It has been a year since the much-awaited post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was created to provide single point military advice to the national leadership. Almost two decades after a Group of Ministers recommended the creation of the post, General Bipin Rawat took over as the first CDS on 01 Jan 2019. It is perhaps the right time to see whether the manner of its creation and tenancy is a harbinger of enhanced military might and an efficient and cost-effective military machine or just another damp squib.
To put things in perspective, the military is the single source of hard national power, toexert the national will against an adversarial nation, or to prevent aggression by one as seen in Kargil, Doklam and Galwan. While the other sources of national power including economic, political, diplomatic, social and cultural cannot substitute for military power, the hard component, they have a role in enhancing soft power. Eviction of the Pakistani intruders from the icy heights of Kargil or stopping Chinese intrusions in Doklam and Galwan etc would not have been possible without application of military power. The Chinese annexation of Tibet and vast portions of Mongolia as well as extension of its territorial limits well into the South China sea, are all due to exercise of her hard power. It is difficult to imagine these results being achieved through other means.
Military power thus provides the foundation of national power, over which other elements build up. It is not without reason that developed countries with strong economies and highly developed diplomatic and other systems devote a substantial portion of their GDP to sustaining their military might as an essential means of compellence or deterrence.
Development and sustenance of military power involves, besides creating well trained military units and formations, for land, sea and air warfare, equipping and training them, providing them with higher direction to synergize their potential and to ensure their development through a continuous cycle of threat assessment, capability gap analysis, capability building, training and testing. Military power must also be supported with timely and comprehensive intelligence inputs, R&D, capital acquisitions and logistics support. There is need of an overarching authority to direct, coordinate, control and take responsibility for all these aspects. In a democracy, this authority must function directly under the political-executive, to enable it to merge the military might of the nation with the other sources of national power. This is the rightful role of the Chief of Defence Staff.
A review of the pre-CDS system and how the nation and its military fared on the parameters of military preparedness, intelligence, R&D, capital acquisitions and logistics would be useful. The pre-CDS Ministry of Defence (MoD), consisted of the Department of Defence (DoD), Department of Defence Production (DoDP), Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA), each headed by a Secretary level officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). A financial cell of the Finance Ministry was attached to the MoD. There appears to be no one, other than the Defence Minister, who exercised control to ensure that the departments worked together or to synergize their energies. Till a few years back the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister also headed the DRDO – an arrangement which was flawed.
The three service headquarters were initially “attached offices” and, post-Kargil, became “Integrated Offices” of the MoD. Files from the service headquarters were routed through a Joint Secretary in the DoD. Parametric analysis of the four wars that the nation fought under this dispensation would be useful to comment on its appropriateness.
The 1948 Kashmir war, which was fought before the present MoD was in place, saw well trained and equipped army units airlifted to Srinagar airfield to evict the tribal lashkar hordes let loose and actively supported by the Pakistani military in a bid to capture Jammu and Kashmir. Decisive military action executed with grit and valour soon had the marauders on the run. Disaster came in the form of Jawahar Lal Nehru’s decision, without the benefit of cabinet approval, to declare a cease fire (on the advice of Sheikh Abdullah) and to refer the matter the UNO, even before the marauders were completely evicted. Refusal to postpone the cease-fire by a fortnight as advised by his Army Chief resulted in a large portion of J&K remaining in the hands of the marauders, which constitutes Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK).
The debacle of 1962 was a direct consequence of Nehru’s naivety, inane concepts of statesmanship and obdurate dismissal of expert advice as well as of realities on the ground. The military was relegated to a ceremonial force, its powers severely curtailed in a dispensation created under Nehru’s orders by Defence Secretary HM Patel (Oct ’47 to Jul ’53). As a consequence, an ill prepared, un-acclimatised and ill-equipped army under an incompetent military leader (Lt Gen BM Kaul, an incompetent and unqualified relative that Nehru imposed upon the Army), was run over by the Chinese PLA, despite display of raw courage, valour, dedication and awe-inspiring junior leadership in the field. Nehru’s refusal to permit use of India’s superior air power, which would yet have resulted in defeating the Chinese aggression, was perhaps his crowning folly that cemented the outcome.
