The present government, following its security-related move by revoking Article 370 and 35A in Jammu and Kashmir made a similar announcement. The Prime Minister announced that the three defence services — the Army, the Navy and the Air Forces — will soon get a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to optimise coordination between them. This declaration was made on the 73rd Independence Day.
The concept of a Chief of Defence Staff was conceived in the 1980s but languished for want of required impetus. Military matters have never been a taboo, but have seldom been discussed in the Parliament. In the aftermath of the Kargil shock, a Kargil Review Committee (KRC) was constituted on July 29, 1999, to enquire into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the Kargil episode and to suggest remedial measures to prevent a recurrence. The committee had found that during the war, especially in the initial days, there was little coordination between the Army and the Air Force — a shortcoming that threatened to prolong the conflict.
The KRC recommendations were accepted and tabled in the Lok Sabha on February 28, 2000. A Group of Ministers (GoM) was formed to evaluate and act on the KRC recommendations. The group headed by the then deputy prime minister LK Advani created four task forces on May 22, 2000, each having a specific mandate. Arun Singh led the task force on higher defence organisation, and the GoM accepted its recommendations on January 5, 2001. A critical element in the task force’s recommendation was the creation of the post of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to function as the principal military advisor to the government of India. A principal defence secretary was to be the co-equal of the CDS, and the two were to rank above the Chiefs of Staffs of the Army, Navy and the Air force.
However, in the absence of political consensus and resistance from the Indian Air Force and the bureaucracy, the proposal did not move ahead. The opposition from the Air Force had its reasons. Though nothing is available in the public domain, it is believed that fear of the Army getting hold of the post due to regular anti-terror operations. In addition to inherent numerical strength and establishing domination, IAF’s relegation to supporting role was apparently playing in their minds.
Modernisation of military structure and organisation is equally vital as modernising equipment. The appointment of a CDS by itself will not alter the situation immediately but would be a first and necessary step forward to address the process of change that has become inevitable to keep with changing times.
This reform is aimed to bring better integration and synergy between the three services, and optimise on capability development efforts of the armed forces.
Challenges to be addressed on priority
The first and big challenge will be identifying the first person to be appointed as CDS. His involvement from the beginning in the formulation of strategies, concepts, and doctrines would greatly help in bringing desired changes, providing him with a platform to become fully functional.
The most critical challenge is for the government to lay down the role clearly, exact nature of the appointment, authority, jurisdiction, status, financial powers, the new balance with the bureaucracy, tenure, and with appropriate legal frameworks before appointing the first CDS.
Another challenge that awaits the new CDS is the formulation of quick time joint plans for all possible contingencies in today’s context, requiring operational readiness to take any threat head-on at short notice based on intelligence inputs and in consultation with the three service chiefs.
Role of CDS
The CDS is expected to play a dynamic role in defence planning, modernisation and force restructuring. In the initial stage, ‘single point control’ over capability development and ‘single point coordination’ between the services for formulation of strategies, concepts, and doctrines would need greater emphasis.
The suggested role of the CDS should include threat analyses and control of budgetary allocations and procurements to optimise the nation’s military capability. The training and operational control of the armed forces must continue to remain with the individual chiefs as at present.
The CDS, as the principal military advisor to the PM, RM and the Cabinet Committee on Security, should be replacing the Defence Secretary as the sole advisor hitherto, who is currently and inappropriately charged with the defence of India, instead of RM the highest authority exercising civilian control. This will automatically situate CDS appropriately in the higher defence organisation and national security structures. The CDS would require the status and authority as equal to coordinate his functions with the NSA. Since late 2018, the NSA chairs the Strategic Policy Group, though Cabinet Secretary coordinates the functioning of the group. Defence Secretary and the CDS would both be heads of respective civilian and military verticals, having direct access and providing independent channels of advice to the RM on respective subjects.
Inter-service preference for the post
All along, as a whole, the approach of the military has been army-centric. There have been many instances where the army deferred and delayed requisitioning air support, eventually overcoming early reluctance — infamous 1962 war, early days of 1965 operations, 1971 operation, Kargil operations et al. The fact that in today’s context, and the foreseeable future, it is the air forces and navies that win modern wars. This would seem to tilt the balance in the planning and execution of warfare more in favour of Air Force expertise at the very top as compared to other services, certainly in our context.
The IAF has come a long way since Kargil days in practically every aspect of warfare. It has fulfilled the expectations in full measure whenever called upon, the recent being Balakot strike.
The process of selection needs to be put in place immediately. The problem here is twofold: an independent thinking officer may be assertive and thus will be seen as a threat by the bureaucracy, while a less assertive one may be less effective defeating the purpose of creating CDS. The present arrangement of the senior-most of the three services being appointed as the chairman of the CoSC with no specific tenure may have managed to incorporate some level of togetherness but cannot be said to be anywhere close to the level that the situation demands.
A professional screening committee comprising recently retired former Chiefs of the three services who are themselves not in the reckoning, Scientific Advisor to RM and an independent technocrat of eminence can be considered. At first thinking, rotation from the three services may appear reasonable, but that would perhaps restrict the option to choose the right candidate.
The officer once selected, should enjoy a minimum tenure of two years and a higher age of retirement than the Service Chiefs, to provide for continuity. If a serving Chief is to be elevated, the age limit of 64 years gives this advantage.
The success of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) will depend on the kind of powers the person appointed to the post enjoys. For the model to succeed, the CDS would require to be fully supported by the RM, NSA, the Service Chiefs and the Defence secretary. In the ultimate analysis, good CDS who has perfected the art of working through tact, consensus-building and mutual respect with his other counterparts in the environment will bring to bear unwritten strength and primacy to the post.
(Author is a retired Wing Commander, and was a Fighter Controller who actively participated in 1965 and 1971 wars. He was awarded VSM (Vishisht Seva Medal) by the President of India on January 1976. His three sons had served in IAF and voluntarily retired as Wing Commanders. Views expressed by the author are personal.)