CDS and the theatre commands in India : An idea whose time has come

Apr 6, 2004

Ideally, the CDS should be an overall commander-in-chief and from him command should flow to individual theatre commanders. Contrary to the belief that only the United States needs a theatre system because of its wider geo-political interests and involvement in security issues all over the globe, with its inimical neighbours and peculiar national security threats and challenges, India too needs a theatre system for integrated functioning to achieve synergy of operations with limited resources.

Whether or not India has a strategic culture is a matter of debate. However, India clearly has a culture of neglecting to learn the lessons of military history; or, even worse, brushing them under the carpet. In 1962, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was not given any role to play in China’s India war 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 Border (IB) into Pakistan. It is repeated ad nauseum that the 197] war was a well-coordinated tri-Service effort that led to a grand victory: The rather limited coordination that was actually achieved during the wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 was mainly due to the personalities of the Chiefs in position of authority and not due to any institutionalised arrangements. For example, during the 1971 war, Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw was able to carry his Naval and Air Force colleagues with him due to his affable nature and the personal rapport that he had established with them. Yet, there were several glitches in the planning and conduct of the land and air campaigns. By no stretch of the imagination can it be stated that India fought a coordinated “air-land’ war in 1971.
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 Pakistani intruders’ sangars (ad hoc bunkers) on the Indian side of the LoC after the army had made such a request. Quite obviously, during the Kargil conflict, a joint threat and intelligence assessment of the air defence resources available to the intruders must not have been carried out or else the IAF would not have lost two fighter aircraft and one helicopter to shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) within the first few days of the beginning of the air campaign.
Consequent to the submission of the Kargil Review Committee report, a task force led by Arun Singh was constituted by the Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani to analyse the functioning of the higher defence organisation in India and suggest remedial measures for improvement. Among the major recommendations of this task force was the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) with a tri-Service joint planning staff HQ. The GoM accepted this recommendation. However, while the tri-Service Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) was finally constituted in 2002, it is still headed by a three-star officer who reports to the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). Approval of the four-star post of CDS was deferred by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) pending further consultations. The two reasons cited for the deferment were the lack of political consensus on the establishment of the post of CDS and opposition within certain sections of the armed forces.

Single Point Military Advice

India’s prevailing security environment is marked by regional instability with a nuclear overhang. India has been engaged in an over 5Q-years old low intensity limited conflict along the LoC with Pakistan, an ongoing Pakistan-sponsored “proxy war” in Kashmir and elsewhere in the country and 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 guiding national security imperatives. 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 each of the armed forces on the other to meet complex emerging challenges.
Success in modern war hinges on the formulation of a joint military strategy based on the military aim and its joint and integrated execution. 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 Raksha Mantri’s (Defence Minister’s) Operational Directive. Only limited coordination is carried out at the operational level and the tactical level. In the present era of strategic uncertainty and rapidly changing threats, no military professional now disputes the unavoidable necessity of a joint planning staff for the planning and conduct of joint operations so that integrated operations can be planned “top down”. The newly established HQ IDS will undoubtedly meet this requirement in the years to come 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.
Many analysts have sought to question the need for single point military advice for India’s civilian political masters. With India’s “no first use” nuclear strategy, the CCS would be in a real quandary if at a critical stage during war, when the adversary has unleashed the nuclear genie, the Chiefs of Staff express divergent views on the payoffs of using nuclear weapons in a retaliatory strike and the type and nature of response. The service Chiefs would to some extent be guided by the impact of the use of nuclear weapons on their forward-deployed troops and would need to take the prevailing military situation into account while making their recommendations to the government. It is axiomatic that the differences among the Chiefs of Staff are resolved by the military professionals themselves, with one of them acting as the arbitrator. Only a CDS would be able to take a detached view and present an objective analysis of the situation along with the available options, their advantages and disadvantages.

