Military & Aerospace

The Uncertain Terrain of Chief of Defence Staff
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 19 Aug , 2019

John F. Kennedy had said “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion, without the discomfort of thought”. In voicing an opinion on the recently announced creation of a CDS by the PM on the Independence Day, one should be guided by sobering thought than revelling in irresponsible opinion.

From crossing the Line of Control to abrogating Articles 370 and 35A, and the recent rumblings by the RM that India may change its policy of ‘No Nuclear First Use (NNFU)’, the muscular majesty of parliamentary majoritarianism is in full display. The defence services are understandably gung-ho about creation of CDS; a long awaited demand which will give them the rightful perch in the national security architecture.

However, it would be useful to look at its genesis, the controversies that shroud it and the way forward; so that the proposed structural change brings out better strategic control, civil military synergy and most importantly, a more robust edifice of India’s long term strategic imperatives.

Genesis of the CDS

It may be recalled that post Kargil (May to July 1999) war, when Pakistan Paramilitary forces led by General A. Rashid made deep inroads into Kargil, a committee under K. Subrahmanyam was appointed to provide reasons for the purported intelligence failure. Mr. Subrahmanyam, a proponent of Real Politic and Policy of nuclear deterrence, brought out the “shortcomings at multiple level of intelligence collection, operational procedure and sharing of data”. The Group of Ministers headed by Mr. L.K. Advani was constituted based on these disturbing findings, and recommended arrangements and institutions for fixing the loopholes in structural and operational arrangement amongst the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence.

One of the recommendations was for creation of CDS who would “take a coordinated view of the three services, while individual chiefs can present their view point to the Defence Minister, where the Chiefs have a different viewpoint from the CDS”. The other recommendations for CDS included administrative control over strategic forces and not operational military control, facilitate efficient and effective planning and budget process and coordination in operation. The recommendations were also equally clear that the Defence Secretary will be the Principal Defence Advisor on policy matters and financial management. While CDS will be the single point military advisor, policy making and budget management for the defence services would be singular remit of the Defence Secretary.

Working of Various Institutions Created after Kargil Conflict

To the credit of the government, a number of recommendations of the GOM have been already put in place; like the creating National Security Advisor, NTRO (2004) as a Centralised Intelligence Agency to collect data, Defence Intelligence Agency, Joint Command in Andaman and Nicobar, Strategic Forces Command for exercising Nuclear Option, Ex-Service Men Management, Defence Technology Commission, and Defence Acquisition Council.

The Acquisition Wing looks at India’s acquisition in a structured way, by categorising the requirement as Make, Buy or Buy & Make. The CISC provides jointness to the fabric of the competing requirements by the three services. The Service Headquarters are no longer considered as attached offices, but are integrated considerably with the Ministry of Defence as IDS. The Defence Acquisition Council headed by the RM with Service Chief and Secretaries in the Ministry of Defence as members, decide on long term arms requirements of the services. The present arrangement of Chief Of Staff Committees (COSC), which is headed by the senior most Service Chief, was to be supplanted by the CDS, which is yet to be put in place.

The Defence Acquisition Council does a tight rope walking of prioritizing India’s acquisition requirement; whether to make them indigenously, or make them through technology transfer or outright import. This is in the backdrop of the carping criticism that India is the biggest importer of conventional arms globally (SIPRI Year Book 2018), and has the a dubious reputation of very low level of indigenization (30%) (Kalam Committee 1993).

The DAC also provides a long term perspective plan for the services after factoring in the security situation, arsenal available with India’s potential adversaries. The CISC provides inputs to the DAC regarding the categorization of acquisition and jointness in requirement of weapons systems like ALH, UAV, communication systems and missiles, after detailed deliberation with all the stakeholders. The NTRO, SFC and the Joint Command of Andaman & Nicobar have also stabilised in functioning and added considerable sinews to our defence preparedness.

Debate on the CDS

The reason for non placement of the CDS is often levelled at the doors of the civilians in the MoD, who as perceived as real advisors to the political executive. While it is true that the political dispensation is often guided by the civilian setup, it’s also true that there is a sense of unease that too much power resting in one military official (CDS) can have the potential of a coup! In a remarkable book ‘Core Concerns in Indian Defence and the Imperatives for Reforms’ (2015) brought out by IDSA, one gets to know how there are differing perception amongst the three services on creation of a CDS.

Air Chief Marshal Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy, CAS (Retd.) believes that CDS “is an over kill”, as a single centralised structure is expected to be slow in decision making process. He is of the view that CDS is better suited to meet “out of area contingency”, as in case of USA and UK who have enormous ‘extra territorial interests’. He is of the view that the defence services should focus on territorial defence rather than becoming ‘expeditionary’. On the other hand, General Deepak Kapoor COAS (Retd.) is of the view that India should adopt the CDS system which is operating successfully in countries like US, UK, China and Russia. He gives the example of UK which adopted the system in 1998 and operating “with resonance from the three services”. He is of the view that the services should be rise above turf battle and have a single point military advisor, as the present system of COSC is dysfunctional. Admiral Arun Prakash, CNS (Retd.) also echoes the same sentiment of General Deepak Kapoor.

