Making of the CDS

The process is anything but simple and requires constant political attention

Manoj Joshi
Distinguished fellow, observer research foundation, New Delhi

The Prime Minister’s announcement that the country’s military will soon have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has generated a great deal of excitement and speculation. Modi has referred to the fact that the broad recommendation for the appointment came from past expert commissions and the strategic community. But he gave no indication as to how things will now unfold.

The recommendations of the Group of Ministers (GoM) in 2001 and the Naresh Chandra Task Force on National Security 2012 are broadly similar. A CDS, or a permanent chairman, chiefs of staff committee, lay at the heart of any effort to reform and restructure the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). As the experience of the GoM report revealed, that while many reform measures were implemented, minus the CDS, they did not give the required synergy to the military.

Experience of other major countries should tell us that the process is not easy and that it requires constant political attention. In the US, the effort goes back to 1947 when the Joint Chiefs of Staff was first established. Over the decades, the weaknesses of the system led to reform under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) is the senior-most officer in the US military, and individually, the principal military adviser to the President. By law he does not exercise military command over the armed forces, but he is the intermediary, transmitting orders between the Secretary of Defense and Commanders of Combatant Commands. The Chairman JCS also prepares a unified command plan (UCP) which forms the basic guidance for the combatant commanders, establishes their mission, responsibilities and force structure, outlines the geographic area of responsibility and working responsibilities of the functional commanders.

The chiefs of army, navy and air force, commandant of the Marine Corps and the chief of the National Guards Bureau are members of the JCS, but their primary job is to ‘organize, equip and train’ their forces for the use by the combatant commanders. All this is laid out in legislation and has the force of law in the American system.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act was specific that the chain of combatant command went from the President to the Secretary of Defense and then to the combatant commanders who may operate in different geographies or look after specific functions. There are six regional commands spanning the globe from the Northern Command looking after North America, to the Indo-Pacific Command. The four functional commands are the Strategic Command, Special Operations Command, Transportation Command and Cyber Command, with Space Command soon to emerge as the fifth.

In the Chinese system, the chain of command traditionally went downward from the Chairman Central Military Commission (CMC), who, more often than not, was the general secretary of the Communist Party of China and the President of the People’s Republic. Reforms announced in 2013 led to the overhaul of the all powerful CMC into a flatter three-level command structure—CMC-theatres-forces. The CMC created 15 departments ranging from the General Office to the Joint Staff, Logistics Support, and Equipment Development which provide strategic planning and macro-management, R&D and so on.

The old military regions were replaced by five geographical joint theatre commands linked to the  central Joint Operations Command Center. In 2016, Xi Jinping was revealed as the Commander-in-Chief of the Joint Operations Command Center which he visited wearing a military uniform.

A new army chief, along with his air force and navy counterparts, was made responsible for the training, provisioning of troops, and detached from operational responsibilities.

A new functional command—the Strategic Support Force—was created to meld the PLA capabilities relating to space, cyber and electronic warfare.  The Second Artillery force was promoted to the status of a full-fledged Strategic Rocket Force. A new Joint Logistics Support Force was established as well to unify logistics forces at the strategic level to support the five new joint theatre commands.

The Chinese system is unique to China, born out of the history of the PLA being the armed wing of the Communist Party of China, rather than the People’s Republic. In other words, it is a system where the party runs the show and there is no pretense about separation of powers.

On the other hand, countries like the US and India have worried about making the military too powerful. This is what gave rise to the US system where the system has deliberately separated the function of military advice and operations. The former has been the task assigned to the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff and the latter is the work of the combatant and functional commands.

This is the system India is likely to follow. The CDS will be the principal military adviser to the government while the theatre and functional commands which will evolve will be directly under the Minister of Defence who may exercise his authority through the CDS.

A major problem is the non-expert bureaucracy of the system. There is urgent need to correct this by introducing specialisation for bureaucrats and inserting uniformed officers in the MoD hierarchy. Equally important is the need to alter transaction of business rules to empower the uniformed personnel in the system, instead of keeping them out of it. The integration of the civilian MoD and the higher command of the military is as important a task as the integration of the three services.

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