The Indian Armed Forces step into 2020 with one of their long overdue and most significant demands having fructified, namely the institution of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). That the strategic and operational necessity for adoption of the CDS system was approved by the NDA government back in 2001 and has taken 18 years to implement should not surprise many. Bureaucratic sluggishness combined with a lack of will among governments of varying political hues generally delays even critical issues concerning India’s security.
Thus, the Narendra Modi government deserves appreciation for getting the CDS off the ground. It is now up to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the three Services to jointly ensure that this long-awaited institution is made ready to fulfil its charter with alacrity and effectiveness.
The past record of the three services in shedding some resources for inter-service organisations is not laudable and, having raised the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), after the Kargil War, I can vouch for their reluctance!
The CDS, a four-star officer, will head the Department of Military Affairs within the MoD and will be the “first among equals,” with the three Service chiefs retaining operational command of their respective services. It would have been prudent to make the CDS a five-star officer, but that can happen later, once the system gets institutionalised and honed.
The CDS, at the outset, must urge the government to issue a National Security Strategic document which lays down a comprehensive strategic policy for the foreseeable future. Naturally, it will have both classified and unclassified segments to it with the former being shared only on a ‘need to know’ basis with concerned stakeholders. HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), which has been in existence since 2002 and will be servicing the CDS, is well versed to produce a comprehensive policy document for the government’s approval.
Being chartered to provide integrated “single-point military advice” to the government, the CDS will have to rise above his own service loyalties, and scrupulously and professionally prioritise conflicting inter-service requirements in the larger interests of the nation.
This aspect is far more important now, with India’s economy under serious stress. Last year’s budget allocated merely 1.49% of GDP to defence, whereas successive parliamentary committees have recommended at least 3% of GDP for defence.
With the Indian Armed Forces required to be prepared to confront a two-front war, the CDS will have his hands full in convincing the government for larger allocations for capital budgeting for essential modernisation and speedy procurement of much-needed weapons, platforms, aircraft, ships and submarines, ammunition, spares, etc.
This is unlikely in the budget being presented on 1 February 2020 but would remain a challenge for the CDS in subsequent budgets to extract the desired outlays from the government, which is itself under acute financial strain. However, India’s depleting fighter aircraft and submarine fleets will require the CDS to re-energise identification and procurement procedures for requisite equipment for the three services.
Additionally, the Armed Forces must enhance the induction of critical force- multipliers for all three services, ensuring there is no duplication of effort or resources. However, in the currently issued charter by the MOD, big-ticket acquisitions will remain with the Department of Defence, under the Defence Secretary. Thus, final negotiations regarding the pricing with foreign collaborators or with Indian companies/defence PSUs rests with the Defence Secretary. Thus, the bureaucracy will continue to reign supreme and delays may remain as earlier.
Challenges emanating from across the entire spectrum of warfare, encompassing all domains, will have to be factored in by the CDS without further delay. Also, the CDS will be well advised to analyse and coordinate with other civil agencies non-traditional security challenges and measures to counter asymmetric forms of warfare with which the nation may be confronted.
The DIA, working directly under the CDS, will have to step up coordination and sharing of information and intelligence with civil intelligence agencies. However, though inputs from intelligence agencies of the three services get coordinated by the DIA, putting these agencies under command of the DIA will greatly assist the CDS and the defence minister to get a much better intelligence mosaic.
The CDS will have directly under his command the only inter-services theatre command existing now within the forces, namely the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). As all professionals have unanimously felt, the ANC must be built up with greater strength than so far, as it has the potential to dominate the Indian Ocean and keep at bay nations inimical to India’s interests in the Indian Ocean. Maritime challenges, not only in the Indo-Pacific but primarily in the Indian Ocean, are only going to multiply owing to China’s growing assertiveness. The CDS must devote considerable time to build the ANC to desired levels of combat capability.
Meanwhile, the CDS will also oversee the establishment of the recently sanctioned Cyber and Special Forces agencies, besides the Defence Space Research Organisation. These entities could well be the fore-runners for their augmentation to levels of Command HQ in coming years. The domains of cyber and space are battlegrounds of future warfare where China has already stolen a march over all nations including, to some extent, the US.
The CDS will oversee the critical Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and has been designated as the Nuclear Military Adviser to the government—a step in the right direction. The presence of a senior military officer in the Nuclear Command Authority will improve the nation’s nuclear preparedness. Importantly, India needs to revisit its Nuclear Doctrine. Does India stick to its original policy of ‘No First Use’ and massive retaliation or should it also develop tactical nuclear weapons to limit a nuclear exchange? The CDS and the SFC would surely look at the pros and cons of
various options for nuclear challenges which need adoption by India, keeping China’s and Pakistan’s nuclear preparedness in view.
Some defence analysts feel that 2020 should have had the CDS exercising operational control over the three services through integrated ‘theatre commands,’ as in the US. However, this concept will have to be further debated. Theatre commands, if required to be established, can be subsequently done in a graduated, incremental manner, theatre-wise, and its efficacy or otherwise gauged. Jointness among the services, even with the present structures, in operational doctrines and plans, training and logistics must be ensured, with synergy,
The MoD and the CDS must ruthlessly pursue ‘Make in India’ programmes, which have hardly taken off. Foreign collaborations for indigenous production of state-of-the-art equipment and weaponry must be given a fillip. The DRDO’s performance must be scrutinised at the highest levels and remedial action taken. India can ill afford huge imports of weaponry and platforms from outside.
Managing an adverse internal security environment is not the Indian Army’s primary task. Yet, combating local insurgencies has become an important mission for the Army. The CDS and Army HQ must be prepared to act concertedly with central police and para-military forces.
In the current CDS charter, one pending anomaly has not been addressed. For reasons best known to it, the government has not changed the Government of India Rules of Business Allocation 1961, which vests the authority for Defence of India with the defence secretary. Once the CDS institution is fully established, the Indian government may consider amending this rule, making either the defence minister or CDS responsible instead. Meanwhile, the CDS should be careful that his status does not become that of a department head within the MOD. The Services chiefs are above the defence secretary. The CDS, accordingly, cannot be less.
2020, in today’s troubled world and, especially our region, portends to be a challenging year for India’s defence establishment. However, the establishment of the CDS is more than a welcome step to thwart the myriad and formidable challenges to India’s security. The CDS requires complete support from the three services, the MOD and PMO to fulfil his assigned arduous responsibilities.
A version of this article was first published in South Asia Monitor and is available at southasiamonitor.org