Well into the first decade of the 21st century and almost six years after nuclear India is still without a Chief of Defence Staff. While the tri-service Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff was formed, it is still headed by a three-star officer who reports to the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee.
Well into the first decade of the 21st century and almost six years after nuclear India is still without a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). With Parliament having been dissolved and elections around the corner, India’s first CDS is unlikely to be appointed in the near future.
Consequent to the submission of the Kargil Review Committee report, a task force led by Mr 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 CDS with a joint planning staff HQ. The GoM accepted this recommendation. However, while the tri-service Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQIDS) was formed, 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 lack of political consensus as well as opposition within certain sections of the armed forces were cited as the reasons for the deferment.
In India’s prevailing security environment with a nuclear overhang, marked by regional instability, an over 50-year-old low intensity limited conflict along the LoC with Pakistan, an ongoing Pakistan sponsored “proxy war” in Kashmir, a vitiated internal security situation, repeated air space violations, burgeoning maritime security challenges and increasing demands for Indian contribution to multinational forces. the early appointment of a CDS is an inescapable operational necessity. More than ever before, and especially in the nuclear era, it’s now necessary for the national security decision makers to be given “single-point military advice’ that takes into account the interdependence of each of the armed forces to meet complex emerging challenges.
Success in a modern war depends 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 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 these 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 fighting 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 and the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
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 geopolitical 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 the 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 the “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 the administrative matters such as the annual budget, pay and allowances, maintenance support, medical services, etc.
Several other areas of functioning necessitate overarching military command and control at the national level. The newly-constituted Strategic Forces Command for the planning, coordination and control of India’s nuclear weapons must function directly under the CDS even as nuclear warheads and delivery systems comprising the “triad” remain with the respective services. Similarly, the tri-service Andaman-Nicobar Command and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) should report directly to the CDS.
It is well known that the Chairman, COSC, lacks executive authority over the Services other than his own. The COSC works primarily by consensus and cannot make hard decisions binding on all the Services.
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 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 further. It is an idea whose time has come.