Maj Gen Ashok Mehta (retd)
Appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been on the BJP’s agenda for some time. The Congress included it in its 2019 election manifesto after having torpedoed it in 2012. In the Prime Minister’s armoury of surgical strikes, the CDS, though delayed, is a welcome addition. During then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s term, he had announced that the CDS would be a reality in ‘three months’. An inconclusive presentation on CDS was made to Modi in 2017. When Parrikar exited the MoD, the proposal was buried by vested interests.
The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report had recommended a review of the national security system in its entirety, not specifically the creation of the CDS, as media is reporting. The credit for that must go to the Arun Singh Committee, one of the Group of Ministers Task Forces following the KRC report which sought a ‘coordinator’ CDS, leaving the key operational command with single service chiefs. Even this diluted CDS was not sanctioned by the Vajpayee government due to legacy issues: inter-service rivalry (IAF was a spoke in the wheel), bureaucratic objections and lack of political consensus — a euphemism for the absence of political will.
In 2003, the Cabinet Committee on Security had cleared the proposal, the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sushil Kumar, was selected, his office earmarked in South Block, Guard of Honour rehearsals done for a new CDS and the media announced Kumar’s appointment. Then suddenly, the CDS went into a lockdown. But what sailed through in 2002 was the institution of a headless inter-services Integrated Defence Staff which was a souped up version of the Defence Planning Staff created in 1986, of which I was a founder member. Integration was more symbolic than real.
In 1972, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was sounded by PM Indira Gandhi that he would be made CDS, but the contagion of a coup, sown in 1956 during Army Chief Gen KS Thimayya’s eventful tenure, had spread like bushfire. This ensured that for the next 30 years, CDS became a researcher’s theme, till Kargil, where ‘jointness’ was absent, resurrected both the missing institutions.
One other brave attempt was made in 2012 by the Naresh Chandra Task Force (NCTF), which, conscious of the sensitivity surrounding the CDS, had recommended a watered-down version: a Permanent Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, a fourth four star who would be the principal coordinator between the services as well as the single point of military advice to the PM and Defence Minister, mirroring the Arun Singh Committee version of CDS. This sound and sobre avatar, which then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was keen to clear, was stalled by then Defence Minister AK Antony and others, prodded by a battery of bureaucrats, loath to surrender their illegitimate control of the military. Then NSA Shivshankar Menon, keen that the NCTF recommendations pass, failed to nudge Antony.
The present Higher Defence Management system consists of a toothless Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which in rotation, is headed by one of the three service chiefs whose remit is ludicrous: like whether to salute while riding in a vehicle.
For 18 years, India has nursed an elaborate, but incomplete, IDS without a CDS. Modi's statement on the CDS is a positive declaration of intent. An implementation panel will recommend, by end-November, the appropriate model of CDS. The choice is between a full-fledged CDS with theatrisation and an incremental CDS/Permanent Chairman, COSC, who ought to be senior to service chiefs. In the first version, service chiefs will forfeit their operational command and become mere Chiefs of Staff, as originally intended. Any CDS must not become merely another four star General, but his office must be seen to be and be above offices of single service chiefs.
In the incremental system which is more likely, the CDS will be: the military advisor to CCS; will streamline, integrate and synergise for jointness, combat capabilities of the three services and other force multipliers; coordinate defence planning and procurement and prioritisation of resources; script military doctrine and chart other missions. Tri-service institutions and operational commands (Andaman and Nicobar Theatre Command, Strategic Forces Command, Cyber and Special Forces) will fall under his charge. Single service chiefs will remain in operational command of their services as well as for training equipment and administration.
When implemented, the office of CDS will be a leap towards modernisation and defence reforms. Integration of MoD and service headquarters must accompany the CDS. The busy NSA’s appointment as Chairman, Defence Planning Committee, in 2018 was never clear and requires a rethink.
Addressing veterans on the eve of the recent Kargil commemoration, Modi spoke about jointness and modernisation. The CDS will bring about jointness, certainly. But for modernisation, as the KRC report emphasised, defence budgets, especially the capital account of the services have to be boosted. This year’s capital allocation is so meagre that the IAF has been unable to pay arrears of Rs 20,000 crore to HAL and the other two services are bogged down with payment of committed liabilities.
Finally, and only Prime Minister Modi can do it: order the first-ever Strategic and Defence Security Review (SDSR) to ensure that changes in force — size, operational and administrative structure, result from SDSR recommendations. Piecemeal alternations to security systems to create bits and pieces of funds for modernisation is inadvisable.
On who will be the next CDS, though Gen Bipin Rawat is the frontrunner, Gen Dalbir Suhag, architect of Uri strikes, was rewarded with ambassadorship. The game-changer, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa of Balakot fame, might bag the CDS. The dark horse is the just-appointed cerebral Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh who has the key advantage of time over the other two.