Government’s top military advisor: empowered or a figurehead?
A Fresh Impetus
According to the recent Parliamentary pronouncements, the Government is seized of the matter of appointing a single-point military adviser in the form of a ‘Chief of Defence Staff’ (CDS) – or may be its more ‘assuaging’ version of a ‘Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee’ (COSC) in lieu. In classical sense, besides rendering consolidated and decisive military advice, the charter of the CDS formally anoints him as the superintending regulator for joint-services force-structuring and integrated military force-application in tune with the dictates of political mandate.
By implication therefore, the CDS is not just an appointment but an institution. It performs its charter with the help of its dedicated joint-staff, a support set up and formally institutionalised levers across the entire gamut of national defence. Creation of this institution is obviously a complex exercise which needs deep insight of military affairs and astute political guidance to execute, attributes which the past Governments could not muster.
The Case for a High Military Professional
Soon after assuming power at the Centre, the NDA Government revived the long pending matter of creation of an institution which could offer ‘single point’ military advice to the apex level managers of national defence. Formal recommendation to have such an institution in the form of the CDS was made in the ‘Kargil Review Committee Report’ of the Year 1999 and then followed up in 2001 by a ‘Group of Ministers’ Report titled ‘Reforming the National Security System’. The need had actually been felt even earlier when post-nuclearisation an architecture for national command authority had to be devised. Later, the necessity to create this institution found impetus in the aftermath of Operation Parakram when the cause for military modernisation found higher attention; arguably there may be a case that the absence of a CDS is one reason that this process has not really taken strides yet.
Briefly put, the case was built around the argument that it was necessary is to have a professional body of highest standing to render ‘single point’ advise on the entire gamut of nation’s military security, including the articulation of the nation’s nuclear power, to the nation’s President and the Commander-in-Chief and his executive bodies - the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Committee for Security, the Defence Minister and the National Security Council. The CDS was thus intended to reconcile the inevitable differences in service-specific ardours to forge a conclusive ‘single point’ military advice for the Government to arrive at its considered military decisions. Besides of course, the CDS was needed to regulate modernisation of the forces in terms of the overall optimisation of operational capabilities, time schedules and fiscal approbations.
Obviously, implicit in that intent was the role the CDS would play in fostering inter-services jointness in planning, preparation and execution of military operations, which is but an imperative of modern warfare.
CDS: The Intent and Debate
As however, the intent was scrutinised at inter-services domains, there emerged many concerns, effective answers to which had to be found before the CDS could be installed. Though the matter was hyped over the purported internal resistance against status change and a fear of marginalisation of the service headquarters and the defence bureaucracy, it was actually a spate of undeniably genuine concerns that put paid to that proposition for more than a decade. One, it was pointed out that the existing system of confabulations among the political leadership and the three Service Chiefs had worked and tested well. Differences of opinion among the three have been effectively managed so far, and therefore, there was no need to tinker with a functional system. Two, with the principled avoidance of use of nuclear assets as weapons of war, a body of National Security Advisor, Service Chiefs and the Strategic Forces Commander would suffice to articulate the nuclear strategy. Three, and most importantly, the institution of the CDS was considered to be the harbinger of joint theatre commands, and that was stated to be neither workable nor necessary when India did not envisage any military role beyond her borders, and when capital combat assets, always being at a premium, have to be controlled as centrally as feasible. Lastly, it was seen that unified system of budgetary allocations and hardware acquisitions could be workable under the existing format consisting of the Defence Acquisition Council and its various arms.
The net result was that the Government, apprehensive of stepping into an uncertain situation, adopted the indefinite expediency of ‘measured inaction’ and ‘build-up of consensus’ against the proposed appointment of CDS.
A Military Aberration
In contrast to the arguments against creation of CDS, it may well be viewed as a dereliction of contemporary professionalism that even a militarily recessed defence policy requires the Indian military to maintain as many as 17 single-service command headquarters - all afflicted by inadequacy of resources by their own reckoning on the one hand and replicating many of their functions on the other. That is further compounded with each of the Services propagating their own vision of war-fighting doctrines, and while reserving for themselves the key-stone of military strategy, preparing to wage their preferred versions of warfare wherein jointness may feature but by default. In an era that demands the prosecution of integrated military operations, that is doubtlessly a disastrous aberration.
