Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
It has taken almost 20 years since the time it was officially recommended by the Kargil Review Committee and endorsed by the Group of Ministers. Yet the instituting of the system of a Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in the Indian Armed Forces is undoubtedly a transformational step towards the much needed integration of the three Services. There have been many contributory factors to the delay, from political apathy to bureaucratic reluctance and lack of clarity within the three Services. This is not something unusual as even in an advanced country such as the US there was no convergence on this most important facet of bringing greater integration in the functioning of the different components of the different Services. The US Army, Navy, Air Force and the Marine Corps were all fearful of losing their individual operational space and it was only through legislation that the Reagan Administration finally forced the integration and restructuring of the different components. The landmark legislation was called the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986.
Why is a CDS system required at all? Most militaries the world over have realized that they cannot remain optimally effective while functioning in silos. Their resources have necessarily to be put together for best effect and for attainment of the overall national and military aim. A CDS primarily is instituted for the purpose of bringing together the war fighting capabilities of individual Services and integrating them to be prepared under take operations in support of each other. This requires structures and organizations under which all the Services function in unison under one authority in key operational domains. In peace the preparations for war are required to be done jointly pooling all resources for training, equipping, evolving doctrine, logistics and personnel management. One of the most important functions here is budgeting which caters for the allocation of financial resources to each component. On the political side the CDS is supposed to provide single point strategic advice and guidance to the Government as against the necessity for all component heads individually rendering advice. In 2001 based upon the recommendations of the KRC and the GoM a Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) was set up as an interim measure, under a three star officer but a fair amount of duplication persisted with no established command system.
There are different existing models from which to choose the CDS system most suited to the requirement of a nation based upon its threats, the extant political system and the State of advancement of its armed forces. In our case after approval of the proposal by the Cabinet Committee for Security a communiqué was issued containing the various provisions for the newly created structures. Do these provisions meet the envisaged requirement? As a four star officer the CDS will be the ‘first among equals’. He will exercise no operational command over the three constituent Services but will be the permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), giving that appointment stability for up to three years for the present as against the short tenures which had become a characteristic of the COSC. There is considerable criticism about appointing a CDS with only four star rank; perception prevails that equivalence of rank does not carry the stamp of authority. However, this is generally the rule in most other nations. The CDS will exercise authority over the only conventional Joint Command – Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) and also the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) where the nuclear launch resources of all three components are integrated for nuclear response. He would be the Nuclear Adviser to the PM although the actual command and control of the nuclear forces may have several other layers. The CDS would also take under his wing the two special agencies involving domains of Cyber and Space, as also the Armed Forces Special Operations Division; all future innovative technological systems would also be under him. The 15 year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) would evolve under the CDS as will modernization and he would be the one allocating priorities after taking into account the recommendations of the three Service HQ. That means the financial allocations would be his responsibility and that is where his power will largely lie.
The communiqué mentions that the CDS would work over three years preparing the ground for an eventual theatre command system. That is virtually the US system where the integrated theatre commander reports directly to the Defense Secretary who is the political head of the Defence Department. The individual Service Chiefs have no operational role and are only responsible for support facets – doctrine, training, equipping, personnel management and logistics. To achieve this status the 17 Commands of the three Services with 14 of them being operationally oriented will have to merge resources under 3-4 theatres. This has its own ramifications both positive and negative which no doubt will get progressively debated as we progress.
Interestingly, the KRC and GoM had also recommended a key necessity in the structural reforms. This related to the integration of the MoD such that there could be presence of uniformed officers alongside civilian counterparts. Ours is one of the rare MsoD that remains purely civilian. With no military professional orientation its little wonder whether the decisions are optimal or not. The communiqué has authorized the creation of a Department of Military Affairs under the CDS; the CDS will exercise powers of a Secretary of this organization and have the privilege of his files being sent directly to the Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) and not through the Defence Secretary; the Service Chiefs do not enjoy this privilege. What aspects of defence management will shift to this department will be seen in due course. Effectively therefore the CDS and the Service Chiefs have their individual domains and all four will get invited to the Cabinet Committee for Security when required. Therefore four point advice is what the Government will actually get. However, by virtue of being the permanent Chairman COSC the CDS should be the first appointment to receive the Prime Minister’s call up for advice. Any of the Service Chiefs could then receive tasking or supplementary call up to brief the Prime Minister should his Service be the core force for execution. A classic single point advice may not be a workable arrangement unless the CDS has full operational control over all three Services.
There are apprehensions galore about the workability of the new system. We had the same doubts when HQ IDS was raised but given the way the Armed Forces work, they managed to convert it into a viable and useful entity. Hopefully the HQ IDS will form the core of the Department of Defence with some additional civilian induction into it. Lastly it is also about time that India altered the responsibility for the defence of India from the Defence Secretary to the Defence Minister. Kit was a monumental mistake committed at Independence which has never been corrected.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)