From the press brief, it appears that the charter of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is a game changer and fulfils fifty percent of my wish list. CDS Bipin Rawat will wear three hats simultaneously – the principal military advisor to the political leadership, head of the newly constituted Department of Military Affairs (DMA) in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and Permanent Chairman in the Chiefs of Staff Committee that will bring about the integration of the three services of India’s armed forces – Army, Navy, and Air Force.
I analyse the various aspects of the charter warts and all.
Rank and status
The CDS will be a four-star General/Admiral/Air Chief Marshal of the same status as the service Chiefs and the cabinet secretary. As the Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC – COSC), the CDS, will be the first among equals vis-à-vis the three Chiefs. Given the Indian military’s culture and inter-service rivalry, this is likely to hinder tri-service integration. This has been the bane of the COSC’s functioning until now.
It is understandable that the Narendra Modi government did not want to create a five-star general senior to the cabinet secretary and the three Chiefs. However, it could have clearly specified the seniority by appointment as is the case with Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States in relation to service chiefs of the same rank and our own Army commanders in relation to corps commanders of the same rank. This anomaly must be removed.
Principal advisor to political leadership
As per the charter, the CDS will be the principal military advisor to the Defence Minister on all tri-service matters. The three Chiefs will continue to advise the Defence Minister on matters concerning their respective services. It is implied that the CDS will also be the principal military advisor to the Prime Minister, the National Security Council (NSC), the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), and the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA).
The dual advisory role of the CDS and the three Chiefs goes against the principle of jointmanship and is likely to create confusion. As the PC-COSC, it would be prudent for the CDS to be the single point principal military advisor who should place on record any dissenting views of the three service Chiefs. The three Chiefs too could be specifically asked for advice when required by the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, and the NSC.
The CDS as PC-COSC will be a member of the Strategic Policy Group and Defence Planning Committee under the National Security Advisor (NSA). The CDS will also be a member of the Defence Acquisition Council headed by the Defence Minister. With the appointment of the CDS, it would be prudent to consider now whether the three Chiefs should continue as members of these committees/council.
Department of Military Affairs
The integration of the armed forces with the MoD, through the establishment of its fifth department DMA, in my view, is the biggest game changer. For the first time since Independence, the armed forces are part of the government’s defence decision-making process rather than being ‘attached offices’. The CDS, as head of the DMA, will have direct access to the Defence Minister and will also be accountable to Parliament. He will have the powers of a secretary to the government of India in terms of the functioning of a government department. To avoid linking this issue with his status vis-à-vis the defence secretary, who is junior to the CDS, it would be prudent if the Vice-CDS headed the DMA and a separate ‘Office of the CDS’ – but part of the MoD – was created.
Staffed by a mix of military and civil officers, the DMA will deal with the armed forces (Army, Navy, Air Force); Integrated Defence Headquarters of the three services and the existing Integrated Defence Staff; the Territorial Army; all works related to the armed forces; and all procurement exclusive to the armed forces except capital acquisitions, which will remain under the Department of Defence.
The mandate of the DMA also includes promoting jointness in procurement, training and staffing for the armed forces; restructuring of Military Commands for optimum utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands; and promoting the use of indigenous equipment by the armed forces.
The exact division of responsibility and inter se relationship between the DMA and the Department of Defence, which is headed by the defence secretary, is currently ambiguous. As per Allocation of Business Rules, Government of India, the defence secretary is responsible for “defence of India and every part thereof including preparation for defence and all such acts as may be conductive in times of war to its prosecution.” Logically, it should now be the CDS. Unless the Allocation of Business Rules are changed in letter and spirit, the military – bureaucracy rivalry is likely to scuttle this radical reform.
The NSA, since 2018 has been heading the Defence Planning Committee and functioning as the de facto CDS. This needs a review. Logically, the CDS must head this committee now.
As per the charter, all tri-service agencies/organisations/commands will be under the command of the CDS as the PC-COSC. This is my assumption as the wording of the press brief in this regard is ambiguous.
The most important function – and perhaps the most challenging – is to bring about jointness in operations, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, and in utilisation/rationalisation of infrastructure within three years. – the likely tenure of CDS Rawat.
He will be responsible for preparing the long-term Integrated Capability Development Plan and assign inter-service prioritisation to capital acquisition proposals based on anticipated budget. He will be responsible to implement five-year Defence Acquisition Plan and Two Year Roll On Annual Acquisition Plan.
The above will involve taking contentious decisions, particularly with respect to prioritising inter-service requirements for modernisation.
Military strategy, operational planning, and command
The charter categorically states that the CDS will not exercise any military command including over the three service Chiefs, so as to be able to provide impartial advice to the political leadership. The logic of ‘impartial advice’ linked to military command is hard to digest. Be that as it may, the Modi government will have to take a decision in this regard once the tri/bi-service theatre commands come into being. In the US, the theatre commands directly operate under the president/defence secretary, a model hardly suitable for India. In due course, there would be no choice but to make the CDS senior by appointment, if not by rank, to the service Chiefs and given the charge of the theatre commands.
The charter is silent about formalisation of Joint Military Strategy, which flows out of the National Security Strategy. It is also silent about the joint strategic/operational level planning. Logically, the CDS as PC-COSC should be responsible for both. The Integrated Defence Staff suitable restructured withe sidestepping resources from service headquarters should be responsible for both.
Rise above parochialism
The Modi government must be complimented for appointing the CDS and giving him a visionary charter for reforming our higher defence structures and decision making. The implementation of these reforms will require constant political monitoring and intervention to iron out the procedural and execution problems.
The CDS, the three service Chiefs, and the defence secretary must rise above parochialism to see these reforms through and further refine them to make our military ready for wars of the 21st century.
But as far as my wish list goes, what is promised in the charter for the CDS after three years will fulfil another 30 per cent. That leaves the final outcome 20 per cent short of my ideal scenario, which is not too bad.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.