Few people, outside those informed about India’s higher defence organisation, know that the defence of India—as per the Government of India’s (Transaction of Business) Rules of 1961—is the responsibility of civilians; the defence secretary (a bureaucrat), and not the service chiefs! The Chiefs of India’s armed forces are responsible through the defence ministry for the command, training, administration and preparation for a war of their respective services. No wonder, it has led many commentators to say that India has the most absurd civil-military equation for a country with such an impressive military tradition and with all the military challenges it continues to face. These rules, it appears, were formulated by copying the British system, which has influenced the structures of India’s ministry of defence (MoD) and that of its armed force. However, in the British system, the Defence Secretary is a politician, and a minister in their PM’s cabinet, whereas in India, the defence secretary is a civil servant. Even in the American system, the Secretary of State for Defence is appointed by the President, who may neither be a politician nor a bureaucrat, but has cabinet rank. But in India a secretary is a high ranking bureaucrat and not a politician.
Therefore India’s armed forces have been insisting on having a military officer as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) since the armed forces have a number of professional requirements that need domain expertise, which a generalist bureaucrat doesn’t have. However, as a legacy of the Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon era, the bureaucracy is all over the Indian Ministry of Defence, and all-powerful, but military men say, that they are often neither held accountable—as the defence secretary after the 1962 military debacle, was only posted out to another ministry, while the defence minister and many senior generals resigned—and nor is he sufficiently sympathetic to the needs of serving and retired personnel of India’s armed forces.Thus, the announcement that India would now have a CDS, has brought some relief in military circles, though there is much to be done before a CDS adequately address our security concerns. In fact, the idea of a CDS, was apparently, first brought up after the 1971 war, when it was suggested that Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw should be made the first CDS. Not only did Manekshaw, soon fall out of favour with Mrs. Gandhi, but his candidature was apparently vetoed also by then Air Chief, ACM PC Lal (with whom Manekshaw was not quite on talking terms, at least during the 1971 war) and the then Defence Secretary, KB Lal, as Manekshaw was known to bulldoze his way past the bureaucracy.
The matter thereafter lay in limbo for another four decades, as the bureaucracy was quite happy to see that the three service chiefs were not on the same page at least on this issue. Interestingly, the strongest opposition to the idea of the CDS, still comes from the IAF and the IAS lobbies. Even during the Kargil conflict, it is said that the then Army Chief, General Ved Malik, and then Air Chief, ACM Tipnis, had major differences about the use of airpower and helicopter gunships against Pakistani bunkers. Such differences and delays cost lives of soldiers on ground. However, it was eventually resolved and the IAF became a force multiplier. But, following the Kargil conflict, the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report, had recommended that a CDS was essential for the demands of modern warfare — which require inter-service cooperation — to achieve our political goals with the limited resources of our armed forces. And thereafter, following the KRC’s recommendations, a Group of Ministers supported the idea of CDS and so did the Naresh Chandra Committee on Defence Reforms. As did a study by a team headed by Lt Gen. Shekatkar in 2016, since India’s armed forces, have traditionally operated in independent silos, with each service having its own doctrine, its own of equipment purchases, and their own professional traditions and culture.
This has always led to heartburn and wrangling over who would get how much of limited budgets left over for the purchase of equipment for critical military equipment to fight wars. It has to be done with what is left over after the basic needs of the services, like salaries and infrastructure upgrades, are met, with the increasingly dwindling defence budgets.The CDS, once fully operational, could help the government of the day in meeting the requirements of the armed forces, more so, as is known that the advice given by the defence secretary to the Cabinet on our state of military preparedness has been sometimes questionable. For instance, during the Kargil Conflict, the then defence secretary had told the Cabinet that while General Malik was publicly stating the army was short of basic weapons to fight Pakistani intruders, there were enough rifles that were available in our ordnance depots. A quick check by army headquarters revealed that there were rifles, but these were of World War II vintage, and it would be suicidal to send our troops in battle with vintage .303’s. And even now, with a few exceptions, a generalist bureaucrat without domain expertise, but responsible for the defence of India, would often be hard put to differentiate between an armoured car and armoured vehicles.
