Chief of defence staff would just be the first step

Source: By Nitin Pai: Mint

If the Narendra Modi government appoints a chief of defence staff (CDS), it would constitute the most significant defence policy reform in decades. The move was considered necessary after the 1999 Kargil War and was first approved by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet in May 2001. Yet, almost two decades later, no CDS has been appointed. There have been some incremental reforms in getting the army, navy and air force to operate jointly, but the Armed Forces substantially retained the structure put in place by Lord Mountbatten’s chief of staff in 1947.

Political misgivings, bureaucratic turf protection and inter-service mistrust, together, created so much friction that the CDS wagon could not start rolling. A sense of foreboding remains. The Print’s Snehesh Alex Philip reports that top government sources said “the PM’s announcement is more like an ‘in-principle approval’, and that modalities to create the CDS post are being worked out… and the process could now be completed in one to three months". That said there is a good chance that the force of Modi’s public commitment from the Red Fort will create the necessary momentum to get things going.

In the years we waited for the CDS, the strategic environment has undergone further transformation. By 2001, it had become clear to the leaders of India’s strategic establishment that jointness—the combination of land, sea and air power—was necessary to effectively combat adversaries, who employed everything from terrorists and militants to regular troops through to nuclear weapons. With information, cyberspace and space becoming military domains already, the jointness which is required surpasses merely getting the groups in uniform together. India’s first CDS, therefore, has a lot of catching up and leapfrogging to do.

The underlying rationale for appointing a CDS is to separate management and command of the Armed Forces. If the CDS is the principal military adviser to the cabinet, the job of commanding the troops and leading them in war needs to be assigned to someone else. To assign it to the three service chiefs would largely defeat tri-service integration, the purpose of the reform. To take the logic of the CDS to its conclusion, the Armed Forces must be operationally restructured into theatre commands—complete joint war-fighting formations—led by combatant commanders.

That India needs theatre commands is well-recognized for over three decades. What those theatre commands should look like and how to get there are yet to be resolved. Moving from the existing structure to theatre commands will not be easy and the government has not announced any plans or timelines yet. In a 2008 email exchange on how this could be done, the late strategic thinker K. Subrahmanyam argued that the army and navy chiefs should first hand over their command to theatre commanders, with the air chief doing so at a later stage. He envisaged doubling the air force to 60 squadrons by 2030 and placing them under theatre commands.

Three theatres are straightforward: Northern, Western and Southern to address the threats from China, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean, respectively. To these, I would add an eastern command for the Bay of Bengal littoral and an expeditionary command responsible for operations further afield. In the years ahead, a combination of climate change, violent non-state actors and volatile politics will increase the demands on the government to deploy military forces beyond the subcontinent. Despite a multitude of threats, India’s Armed Forces have very limited capacity to operate overseas hence the need for an expeditionary command. The first major task of the new CDS will thus be to conceptualize and implement the transformation of the forces into theatre commands.

From a defence policy perspective, the CDS presents us with the opportunity to optimize defence economics and make expenditure more effective. Today, the question “how much should India spend on defence?" is answered by adding up the budgets of the three services. It is well acknowledged that considerable efficiencies are to be gained by optimizing resource use, procurement, training and so on. That’s the theory, but as any student of mergers and acquisitions knows, achieving those efficiencies is a question of leadership, management and organizational cultures. So, the second big task for the CDS is to ask if the Armed Forces are making the best use of the national resources allocated to them. In other words, the defence ministry needs economists. It has many accountants and finance professionals, but I am yet to see a defence economist in the government.

The appointment of the CDS will certainly change the civil-military balance, and, if done correctly, will address some of the grievances of the Armed Forces pertaining to their status vis-a-vis the civil services. Yet, it should also cause them to look inwards. “A civil service recruit becomes a district magistrate in six years and is in charge of a district of a million people," Subrahmanyam noted, “but an army recruit gets independent charge only after 18 years of service. Why should it take 18 years for an army officer to progress to that level?"

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