Two recent announcements by the government – creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for the armed forces and merger of public sector banks – though diametrically opposite in context, have a common concept; bringing about synergy so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. While the merger of banks being an administrative matter would be implemented with minor hiccups, the CDS has a rocky road ahead. No doubt there has been a flurry of writings in the media as to ‘what’ should be done, or not done, while creating the CDS, however, the real question needing address is as to ‘how’ it can be done.
The concept of a CDS is neither new nor unique to our country. It has been talked about for nearly five decades. The last serious and formal articulation was by the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) which was endorsed by the Group of Ministers. Two decades later it finds revival with an apparent intent to implement. Ironically, we were the first country in the world to set up a joint inter services pre commission training institution for the officers of the armed forces (National Defence Academy) post World War II, as also the combined Defence Services Staff College, and perhaps the last to attempt integration of the armed forces.
There have been any numbers of studies, committees and recommendations on the higher defence management structure and the CDS. The KRC, set up, and its findings and recommendations endorsed by the political executive, clearly spelt out the concept and structure required to ensure integration and jointness of the services: creation of a CDS, integrating the three services with the Ministry of Defence and thereby making the three Service Chiefs as part of the government. Concurrently, the Arun Singh Committee recommended creation of theatre commands for operational integration. The shortcomings of the existing system and the torturous path to the present announcement are too well known to bear repetition. The most telling comment was made by the Defence Minister at the India Today Conclave in 2015 when he openly stated that there was no integration mechanism that existed between the three services resulting in infighting and wasteful expenditure.
Defining the role, responsibility, authority of the CDS and the structures required to enable him to function, as also the integration of the services is the basic imperative. Having said that the fountain head for implementation is the Ministry of Defence, which in its present shape and form, with the service headquarters out of the decision-making ambit, is unlikely to deliver. Mohan Guruswamy describes it as ‘a tangled web of inability to understand security issues, prevarication, bureaucratic intrigue, political indecision and all-pervasive corruption.’ Strange as it may sound the Defence Secretary is responsible for the defence of India! To this may be added the unique perpetuation of authority without any responsibility or accountability. The services on the other hand are anxious to protect turf and disinclined to shed operational control to joint commanders from the other service.
The American experienced similar bottlenecks in achieving full integration of their services. Having created the Department of Defence through the National Security Act of 1947, inter service rivalry and lack of jointness persisted throughout the Vietnam War, resulted in catastrophic failure of the Iranian hostage rescue in 1980 and hindered effective prosecution of the invasion of tiny Grenada in 1983. Disjointed procurement and duplication of facilities resulted in wasteful expenditure besides evolving individual service war fighting doctrines in isolation. Much like in India today, each service concerned itself with securing the maximum fund allocation for itself rather than creation of an integrated capability. The Goldwater Nicholas Act of 1986 finally legislated integration of the services and defined the command structure and responsibility as also the professional military education of the officer corps to handle joint structures.
In our context two fundamental issues need to be addressed if the intent of creating the CDS is to have any meaning. Firstly, defining the role, responsibility, command authority and place within the national security management structure of the CDS. The second requirement is to integrate fully the Ministry of Defence and the service headquarters. Further reorganisation can and will follow.
Major structural and organisational changes in the military invariably entail dilution and or enhancement of authority and accountability pushing the status quo out of the comfort zone and thereby throwing up inherent resistance by both the military and the bureaucracy. Creating a statutory obligation to implement the concept of integration and creating the concomitant structures overcoming individual, departmental and organisational resistance and reluctance can only be overcome by an Act of Parliament; a National Defence Act. This would provide the legal authority and foundation for change.
Historically, such major changes have been brought about by the political leadership and not the military itself or the bureaucracy. Our case is no different. We came very close to implementing the concept of a CDS on more than one occasion but backed off when the political leadership gave in to the opposition from within and without of the services. The Red Fort announcement to synergise capabilities and bring about change in our military structures would similarly need strong political intervention and follow up to translate concept into reality. It may even require sacking the military and bureaucratic brass unwilling to change and implement.