The question now is what should be the role of the CDS? We’ve had a Headquarters of Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) in the MoD for fifteen years now, which has been in waiting for a CDS, to help it fulfil its roles! To begin, it must be ensured that the CDS, must be a military man from any of the three services but picked for his suitability for the job, ideally after him having been a service chief, and not purely on the basis of seniority, as has been the case until now with the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, which is held by the senior-most service chief. And as the CDS should be the single point of military advice to the Prime Minister and his cabinet, his role must not threaten the civilian bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence nor the service chiefs and their fiefdoms. Instead, the CDS could be given a proactive role in streamlining our defence and military acquisition processes and facilitating the inter-service sharing of equipment and resources. Equally, the CDS could advise the government on how India’s armed forces must prepare for the future challenges of threats in the cyber and space domain as also the better sharing of intelligence inputs. And of course, there is a need to synergise the war-fighting doctrines of our three services which are currently tailored to meet their own specific requirements, instead of an ‘air-land’ or ‘air-sea’ operation as well as out-of-area operations beyond India’s borders. For this, the CDS must be senior to the service chief’s, and if we go in for theatre commands, he must he their overall coordinator.
However, the establishment of theatre commands, which I’m told is also opposed by the IAF, will take time. While our armed forces have been greatly influenced by the British tradition, and though they often quote the American model now—with theatre commands the world over—perhaps, the Chinese model is a better option for India to adopt. In 2016, President Xi Jinping appointed China’s first Chief of Joint Staff and divided China’s armed forces into theatre commands for managing its military operational needs. Thus, China’s Western Command in Chengdu is now focused on India and parts of Central Asia with adequate land and air resources to fight a war in the high Himalayas. India, on the other hand, has a fragmented approach to dealing with the Chinese, with multiple commands of the army (in J&K, Lucknow, and Calcutta), the airforce (in Shillong, and in J&K), and the navy (in Vishakhpatnam), all prepared to battle the Chinese threat. In fact, in all, India has 17 military commands and each of them have operational roles that overlap over that of a sister service and a massive logistics tail.
Thus, what India therefore needs are theatre commands that cover all our threats and use our limited resources to the optimum. This writer had proposed the idea of theatre commands about 25 years ago and these could be as follows. A theatre command each to address the threat from China that would start from India’s north-east on the Indo- Myanmar border and go along Sino-Indian boundary to LAC in Aksai Chin. The other would focus on Pakistan, starting from Siachen Glacier, and go along the LOC and Indo-Pak Border right up to the Rann of Kutch. Both these should be headed always by army officers with adequate components of air-force in particular and some elements of the Navy, since their primary threats would be on land. And then a peninsular command, which would run from the coasts of Gujarat, right along the Indian coastline, until Bengal and Bangladesh to be headed by a naval officer since their primary role would be to guard against maritime threats and manage out of area operations. This theatre would have the necessary army and air resources to meet all the contingencies of this theatre. And finally, an air and missile forces command that could be used in addition to the above- outlined commands, to provide air and missile firepower as force multipliers, to any operations India’s armed forces might have to undertake, along our land or sea borders. The CDS should be the link between the CCS and the defence minister, to coordinate their operational engagements, without interfering in their roles.
And then there is the issue of nuclear weapons. Though the decision to use them will continue to rest with the PM and his CCS through the defence minister, the CDS could manage their deployment along with the service chiefs, theatre commanders, along with our scientific community. Here, the CDS could play a very important role in coordinating between the civilian leadership and the military headquarters, and he would need to do it, in double-quick time. For this reason itself, the CDS must be given the necessary authority to ensure that we are not fumbling when faced with threats from an increasingly aggressive Pakistan or China. To that extent, India could closely look at America’s Goldwater-Nicholas Act that gives their Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff (which came into being in 1986) direct access to US President, their supreme military commander, (which in our case would have to be modified for the CDS to have direct access to the Defence Minister) but without him interfering with the operational roles of American theatre commanders all over the world. But unlike the US, the CDS in India would need to coordinate with the Indian theatre commanders and the service headquarters, since there could be conflicts of professional opinions between the service chiefs and our theatre commanders.
In all this, the bureaucracy in the MoD should retain its own relevance while the CDS with his own headquarters would work to fill the gap of professional knowledge that the bureaucracy suffers from since they are not career military officers but civil servants, who, at least in the decision- making levels (joint-secretary upwards), shift from the one ministry to another, and are thus familiar with the Government of India’s rules and regulations. One major shortcoming of our absurd system, as yet, has been the confusion over the need for critical military equipment. This, the armed forces are best placed to handle. To that extent, there is a requirement of having military officers positioned alongside bureaucrats in the MoD. And finally the fear, that has been promoted sometimes by the bureaucracy and intelligence agencies, that a “super-general” (CDS) once appointed could energise the armed forces into taking over the country is ridiculous, to say the least. Nothing can be further from the truth and is an insult to the integrity of India’s armed forces, which have remained steadfastly loyal to the Constitution, and the elected government of this country. In fact, their professionalism and their apolitical conduct have been an example to others in the developing world.
This essay by Maj Maroof Raza was first published by Open Magazine on 23 August 2019.