The Cabinet Committee on Security headed by PM Narendra Modi formally approved the post of Chief of Defence Staff Tuesday, and in the process, carried out a long-pending and major defence reform by creating an additional Department of Military Affairs in the Ministry of Defence and the post of Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC-COSC).
While the intention of creating the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Independence Day speech earlier this year, the creation of a separate department with the CDS as its head was a necessary step for functional effectiveness. It is indeed a feather in the cap of the Modi government because political and bureaucratic resistance had stymied these reforms despite the recommendations of the Group of Ministers (GOM) Report which followed the Kargil War.
The Department of Military Affairs (DMA) now headed by the CDS will deal with issues that relate exclusively to military matters, while the Department of Defence (DoD) will now deal with the larger issues pertaining to the defence of the country. As head of department, the CDS will now be answerable to Parliament. The DMA will be populated by a suitable mix of military and civilian officers. Promoting jointness in procurement, training and staffing would be crucial functions, which should logically result in the creation of Integrated Theatre Commands.
The DMA will deal with the three Armed Forces and their Headquarters including the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), Territorial Army and procurement exclusive to the services except for capital acquisitions, which will continue to be dealt with by the Department of Defence under the defence secretary. However, the larger military role in decision making flows from the role and responsibilities assigned to the CDS.
The CDS will act as the principal military adviser to the defence minister on tri-Services issues and the three Chiefs will continue to render advice to the defence minister on matters pertaining exclusively to their service. The second role envisaged is of the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). The second role is not carried out in the DMA which is part of the MoD but is instead performed at the subordinate level of the Services Headquarters. So, the CDS does not exercise military command while carrying out his functions as the head of DMA, but would certainly be involved during war in Joint Services operational decision making as PC-COSC.
In essence, the CDS is dual-hatted and will have to adjudge contentious issues initially at the inter-service level as PC-COSC, and thereafter as CDS at the departmental level. Often, the Chief of Defence Staff will have to wear the two hats simultaneously as part of the Defence Planning Committee headed by the NSA and Defence Acquisition Committee headed by defence minister. This could have been avoided if the relevant component of HQ IDS had become the mainframe for DMA. Be that as it may, dual hatting is better explained by the need for the CDS to act as a bridge between the political leadership and the military instrument, which has to encompass the shaping of the military through long term plans that are guided politically. It is therefore heartening to note that the CDS will play a major role in the evolution and implementation of the Long-Term Capability Development Plan, assign inter-Services prioritisation in the capital budget, enhance jointness in operations, training, communications, logistics and endeavour to increase the share of indigenous equipment.
The CDS as the PC-COSC would administer all tri-Services organisations including the Strategic Forces Command that function under the Nuclear Command Authority. Notably, the CDS will exercise administrative control and be the channel of control between the government and the Strategic Forces Commander. The CDS will provide military advice on nuclear issues. Earlier, without the CDS and the post of Chairman COSC being rotational, with some even having tenures of a month or two coupled with the prime responsibility of being Chief of a Service, the required oversight of the Strategic Forces was perforce weak. It was also an erroneous assumption that any Service Chief performing the Chairman COSC’s functions during a conventional war or crisis would be able to devote enough time and attention to advice and give updates on the strategic situation to the Prime Minister and also on employment of Strategic Forces. There can be no doubt that a CDS is also vital for improving India’s nuclear decision-making structure.
The structural changes approved by the political leadership should now facilitate reforms that have for long been hostage to entrenched interests of various entities in the government. The creation of the DMA essentially involves identifying issues that are considered military specific. This would mean that the defence secretary and the CDS will have to work out the division of responsibilities, and that would not be an easy task for overlaps are inevitable at the departmental level and may require political intervention to resolve. Once decided, the Allocation of Business Rules will have to be amended.
There would also be significant internal resistance to achieving jointness between the Services. With the dual hatting as CDS and PC-COSC and with the required political backing, it should be feasible now to achieve rationalisation of facilities and major structural reforms like Integrated Theatre Commands.
Without the DMA, the CDS would have been challenged to fulfil the roles envisaged. With it, the CDS is empowered and structurally positioned to be the prime mover to significantly improve military effectiveness. It will not be easy, but it is feasible. In the end, the intentions and actions of the human agencies will influence the outcome. Right now, the political leadership has led the way, and one hopes that the military and bureaucratic leadership will follow suit. But the proof of the pudding being in the eating, the success of the reform measures would lie in the ability to carry out structural transformation with minimum turbulence.
The author is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and Former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat, New Delhi. Views are personal.