The premature death of General Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, in December 2021, led to an unexpected disruption in the ongoing integration of the Armed Forces that was spearheaded by him.
The pause has given time for readjusting nascent structures that have been in place for two years. It is an opportunity for fine-tuning the scope and responsibilities of the CDS.
Some would argue that a change at this stage could be premature. But for an area of reforms as critical as national security, if any scope for improvement looks plausible, it must be addressed. This is an opportune time.
The US undertook a series of defence reforms over the past decades to achieve stability in military structures, with as many failures as successes. Their experience suggests that it is better to seek course correction when limitations are detected rather than re-acting to fait accompli.
For a country like India, which has complex defence requirements, the immediate aim of reforms should, therefore, be the creation of the least imperfect option based on circumstances that reflect our realities.
Issues for evaluation
There are two aspects that deserve a closer look. First, should India continue with the triple-hatted appointment of the CDS? Second, what should be the scope of the operational mandate given to them?
The appointment of the first CDS — the single-point advisor to the Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) — came with two additional hats. He was designated as the secretary of the newly established Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC).
As the COSC Chairman, the CDS was in a position to helm the capability development initiatives of the Armed Forces. He could assign priorities to major defence procurement decisions in an environment of competing demands from the Services. It was up to him, in consultation with respective Chiefs, to harmonise individual Service needs like aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, and artillery guns in creating robust military capability against envisaged threats and challenges.
Given the ongoing creation of theatre commands, the operational role of the COSC Chairman would increase appreciably. Presently, single-Service chiefs continue to exercise administrative and operational control over their respective Services. However, with the establishment of integrated theatres, which will include multiple Services, no single Service Chief will be in a position to exercise control over them. Even as theatre commanders will exercise operational command over their designated geographical areas, the coordination between the COSC Chairman and the Services will remain important. Resources will be switched and allocated on behalf of the Defence Minister. They will also ensure that the Armed Forces are kept in a permanent state of readiness for any eventuality.
In addition to this major responsibility, the CDS will continue to function as Secretary DMA. It is important to note that this responsibility entails a similar scope of work as is undertaken by any other secretary in the Central government. In the case of the DMA, it includes all revenue expenditure, Army, Navy, Air Force, and related works.
The question that then arises is: Can the CDS continue to wear all three hats, given the ever-expanding scope of his responsibilities?
The scale of work clearly suggests otherwise. It would, therefore, be a timely decision to limit the responsibilities of the CDS to his primary advisory role and as the COSC Chairman. The responsibility of Secretary DMA can be divested to the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), who is a C-in-C level officer even in their present capacity.
The new operational mandate
The Narendra Modi government’s press release on 24 December 2019 clearly indicated that “the CDS will not exercise any military command, including over the three Service Chiefs.” However, as mentioned in the previous section, the Service Chiefs themselves will no longer be in a position to exercise command once integrated theatres get created. What would be the chain of command thereafter? Will the theatre commanders report directly to the Defence Minister? Or will they report to the COSC Chairman?
The present equation clearly indicates that theatre commanders will not report to the CDS in their capacity as Permanent Chairman as a de jure requirement. This will ensure that the CDS remains an independent entity for providing unbiased, single-point advice without being influenced by operational decisions. This system prevails in the US where the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee fulfils this responsibility. However, they can be given the mandate to coordinate and convey orders on behalf of the President or Secretary of Defense. Should a similar system be adopted in India as well?
The other option is to bring the COSC Chairman, led by the CDS, into the chain of command of the theatre commands. This system does exist in some countries like Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia where the CDS or their equivalent exercises command over the armed forces.
There are both advantages and disadvantages of such a set-up. The advantage lies in deploying a professional group of people, led by the CDS, to coordinate military responsibilities of different geographical commands, allocate and switch resources according to national priorities and assign strategic objectives in war. This ensures greater cohesion of effort and unity of command. In contrast, it also centralises powers in the hands of a single individual, thereby risking independent objective assessment. This has been offset to an extent through a system of committees that oversee decision making as in the case of the UK.
Given the realities of India and the scope of responsibilities of the CDS, it would be best to divest the responsibilities of Secretary DMA to the Chief of IDS. This will allow the CDS to concentrate on their advisory and operational role.
Further, there is little doubt that the CDS has a major function in providing a strategic roadmap for the defence forces and coordinating the operational response. This can best be achieved by giving the mandate to the CDS on behalf of the Defence Minister to undertake both these responsibilities. However, the scope of this mandate must be determined by the government’s decision to delegate authority.
Col Vivek Chadha (Retd) is a Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views are personal.