The surprising, yet overdue announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) from the ramparts of the Red Fort on India 73rd Independence Day helps realise what had been a longstanding demand of both military and civilian professionals. Establishing a CDS brings nearly two decades of hand wringing, doubt and outright hostility, particularly within some quarters of both the bureaucratic and non-bureaucratic reaches of the Indian strategic establishment to the idea of a CDS. Following the Kargil War of 1999, the imperative to create a CDS assumed great importance. Despite securing victory in that war against daunting odds, the absence of a CDS became evident.
The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report set up in the wake of the intelligence debacle that led to the Kargil conflict, which did not call for the establishment for CDS per se. Instead, it called for the integration of the service headquarters with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) making it clear that such a reform measure would actually enhance civilian supremacy, not undermine it. The latter point is crucial, as formal subordination of the civilian authority is incontestable, but even notional empowerment of the military, let alone through the creation of a CDS has veered between scepticism to outright resistance. Moving away from the status quo, which became entrenched, is undoubtedly welcome.
It was the Group of Ministers (GoM) in 2001 that recommended the establishment of the CDS. Following Kargil the imperative to do “something” meant that an Integrated Defence Services (IDS) Headquarters, a tri-service organisation was set-up. However, it has since remained weak, headless and directionless. In addition, a Chairman of Chiefs of Staff (COSC) was established in 2012 following recommendation by the Naresh Chandra Committee, which was at best a temporary measure and ultimately inadequate. In subsequent years, both the IDS and COSC were found wanting as they could neither convey the services viewpoint directly to the GoI’s apex leadership, nor get the leadership to act on decisions ranging from military procurements to military reforms. Generally, the practice and experience of civil-military relations involved the civilian bureaucracy – a crucial intermediary between the services and the political leadership. The establishment of the CDS goes towards limiting bureaucratic interference and represents an important defence reform, but requires additional reforms, which will supplement the CDS’ creation.
The CDS’ primary function is not merely to serve as a single point military adviser to the Government of India (GoI), but equally to establish priorities about defence acquisitions and personnel issues, apart from improving coordination between the three services and serving as the head of the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Furthermore, the CDS’ role and inputs in the defence budget is as important as the military counsel the CDS provides to the government.
The Modi-led government must be lauded undoubtedly for making a very bold decision yet clearly defining the functions and role of the newly created CDS will be indispensable in the coming weeks and months. Integrating and merging all the service headquarters with the MoD is also necessary if the CDS in the end is to be effective, because the CDS will not only be expected to pay attention to all the matters noted above, he will also be required with the three services in creating a synergised and interoperable fighting force. As of today, the armed services as the KRC recognised almost two decades ago are still condemned to a “British Imperial Theatre System”. Above all, even if the government deems it unnecessary, but a very pivotal reform is the creation of a National Defence Headquarters, which requires bringing the MoD and Service Headquarters under one roof as the KRC recommended. Military commanders, the civilian bureaucracy and executive heads of the MoD, which include the Union Defence Minister and his subordinate the Minister of State for Defence, will receive better guidance, which will ultimately improve the quality of their decisions. As the KRC observed, “Structural reforms could bring about a much closer and more constructive interaction between the Civil Government and the Services.” The merger will enable better long-term defence planning covering missions, training, logistics, acquisitions, operational strategy, force structure and personnel management.
Flush with a fresh mandate Prime Minister Modi has introduced a very courageous and consequential reform and dispelled the needless and baseless fear that an empowered CDS will become “the man on the horseback” thereby posing a threat to civilian authority from the armed forces. If anything, it will better enable India’s civilian managers including MoD bureaucrats to understand operational issues and the consequences of their choices in tacking the military challenges posed by China and Pakistan. To be sure, more work needs to be done, but for now, the longstanding advocates for the establishment of a CDS must savour this victory.
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Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President Studies andRead More +
Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the StrategicRead More +