Conditions have changed drastically since tri-service synergy was displayed during the 1965 and 1971 Wars. Indeed, pitfalls of dependence on a tenuous system of planning and conduct of modern military operations through consensus among autonomist Services had been glimpsed during the Kargil War. That continues to this day to afflict the context of close air support to ground operations, operational inadequacies of the Tri-Service Andaman & Nicobar Command, stagnation over the National Defence University and the internecine inter-services competition to claim funds and resources, for example. The contemporary dictates of integrated warfare therefore make it mandatory to repair this military aberration through the creation of the institution of the CDS,and its eventual corollary, Joint Tri-Service Theatre Commands – earlier the better.
Quest for an Alternative
It was so when responding to the rising clamour among the strategic community over the long stagnating matter, the Government convened another ‘Task Force on National Security Reforms’ in 2011, also referred to as the Naresh Chandra Committee. However, besides amplifying some of the past recommendations, all that his Task Force could do was to suggest an ‘amenable’ alternative in which the CDS would have its superior joint-service command authority curtailed. That alternative was to turn the more or less ceremonial appointment of rotational Chairman of the COSC into a ‘Permanent’ one, and designate that appointment to control the tri-service issues as well as to act as a single point military advisor to the Government. In the following confabulations, it was argued that the Permanent Chairman of the COSC could be designated to exercise control over the tri-service forces and institutions, and the authority to arbitrate on reconciliation of inter-services priorities in fund allocation and capital acquisitions. This would thus be an arrangement in which the Service Headquarters would continue to exercise operational command over their respective forces and retain their primacy in service-specific decision-making.
That was obviously a middle path in negotiating through the arguments for and against the institution of the CDS in the Indian context. The middle path envisaged the Permanent Chairman of the COSC as just ‘one among the equals’ alongside the three Service Chiefs, with differences of opinion among them being ‘arbitrated by the MoD’. That indeed was a ludicrous idea against the basic requirement of generating objective and conclusive professional consideration before the single point advice is rendered to the Government. It was in fact a subterfuge to let the bureaucracy to continue to play a role of ‘arbitrator’ of military issues among servicemen ‘appellants’ without having the requisite competence. The middle path therefore failed to enthuse the strategic community who saw little advantage of having a single-point advisor who would be a figurehead of certain loose tri-service commands, and without being vested with the authority to override and arbitrate on issues of inter-service issues, would merely be an equal among his peer Service Chiefs.
Needless to state that little progress could be made on the suggestions made by the Naresh Chandra Committee. India therefore continues to make do with a system of military management which, being unworkable in modern warfare, has long been discarded universally. Revival of the matter after the NDA Government assumed power is therefore a welcome development, provided at the long last it is brought to true fruition– minus compromises to accommodate naysayers.
The case for a high military professional to advise the final custodian of national defence, the Government of India, have to be customised according to the native conditions. However, it would still be in order to cite just two examples of the systems followed in the US and UK militaries – most advanced nations follow the same pattern, more or less.
In the United States military, war-time operational command devolves from the Commander-in-Chief (President) to the Joint Forces Commanders-in-Chief of various theatres of war. Whereas the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, remaining outside the chain of command, advises the President with regards to military aims, operational plans and allocation of war resources, besides monitoring the conduct of operations. A similar practice, duly customised to its small size and limited objectives, prevails in the British system. Herein the CDS controls all military forces through the three Service Chiefs, a single Chief of Joint Operations and a Chief of Defence Material. When necessary, command and control of military operations, with joint-services forces allocated for the purpose, is vested upon the Chief of Joint Operations. In either case, strategies are worked out through all-inclusive confabulations and the Service Chiefs retain their key position in decision-making. To that extent, any fear of appointment of the CDS leading to undermining the status of Service Chiefs is unfounded.
These examples indicate that in the contemporary context, there can be no doubt regarding the necessity of having a central figure to further the cause of synergised joint operations and joint preparation for the fulfilment of that purpose. Indeed, the conditions have changed drastically since the tri-service synergy was evidenced during the past wars, and to cite those conditions to obfuscate the need for an empowered CDS – or a Permanent Chairman of COSC, the nomenclature does not really matter – is to encourage continuation of the afore-stated systemic aberration in India’s apex level defence management.