Theatre Command System

Ideally, the CDS should be an overall commander-in-chief and from him command should flow to individual theatre commanders. Given India’s long land borders with a varied terrain configuration and two major seaboards, as also adversaries who are geographically separated, a “theatre” system of tri-service command is best suited for the optimum management of both external and internal security challenges. Contrary to the belief that only the United States needs a theatre system because of its wider geo-political interests and involvement in security issues all over the globe, with its inimical neighbours and peculiar national security threats and challenges, India too needs a theatre system for integrated functioning to achieve synergy of operations with limited resources. The Chinese, with similar needs, have a well-established theatre system.
Each theatre commander should have under him forces from all the three services based on the requirement. The initial allocation of forces need not be permanent and could be varied during war or during the preparatory stage. However, at the inception stage it would be more appropriate to make the CDS “first among equals” and let the three Chiefs of Staff retain operational command and administrative control over their Services as change should be evolutionary and not revolutionary. Once the system matures and theatre commanders are appointed, the Chiefs of Staff of individual Services should have responsibility primarily for force structure and drawing up perspective plans. They should oversee the development and acquisition 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 (J&K) would naturally form the ‘Northern Theatre’ for both conventional! and low intensity conflict operations (LIC). in view of the ongoing operations and the possibility of continuing conflict, this command should be headed by an army General as the operations are by and large land forces-centric. The “Western Theatre’ comprising the plains of Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat could be led alternately by an army General and an Air Chief Marshal both of whom would be adequately schooled in the complexities of the AirLand battle at the operational and strategic levels. 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 ‘also 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 low intensity conflict (LIC) situation and the fact that the predominant component of the force would continue to be drawn from the army. It will be a long time before the “seven sisters’ are well and truly integrated into the national mainstream. Till then, some form of LIC can be expected to continue. 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), could be headed alternately by a General, an Admiral or an Air Chief Marshal.
Each theatre commander should have under him forces from all the three Services based on the requirement. The initial grouping and allocation of forces would not be permanent and could be varied during the preparatory stage as well as during war on an as required basis. There should be a joint planning staff in each of the Theatre HQ. The staff officers and even the Other Ranks should be drawn from all the three Services. In fact, it should be made compulsory for officers of the rank of Colonel/ Captain (IN)/ Group Captain and above looking for further promotion to have served at least one full tenure (minimum two years) in one of the joint HQ. The officer should have completed the tenure successfully. Only then will it be possible to inculcate a culture of genuine “jointmanship” that is so necessary to fight and win today’s wars.
Other Tri-Service Organisations
Several other areas of functioning necessitate overarching military command and control at the national level. While India’s nuclear doctrine and policy are guided by the National Security Council and the Cabinet Committee on Security, the execution has to be entrusted to the Services and here a joint approach is mandatory. The newly-constituted Strategic Forces Command (SFC) for the planning, coordination and control of India’s nuclear weapons must function directly under the CDS even as the nuclear warheads and the delivery systems comprising the “triad” remain with the respective services. The CDS and through him the C-in-C of the SFC must exercise “command” over the deployment and launching of all nuclear warheads and the delivery systems even though their physical possession vests with the individual Services.
The acquisition and dissemination of strategic military intelligence need tri-Service planning and should justifiably lie in the domain of the Defence intelligence Agency (DIA) guided by the CDS. The Director General of the newly-established DIA should report directly to the CDS. He must coordinate with the National Security Council Secretariat and the civilian intelligence agencies (R&AW, IB et al) on behalf of the three Services and act as a link between them. The tasking of common assets of the three Services like DIPAC should be controlled by the DIA.
Information warfare and cyber-security and issues like the management of the electro-magnetic spectrum including frequency management, electromagnetic compatibility (EMC), electro-magnetic interference (EMI), electronic emission policy (EEP) and the offensive employment of non-communications devices such as radars for electronic warfare should all be the legitimate domain of the CDS and HO IDS.
similarly, on the non-operational side, training Institutions such as the National Defence College, the College of Defence Management and the National Defence Academy and organisations like the Armed Forces Medical Services, Canteen Stores Department and a host of others must be placed under the direct command of the CDS for better synergy in their functioning and optimum exploitation of their potential.

Concluding Observations

The COSC is an experiment that can only be described as an abysmal failure. It is driven by single service requirements and perceptions. It is well known that the Chairman COSC lacks executive authority over Services other than his own. The COSC works primarily by consensus and cannot make hard decisions that would be binding on all the services. Perhaps it is not so well known that it took the COSC almost two years to reach a consensus on the revised syllabus of the National Defence Academy. The institution of a national War Memorial was another contentious issue that dragged on for years with the result that while the police are actually constructing a memorial near Teen Murti in Lutyens’ Delhi, the armed forces memorial still exists only on paper. While the end goal is common, there are always disagreements on the route to be followed to get there. During peace time, turf battles and inter-Service rivalries rule the roost and minor, inconsequential issues take up most of the time available for discussion. War time decisions require professional understanding, a bi-partisan approach and, often, hard compromises. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Committees cannot fight wars.”
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