe, here and now. The civilian world is far more grey, complicated, nuanced and differently, if not agonising, paced. Governments round the world are conservative. This is especially true in India where for governments, time itself has no time. Time in India is endless and stretchable and where decisions happily wait.

The proverbial Clauswitzian overlap will only occur when the politicians and civilian bureaucracy develop a better understanding of the ethos, functioning and requirements of the armed forces and vice versa. This necessity has to be institutionalised and will evolve only over time.

One of the biggest obstacles to the creation of a CDS have been the armed forces themselves, especially the numerically smaller, technology intensive and resource limited IAF which has felt they will be subsumed by a massive Army (the world’s third largest) and their assets dissipated across a vast country. Empire building and inability to renounce power is intrinsic in human nature. Thus changing mindsets will be a major challenge for the Services because it will affect them the most. The US experienced the same agony for decades where eventually jointness was achieved “top down” through the famous Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganisation Act of 1986.

India will have to evolve its own system in keeping with its security requirements, geographical setting, strategic culture, foreign policy, long term goals and history. It should not be modelled on any one country since each nation has different security interests and environment. But it is imperative that the institution of the CDS is effective and meaningful, does not turn out to be a half-way house like the CIS-IDS and that the armed forces work towards deliberating creating an ethos of jointness, cohesion and synergy at the training, equipment and operational levels.

It would be unfortunate if the CDS ends up becoming another bureaucratic layer. Military bureaucracy can arguably be worse than civilian bureaucracy. And finally, should the designation not be CDF (Chief of Defence Force) rather than CDS. While some may term it semantics, the word Force in the designation reflect more meaning as a combined fighting machine.

Dinesh Kumar is a senior journalist based in Chandigarh.

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