Parameters for an Indian System
Having established the unquestionable need for an overarching professional military institution that may foster effective tri-service jointness and render single-point advice to the Government, the purpose now turns into finding a balanced mechanism to serve the Indian conditions. Indeed, it matters not as to what the acceptable designation might be, the real issue is the role, responsibility and authority to be assigned to a senior-most appointment that could discard archaic redundancies and foster true jointness in the Indian military establishment, while being at the call of the Government to offer unencumbered, unambiguous and comprehensively considered military advise. Doubtlessly, to be effective, that appointment must also be a duly empowered ‘high arbitrator’ on inter-services matters connected with propagation of joint-service doctrine, adoption of joint war strategies and force-compositions, and as a corollary, joint training, joint logistics, inter-service compatibility of capital acquisitions and corresponding fiscal approbations.
Notwithstanding the considerations discussed so far, there are certain nuances of apex level military decision-making which have to be taken into consideration in the context of the ground situation that confronts India. The fact is that more or less the entire Indian border belt is subject to perpetually aggressive designs of her avowed adversaries who remain relentless in their predatory intents short of engaging in full scale war. In this the adversaries are encouraged by India’s placid defence policies and the ‘hollowness’ in its war-capability. Thus when the realm remains afflicted by intermittent encroachments, regular infiltration and continuous sponsorship of insurgency on land, and similar inimical acts over sea and air, deployment of single-service forces, already scarce, becomes a perpetual challenge at all-India level. In such a situation, it will make sense to let the operational command remain with the Service Headquarters, till the CDS is fully geared in the nuances of joint-service command and control.
Taking advantage of the well established Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), the CDS for the time being could control the Strategic Forces Command, Andaman and Nicobar Command, the Special Forces, Space and Cyber Commands, the National Defence University, even the Armed Forces Medical Service and Coast Guard. Further, as the apex level single point military advisor to the Government, he could exercise over riding authority over budgetary approbations, capital acquisitions and all joint-service matters. Lastly, in the context of the military forces remaining devoid of the expected degree of support from the defence research, industry and estates organisations, as well to re-energise the back-up from the dual-use infrastructure like railways, road transport, civil supplies etc., the CDS could play a much needed catalytic role.
What however, cannot be negotiable in right senses is the matter of the CDS (or the Permanent Chairman of COSC) not being vested with overriding authority over all military matters. The CDS cannot be just a toothless addition to a college of ‘equals’.
Charter of the CDS
As already discussed, within the ambit of national defence policy, the CDS would be the prime-mover for formulation of joint war-fighting doctrine, and a moderator in strategising for joint-warfare, tri-service force-structuring, joint intelligence, cyber and space operations, joint training, joint logistics and comprehensive force-modernisation. Just inter-service ‘cooperation’ not being enough in contemporary warfare, this appointment would foster true jointness in the nation’s armed forces, cutting down on redundancies,reconciling duplications, managing modernisation schemes against unilateral deviations and monitoring mid-course corrections. Finally, the CDS would foster a regime of inter-dependency and interoperability among the three Services, and rationalise budgetary approbation.
Further, even if they exist to attend to the military’s requirements, the usual user-provider equation between the armed forces and the nation’s defence sector - defence research, public and private sector arms industry, estates etc. – has not been in the best consonance. This anomaly could be better reconciled if the CDS is designated to play a moderating role.
Obviously, such roles and responsibilities cannot be shouldered by the Service Chiefs, committed as they must be to the primacy of their own service, not the least by the Defence Secretary who would not possess the requisite military insight. Only a professional body, possessing the requisite authority, foresight and the ability to rise above all considerations but the national cause, can perform that part.
Hopefully, the present Government would appreciate that a half-measure expediency of installing a lame-duck CDS (or a Permanent Chairman of COSC) will be a self-defeating exercise. Hopefully, it would do well for the cause of national defence – in terms of best military preparedness against resources allocated –by designating the CDS to undertake all-embracing responsibilities and empower that institution in the manner of a ‘first among the equals’. Today, in absence of that institution, crucial military responsibilities lie unattended - much to the detriment of the nation’s military security.