A Committee was appointed under the Chairmanship of Sri Naresh Chandra (2011) to look into the implementation of GOM recommendation so far. It was of the view that India should have permanent COSC instead of opting for a CDS. It was appreciative of the role, being played by CISC at the moment. However, it was unhappy that India does not have a ‘National Security Doctrine’, which needs to be evolved urgently.

National Security Doctrine

George Tanham, an American Artillery officer in World War II, who became a political scientist and strategic analysist with RAND Corporation, has written a pioneering paper titled “Indian Strategic Thought and Interpretative Essay” (1992). He has outlined four factors that explain the Indian view point viz. geography, history, influence the British Raj and Indian culture. He underscores lack of coordination between the bureaucracy, parliament and military as the major festering point that afflict India. He also brought out how there is “no clear set up priority for Indian security in an Indian authorised document”.

Coming down sharply against bureaucracy in the South Block Tanham writes “how the military resent the fact that the ununiformed and inexperienced civilians make all the major decisions and the armed forces are taken out of the national security decision making process”.

While such a view point was substantially true before the Kargil conflict, the experience of the last 15 years clearly point out that there is better civil military synergy in strategic decision making now than what was the case earlier. There is also an acceptance of the fact that policy making has to be made in the Ministry of Defence, after taking inputs from the three services and think tanks like the IDSA and other stakeholders.

Samuel Huntington in a remarkable book “Soldier and the State” (1975) had written that “Nations that fail to develop a balanced pattern of civil military relations squander their resources and run uncalculated risk”. He also had flagged that the essence of ‘objective control by the civilians’ of the armed forces in a democracy is the recognition of ‘military professionalization’. Despite the simmering discontentment amongst the military about the asymmetry in power of policy making in South Block between uniformed and the ununiformed, the fact remains that the operational imperatives and operationalisation are always left to the defence services, without any civilian interference. Stopping the military in their operational march during war (1965 & 1971) has been exercised by the highest political executive only!

Strategic Framework

It would be churlish to presume that India does not have any strategic framework. A careful reading of Annual Reports released by the MoD are indicative of the strategic perspective of the government. For instance, after the Kargil conflict and GOM recommendation (2002), the MoD’s Report (2003-04), mentions that the Indian arm forces should be prepared for the spectre of “security challenges from terrorism and low intensity conflict to conventional war to the possibility of use of Nuclear weapons and missiles”.

Further, the policy envisaged that as “India is not part of a military alliance, unlike Pakistan, it must have independent deterrent capability”. It also recognised the fact that “since externally inspired low intensity proxy war is being created by our adversaries, the Indian armed forces have to be necessarily involved in internal security functions; more than most other armed forces”.

The 2018-19 report, while underscoring the rapid stride that India has made in making USA a major defence partner, flagged ‘state sponsored terrorism by Pakistan in J&K’ as the foremost internal security challenge. The report also clearly mentions that terrorism and radicalization are the biggest threats, with WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) posing serious threats for our security.

It would be clear that contrary to the perception of RAND scholars like Tanham that India does not have a strategic culture and a security policy, it has a long term perspective plan and annual plan in place. It would however be advisable to have a formal ‘Security Doctrine’, by involving all stakeholders, as pointed out by the Naresh Chandra Committee.

The Way Forward

It would be seen that the service chiefs have differing perspectives on having a CDS. The government of the day has taken the bold initiative of taking the ‘CDS’ out of the closet of unimplemented decisions. K. Subrahmanyam had once wittily observed that “politicians in India enjoy power without any responsibility, bureaucrats wield powers without any accountability and the military assumes responsibility without having any clear direction”.

The Modi government wants to bring an end to such indecisivement and provide a momentum to what it considers to be ‘historic injustice’; like giving special status to J&K. Lord Ismay, had suggested in 1974 that the Commanders in Chief should be fully empowered for operational management and the Chief of Staff Committee should do central coordination between the three services. He could not have been more prescient. What is required for India is a mechanism that would coordinate the operational imperatives between the three services on a long terms basis and provide single point military advice to the political executive of the day better. It’s ultimately for the CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security) to take a call on the military option to be exercised after taking into account feedback of the MEA, MHA and all stakeholders.

The civil military synergy is an integral part of decision making, in the South Block, unlike other ministries which do not have this turf war. It cannot be diluted by undermining the role of the Defence Secretary. Bureaucracy bashing and military one up man ship is certainly not the right way forward. There is also a necessity for greater professionalization within MoD, where the civilian component must be inculcated with greater expertise.

The Sisodia Committee (2009) had suggested that the DGA system of France, where there is a synergy between research, production and acquisition, should be put in place in India. It would also be useful also to look at the US Code of federal laws “Title 10”, where the function of the armed forces, the legal basis for their roles, missions has been clearly outlined. There is also a need for capacity building and lateral entry of competent service officers into the MoD at the level of Director and JS. The Modi government has initiated such a process for other ministries at the level of JS, so that there is greater professionalization in policy making.

It’s time that the government looks at the structural reforms in MoD in a holistic manner, rather than in a piece meal manner as CDS, to score a ‘patriotic point’. Privatisation of DPSUs and OFs can be a major agenda. It would be useful to remember what the French premier Georges Clemenceau had said “War is too important a matter to be left to the Generals”. The challenge of operationalising CDS in an effective manner must not be lost in the euphoria of manifest muscularity.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

S.N. Misra

former Director DRDO and Joint Secretary – Aerospace, MOD

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