Prime Minister Modi should be complimented for the decision to set up the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). The decision has its gravitas and will put to rest the debate on the CDS which has been on since 2001, when the Group of Ministers on national security first recommended it. Apprehensions within the armed forces circles, resistance from the bureaucracy, and indifference of the political class contributed to the delay. While the governments in the past dithered, the security environment around us changed dramatically, and the armed forces struggled on the issues of jointness, planning, procurements, and training.
Hopefully, the CDS will now be able to initiate much-needed higher defence organisation reforms. The GoM envisaged the CDS as providing single-point military advice to the government, administering the forces, making defence planning process more effective through intra- and inter-service prioritisation, and ensuring jointness in the armed forces. These functions are vital for the health and efficiency of the forces.
But the CDS should not be a mere figurehead. A diluted CDS would serve no purpose and may even be counterproductive. The person should be able to provide strong leadership to reforms and the government should give the CDS the authority to do so. The success of the experiment will depend on how well the CDS is operationalised. The government must pick someone who can perform the roles assigned professionally and diligently. Seniority cannot be the only criteria for it. Deep selection from a wide pool of officers should be considered.
The relationship of the CDS with the service chiefs and with the Defence Secretary will be critical. The GoM’s formula of making the CDS first among the equals has merit. It had recommended that the Defence Secretary should function as ‘principal defence adviser’ and the CDS as ‘principal military adviser’ to the Defence Minister. Both will enjoy equivalent status in their working relationship. They should work together and not be bound by protocol. The CDS and Defence Secretary should ensure integration of the defence forces with the Defence Ministry, while making sure that defence capability building is matched by resource availability. Any resistance from the bureaucracy should be overcome.
In a silo-based system of governance, defence planning for the armed forces has suffered. The government made a beginning in this direction in 2018 by setting up a defence planning committee under the NSA to prepare a national defence strategy, prioritise defence requirements, build a defence manufacturing base, promote defence exports, and make capability development plan for the forces. These areas will now logically fall under the CDS.
In recent years, the forces have been grappling with the task of responding to hybrid threats such as cybersecurity, militarisation of outer space, terrorism, economic and information and technological warfare. This will require a whole of government approach. Inputs from the CDS on these issues will be important for devising policies to respond. For instance, the CDS could update and finalise the Raksha Mantri OP Directive, and issue Defence White Paper. The CDS should work closely with the National Security Council Secretariat for prepare a national security strategy, and with the MEA and MoD to evolve an international defence engagement strategy. The long-term perspective plans should be matched with budgetary requirements over the next 10-15 years. Selfreliance and indigenisation should move up in defence planning process.
Care must be taken that the CDS experiment is not scuttled by overburdening the person with unrealistic expectations and ambitious agenda. The CDS should be allowed to settle in and work out a credible and practical strategy for reforms. The NSA could help smoothen the teething problems. Since the PM is convinced of the need of having a CDS, one would hope that the evolution of the CDS will be smooth and rapid.
(The writer is former Deputy National Security Adviser)
View: CDS is 1st step towards higher organisation reforms – Economic Times