Will The Government Bite The Bullet On Appointing Chief Of Defence Staff?

Syed Ata Hasnain

Dec 10, 2016, 05:22 PM | Updated 05:22 PM IST

An Indian army
contingent rehearses for Indian Republic Day parade along Rajpath in New Delhi.
An Indian army contingent rehearses for Indian Republic Day parade along Rajpath in New Delhi. (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
  • All what is left to do now is the shouting and the celebration for the final decision on the creation of the CDS.
  • Much, however, will depend on the political-military-bureaucratic triangular control to establish the right balance for the functioning of this appointment.
  • I hate to believe rumours, but when they are discussed quite openly and by very knowledgeable people, I don't mind joining in with informed guess work and some analysis. Currently, the hottest potato is the information that the government is going to make the long awaited announcement on the appointment of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). This should excite a lot of people. If it happens, the NDA government would have delivered on its manifesto and created quite a ripple before the upcoming assembly elections. The issues, which the public must get to know about the decision, if finally taken are quite a few. Just like people, who still approach me to explain what one rank one pension (OROP) is all about, there are many who will want to know the ifs and buts of CDS.

    Firstly, it is a good 17 years after the Kargil Review Committee headed by K Subramaniam made the recommendation that India would finally have a CDS, something most modern armed forces adopted many years ago. However, is it really necessary to have one? Absolutely yes, in the opinion of almost every military professional.

    The military subset of national security, as one of its main components, has become so complex today that no single service can claim primacy. The ground or continental, maritime and air/space dimensions now also have the cyber domain thrown in. With transformation and the revolution in military affairs ongoing for many years, the necessity to convert all military operations to the 'joint' format is a compulsion. Joint here essentially means that single service can no longer fight their individual wars and only assist other services as a secondary effort. All planning must take place jointly, placing all resources in the basket and exploiting them optimally for the common national goal. Doctrinal guidance for this must be joint too, as much as the training needed to back it. Single service glory hunting will then not be possible. It may sound mundane to our civilian brethren, but it is a truism that in spite of being aware of the necessity to optimally plan and deploy all resources each service first looks at its own domain.

    This is not peculiar to India, it happens everywhere in the world. The US Armed Forces, the world's most advanced, had major problems in this regard. Narrow service loyalties kept coming in the way of joint operations. Fed up of the inability of the men in uniform resolving this issue, the US legislature in 1987 passed the famous Goldwater-Nichols Act, which was initiated under former president Ronald Reagan. This Act legislated the creation of joint structures and organisations, the classic theatre command system. The position of the then already strengthened Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff received a further impetus. The US system is an extremely advanced one, where the service chiefs are responsible only for training, procurement and partially non-operational logistics, besides being in touch with the government. The theatres comprise a mix of all components of the four services (the US has the Marine Corps as the fourth Arm) with the necessary resources, under the command of the theatre commander also known as the combatant commander, who reports directly to the Secretary Defence – not to be confused with the Defence Secretary as in India who is a bureaucrat. The Secretary Defence is the Defence Minister of the US. The theatre commanders through him report to the US President, who is the working Supreme Commander.

    The CDS system known under different avatars around the world also has a national stamp based upon each country's own military experience. It is interesting to see the Pakistan model, which I learn came into being in General Zia ul Haq's time. Pakistan's armed forces have been comfortable with the creation of the post of General Number One primarily because it is a toothless appointment, the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC). Jointness between the three services may exist notionally or even marginally, but Pakistan has placed its nuclear weaponry and its safety under his control and he reports directly to the prime minister. His powers otherwise are restricted. This appointment does not become a single window for reference with the government on matters military. Anyway Pakistan's model is just too unique because it's army and its chief, who is officially virtually General Number Two, has an out of proportion power in guiding and deciding security policies for Pakistan. It's just worth keeping in mind as one end of the spectrum of models which we in India could refer.

    In 2001, as an interim acceptance of the Kargil Review Committee recommendations, the Government of India created the HQ Integrated Defence Staff or HQ IDS. Planning, procurement, doctrine, intelligence, training and even joint operations came under its purview but service specific issues in the same realms continued to dominate the organisational narrative. The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) raised in 2001 virtually functions under the NSA. The Strategic Forces Command (SFC), also established in 2001, which is the controlling establishment for nuclear weapon assets of India, remains virtually outside the ambit of the joint staff and has also passed into the hands of the NSA. An experiment with theatrisation was commenced with the raising of the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC). Recently, at the behest of the former naval chief, the command of ANC, which was always rotational between the three services, has now been given permanently to the Indian Navy. The nature of threats to the ANC area of responsibility probably dictated the decision. Many appear to disagree with the command of a theatre being exercised by a single service. However, there is precedent in the form of the Pacific Command of the US which is commanded by a four-star naval officer. Personally, I do believe the navy has the better expertise to exercise command control under perhaps a later time when the joint intellect is a certainty.

    The problem is that from 2001 to 2016 is a long period to experiment and not act in the true and honest interest of jointness. There is much speculation that the inordinately long time may yet have prolonged to allow the bureaucratic control over the resources which must actually come legitimately under the new CDS, when appointed. The Indian jointness model will also be unique. Unlike the individual service chiefs having little or no operational responsibility in the US, the Indian service chiefs will continue to exercise operational control right into the foreseeable future. I do not also foresee any further regional theatrisation taking place in the Indian context for quite some time. Not for any other reason, but simply because it needs a degree of intellectual engagement preceding any executive directions. There has to be conceptual clarity before a transformative formulation of a holistically new application of a concept or simply execution of operational responsibility is carried out.

    In effect the CDS in my opinion, besides being the head of the HQ IDS must be responsible for all aspects except single service operations. However, in the interim stage training and logistics will remain Service specific. Eventually, common policies on personnel management must emerge. We cannot have such management differences as residual ages for Commanders in Chief being different for Army, Navy and the Air Force and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

    There is much speculation about the personalities who are likely to don the mantel of the first appointment of CDS. In 2001 the then Army Chief magnanimously offered it to the IAF as a goodwill gesture. However, as the largest service with the most complex responsibility the Army appears to be the right place to start with, not necessarily because it is my service. The name being spoken of is that of Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, currently GOC-in-C Eastern Command. Purely my personal opinion, the officer has the right gravitas to carry off the appointment as the first CDS near perfectly. He has the intellectual bent and the necessary experience to wear this cap and take responsibility which will need deft handling.

    All that is left to do now is the shouting and the celebration for the final decision on the creation of the CDS. Much, however, will depend on the political-military-bureaucratic triangular control to establish the right balance for the functioning of this appointment. On that an essay at a later date.

    The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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