Independence Day speech by the Prime Minister, in keeping with his flair for bold and audacious decisions, included surprise announcement of government approving institution of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). It is probably the best tribute to Kargil warriors as the need for such an appointment was flagged after Kargil due to sub-optimal coordination. Though much belated, yet it was big surprise because, government had already undertaken a major tranche of defence reforms by constituting Defence Planning Committee (DPC). To many skeptics, it appeared that the role of CDS had got subsumed into DPC.
The journey leading up to this historic announcement is indeed like ‘a tale with many twists’. It is also pertinent to highlight that the story, in all likelihood, will have some more postscripts. The start point was famous Kargil Review Committee (KRC) set up on 29 July 1999, three days after India had thrown out all intruders. It was headed by Dr K Subrahmanyam, visionary strategist. The report was submitted on December 15, 1999 and promptly tabled in Parliament on February 23, 2000. The initial follow-up was purposeful resulting in creation of group of ministers (GOM) aided by four competent task forces in April 2000. This group submitted comprehensive report in February 2001, endorsing key reforms.
Many initiatives like National Security Agency (NSA), border management, creation of Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) got implemented but some others were either watered down or consigned to back burner. Though comparatively less discussed, reforms have managed to reduce ages of unit commanders by five years with marginal reductions in ages of formation commanders also.
Unfortunately, initial urgency and commitment was blunted by status-quo oriented forces using excuse of building consensus. Bureaucracy leveraged insecurity of politicians by floating mischievous theories of coup. Smaller services feared swamping by Army, while Air Force fell into this trap, Navy remained the strongest votary of this concept. Even Army supported it sporadically, timed with retirement of ambitious aspirants.
The most significant deferred reforms included CDS, integrated theatre commands, functional commands for Space, Cyber and Special Forces (since introduced as agencies headed by major generals) and National Defence University (NDU). Functional joint Strategic Forces Command (SFC) was set up along with Nuclear Command Authority. The pilot project on joint regional commands was initiated with Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC). SFC, ANC and other joint structures were placed under Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), headed by Chief of Integrated Staff (CISC), as an interim arrangement. The harsh reality is, both in human resource and equipment allocation, IDS and joint structures continue to be given very raw deal. We need to learn from British system, where good performance in joint staff is prerequisite for higher ranks. Even NDU, with all institutions in place is on hold, pending passage of bill in Parliament and construction of campus. We have the dubious distinction of being the only significant country to lack much-needed institution of military higher learning. It defies logic, as this classic low hanging fruit is still unrealized, while government has the capability to get the necessary bill passed. It is also pertinent that universities on all conceivable disciplines operate from interim and rented complexes.
The real twist in tale occurred with Naresh Chandra Task Force (NCTF). It diluted the very concept of CDS by replacing it with most inappropriate designation, Permanent Chairman of Chief of Staff Committee (PCCoSC) making it advisory and ‘Primus inter pares’ ruling out five-star designation. By implication, it also junked concept of joint theatre commands contrary to established trend in effective Armed Forces like USA. NCTF added more confusion by not specifying qualifying criteria, status and span of control of PCCoSC. This drift got further accentuated in 2017 by Shekatkar Committee report, which envisaged CDS as one more layer to current IDS as super CISC, limiting his role to coordination, budgeting and capability building. It is ironic that China has constituted integrated Western Theatre Command to tackle entire 4,057 km border with India. Our response will be managed by four Army and three Air Force commands creating perfect setting for, “too many cooks”. In an unwieldy mix of four functional and 15 regional commands, the only joint theatre command, ANC seems to be going the wrong way by becoming Navy specific at the helm. Consequently, in our spoils driven environment, Navy seems to have no claim on heading Strategic Forces Command.
It is amusing that media is hailing CDS as the most revolutionary reform terming it as ultimate ‘silver bullet’ and panacea. It is indeed heartening that while announcing this reform, PM remarked that India deserves more than incremental reforms. Envisaged CDS, unfortunately, falls into the category of incremental. Spiritual India relates to ‘avatars’ manifesting to fix the system. Defence sector needs one very badly. CDS can at best be compared to ‘Maryada Purshottam’, Ram in exile, grossly limited in scope, with chiefs retaining operational control and resources. Symbolic entities have been in existence in Sri Lanka and Pakistan for long periods. The intended CDS will be more powerful but limited to co-ordination and not organized to build operational synergy.
It is time, we look at ‘Leela Purshottam’ model of Krishna, duly empowered and with accompanying theatre commands. In ‘Kalyug’, even Krishna will need resources and enhanced budget. The current debate dominated by speculative forecasting on likely CDS, needs to focus on designing functional structure of theatre commands with enhanced financial allocations. We hope this is done by the present stable government committed to transformational reforms.
The writer is former Army Commander, Western Command
Chief of Defence Staff: A tale with many twists, indeed – Times of India