UPA Dithers on Important Defence Reforms

In its report presented to the Lok Sabha on December 16, 2009, the Standing Committee on Defence has expressed sharp reservations about the government’s seriousness in appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) even eight years after the requirement was first accepted by the Cabinet Committee on Security. “The Committee fail to understand the lack of political consensus on such an important issue concerning the security of the nation… The Committee conclude… that the concerted efforts in this regard have not been made by the Government. Merely writing letters even from the level of the Defence Minister is not sufficient… The Committee expect the Ministry to take the effective steps… so that the institution of CDS is set up expeditiously.”
India’s military history does not inspire any confidence in the ability of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC) to rise above partisan considerations and formulate war winning military strategies. In 1962, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was not given any role to play in the war with China when it could have wreaked havoc on the Chinese hordes that had concentrated on the Tibetan Plateau without air cover. In 1965, the Indian Navy (IN) was not even informed about the plans to launch a three-pronged attack across the international boundary into Pakistan. It is repeated ad nauseum that the 1971 war was a well-coordinated tri-Service effort that led to a grand victory. In fact, the coordination was rather limited and what was achieved was mainly due to the personalities of the Chiefs in position of authority and not due to any institutionalised arrangements. There were several glitches in the planning and conduct of the land and air campaigns.
The ill-fated Indian intervention in Sri Lanka was undoubtedly a disaster from the joint planning point of view. The Kargil conflict of 1999 is the only real example of a coordinated effort. Even here there were initial hiccups and it took the IAF several weeks to begin bombing the Pakistani intruders’ sangars (ad hoc bunkers) on the Indian side of the LoC after the army had made such a request. It is obvious that before the Kargil conflict a joint intelligence assessment of Pakistan’s air strike capabilities had not been carried out.
Single Point Military Advice
India's prevailing security environment is marked by regional instability with a nuclear overhang. For over 50 years, India has been engaged in a low intensity limited conflict along the LoC with Pakistan, an ongoing Pakistan-sponsored "proxy war" in Kashmir and elsewhere in the country and has suffered from a vitiated internal security situation. Repeated air space violations, burgeoning maritime security challenges and increasing demands for Indian contribution to multinational forces are some of the other factors that influence national security decision making.
Under such circumstances, the early appointment of a CDS is an inescapable operational necessity. More than ever before, and especially in the nuclear era, it is now necessary for the national security decision makers to be given "single point military advice" that takes into account the inter-dependence of the armed forces on each other to meet complex emerging challenges. It is axiomatic that the differences among the Chiefs of Staff are resolved by the military professionals themselves, with one of them acting as an empowered arbitrator.
Success in modern war hinges on the formulation of a joint military strategy based on the political and military aims. At present, under the system bequeathed to India by Lord Ismay in the early-1950s, the three Services draw up their individual operational plans based on the Defence Minister’s Operational Directive. Only limited coordination is carried out at the operational and the tactical levels. In the present era of strategic uncertainty and shifting threats, no military professional now disputes the unavoidable necessity of a joint planning staff for the planning and conduct of joint operations so that operational planning that synergises the combat potential of each of the armed forces can be undertaken "top down". The newly established HQ IDS will undoubtedly meet this requirement in the years ahead, but if it remains headless, its functioning will remain disjointed and it will never carry the clout necessary to ensure that difficult and sometimes unpalatable decisions are accepted by the three Services without questioning.
Theatre Command System
Change should be evolutionary and not revolutionary. Hence, at the inception stage it would be appropriate to make the CDS "first among equals" and let the three Chiefs of Staff retain operational command and administrative control over their Services. However, once the system matures, the CDS should be appointed the overall commander-in-chief. From the CDS, operational command should flow to individual theatre commanders. The Chiefs of Staff should be the planning, equipping and training heads of their respective Services. They should have responsibility primarily for drawing up force structures and perspective plans. They should oversee the development, acquisition and introduction of weapons and equipment, plan recruitment, guide and coordinate training at specialised training establishments and control administrative matters such as the annual budget, pay and allowances, maintenance support and medical Services etc.
Each theatre command should be headed by a four-star General, Admiral or Air Chief Marshal. The state of Jammu and Kashmir would naturally form the ‘Northern Theatre’ headed by an army General for both conventional and sub-conventional operations. The ‘Western Theatre’ comprising the plains of Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat could be led alternately by an army General and an Air Chief Marshal. The ‘Central Theatre’ with its area of responsibility lying along the borders of Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Sikkim with Tibet, and India’s borders with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, could be placed under an Air Chief Marshal.
The ‘Eastern Theatre’ should have its HQ near Guwahati and not at Kolkata. It should be given the responsibility for all national security interests, external and internal, in the seven north-eastern states and should be headed by a General due to the ongoing insurgencies. It will be a long time before the “seven sisters” are well and truly integrated into the national mainstream. The ‘Arabian Sea Coastal and Maritime Security Zone’, including the Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands, should naturally be an Admiral’s domain. The ‘Bay of Bengal Coastal and Maritime Security Zone’, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, at present called the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), should take care of India’s western seaboard.
CoSC is Ineffective
The CoSC is driven by single-Service requirements and perceptions and has proved to be ineffective for joint operational planning. It works by consensus and cannot make hard decisions that are binding on all the Services. War time decisions require professional understanding, a bi-partisan approach and, often, hard compromises. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Committees cannot fight wars.”
In the prevailing battlefield milieu of joint operations, combined operations and even coalition operations, modern armed forces cannot be successful without a well-developed and deeply ingrained culture of jointmanship. While the colour of the uniform may be olive green, white or blue, the colour of the heart should be purple. The government must act resolutely to implement the long-pending decision to appoint a CDS. Theatre commands will then be but one step further in the quest for synergy in operations. It should be a short step, but given the way the Indian system works, it is likely to be a very long one indeed. The establishment of the Integrated Defence Staff is a good beginning, but there is a long and winding road ahead and, as yet, it does not even appear to be paved with good intentions.
Often during war, the fate of an entire campaign can hinge on a single decision. Such a decision can only be made by a specially selected defence chief and not by a committee like the CoSC that operates on the principle of the least common denominator. Military history is replete with examples of how such decisions changed the course of a war. Eisenhower’s decision to launch the Normandy landings in the face of continuing rough weather and Macarthur’s decision to land at Inchon against stiff opposition from virtually his entire staff could not have been made by committees. All other major democracies have opted for the CDS system. India cannot ignore it any further except at great peril. It is an idea whose time has come.
The author is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. Views are personal.