Despite being surprised in ’65, the Indian military, equipped with WW II vintage bolt action rifles, Sherman tanks (the Vijayanta was yet in prototype stage), fighter aircraft fleet of Vampire, Mysteres, Gnats and Hunter aircraft fought the Pakistani aggressors, equipped with superior Patton tanks, F-86 Sabre Jets and F 104 Star Fighters aircraft, to a stand-still. Intelligence failure apart, the political leadership under Lal Bahadur Shastri gave the military its full support and complete freedom of action to grab the initiative by opening a front against Lahore rather than fighting as per Pakistan’s design. This forced Pakistan to divert military resources to protect its hinterland and effectively halted its aggression. Post-war analysts showed a lack of coordination between the Army and the Air Force at the highest levels, with the Army and Air Force not sharing plans.
India created history in 1971 with a brilliant campaign that liberated Bangladesh in under a fortnight (3 to 16 Dec 1971). Backing her Chief’s decision to launch the campaign in December, rather than in March, the Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi ably complemented General Manekshaw’s efforts, through a whirlwind diplomatic initiative and domestic synergy, that geared up the entire nation for the effort. One (but not the only) reason to postpone the campaign was deficiency in wherewithal to sustain the military campaign. Unstinting efforts by the defence production agencies and synergizing of all required national energies for the upcoming national effort saw a sharp ramp up of military preparedness. Tri-service synergy was in full display during the entire campaign. Under-whelming performance by the Vijayanta was a set-back, for which it would be unfair to blame the Heavy Vehicle Factory or the design agency alone.
Surprised again by the surreptitious occupation of heights on our side of the LOC in Kargil by Pakistani forces in May 1999, the army, actively supported by the air force evicted the intruders from virtually invincible positions under harsh environmental conditions. Vajpayee’s directive prohibiting our forces from crossing the LOC, while giving India international brownie points, imposed severe constraints on its military. The Bofors howitzer imported in the 1980s, served the campaign well, though India had to resort to emergency procurement of ammunition, normal procurement of which had been derailed due to the corruption scandal.
To summarize, the only instance of close linkage between the political-executive and the military leadership, which happened in 1971, purely due to the personal equations between Mrs Indira Gandhi and General Sam Manekshaw, led to brilliant results. The Ministry of Defence, specifically designed by HM Patel, under Nehru’s directives, to debilitate these links and the resultant structure, has served the nation ill. Lack of a single point of accountability for the military being starved of modern weapon systems, munitions and wherewithal to manifest its capabilities also points to inappropriateness of the system by which India conducted her military affairs before institutionalization of the CDS.
So, can the CDS change all this? The answer, sadly, is NO. There has been no meaningful restructuring of the MoD to address the well-known shortcomings in the conduct of the defence of India. Specifically, the aforementioned lack of a single authority, acting under the orders of the Defence Minister, to coordinate, control and take responsibilities for all facets of the MoD is still unchanged.
The much- vaunted CDS is just another departmental head in the MoD. Further, the newly created “Department of Military Affairs” that he heads is not involved with policy making for the defence of India, preparation for defence or for acts conducive to prosecution of war. These matters continue to remain the preserve of the Department of Defence headed by the Defence Secretary.
Which begs the question – what affairs other than military affairs does the Ministry of Defence engage with. Be it defence policy, defence preparation, defence actions, defence R&D, defence procurements, defence supplies, and defence production all these are part and parcel of Military Affairs. All of them must be controlled, coordinated and directed by a single authority who will then take sole responsibility for any success or failure.
The Chief of Defence Staff, answerable to the Minister of Defence and to the Union Cabinet, must be that single authority. The nation needs this person to have the capability and credentials to shoulder these responsibilities and a sufficiently long tenure, of say five years, to make a difference. Restructuring of the MoD to support him in this endeavour and seating him on the high table of national decision making are also of essence to enable India to maximize her national power through synergy of all its national energies in the fulfilment of her national will.