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Modi must appoint chief of defence staff – and prove India’s political class isn’t fearful

Nothing explains NSA Doval as de facto CDS, unless the executive is scared of military power being concentrated in the hands of a single person.

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The 2019 Lok Sabha election put national security at the centre stage of Indian politics. After the formation of the new Narendra Modi government, focusing on national security reforms is now a political compulsion. In Modi, India has the strongest Prime Minister in a long time, and a heavyweight defence minister in Rajnath Singh.

Modi’s government today looks at the bureaucracy merely as a facilitator of executive decision. The military Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals, as they have always done, will do what they are told to by the political executive. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a cabinet minister and the current de facto Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), is part of the Cabinet Committee on Security.

But India needs, and there could not be a better time for it, an actual Chief of Defence Staff. No more committees and dithering can be justified, which the Congress-led UPA and BJP-led NDA governments have done over nearly two decades, ever since the Kargil Review Committee in 1999 recommended comprehensive integration of the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force – under a Chief of Defence Staff.

So why does India fear the prospect of a Chief of Defence Staff? An underlying reason could be the proverbial fear the politicians have of the military – ‘the man on the horseback, the usurper of power’.

World moved on; India stuck in past

About 100 years ago, at the end of World War 1, it was concluded that the complexity of war demands inter- and intra-service integration backed by a formal higher defence structure for strategic decision-making. The inter war years saw the ‘Chief of Staff Committee’ system take shape in Britain, with similar systems being put in place in all modern armies. In India, the Army’s Commander-in-Chief controlled all imperial forces.


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World War 2 forced the creation of ‘Supreme Commanders’ commanding all forces in their respective theatres and controlled by the combined Chiefs of Staff of Britain and the USA. After World War 2, western countries debated about formalising the process to create the post of Chief of Defence Staff and theatre commands. This was vehemently resisted by the services and the bureaucracy, which used the same arguments we in India have heard over the past 72 years. However, an enlightened political class prevailed to formalise the creation of CDS through acts of parliaments in western nations.

As the colonial military system was adapted for independent India, General Hastings Lionel Ismay gave us the Chief of Staff Committee system to manage joint operations of the three services. It was an interim measure, but we continue to revel in this archaic system.

De facto CDS – Defence Secretary to NSA 

About 16 years ago as the Director General of Military Training, I was hosting a delegation of China’s People’s Liberation Army, which was led by the Commandant of one of its three army war colleges. The General was candid in telling me that his main charter was to learn about the tri-service integration in India since the PLA was planning to do the same. Given the sordid state of tri-service integration, I was in a dilemma. To save face, I concocted a theoretical and exaggerated version of the “impending” reforms in our armed forces – a subject under debate at our Defence Services Staff College since 1949. The PLA General was very happy with my detailed inputs. In fact, he singled me out for praise in front of the entire faculty and students of the war college during a return visit six months later. He said my inputs had been taken note of by the PLA’s study team of which he was a part.

In January 2016, the PLA, army, navy, air force and rocket forces were fully integrated into five theatre commands under a joint headquarters, at Ürümqi, which in turn operates under the Central Military Commission. Now the Western Theatre Command (army and air force) looks after the entire border with India. By contrast, we have three army and three air force commands carrying same names – Western, Central and Eastern – and located at different places.


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Things would have been different had the NDA and then UPA governments not dithered over recommendations in the wake of the Kargil War, their bureaucracy hadn’t dug in to maintain the status quo, and the services hadn’t squabbled and fiercely guarded their turf. So, as a result, we moved from the Naresh Chandra Committee to Shekatkar Committee without any reforms. Ironically, the only change we made is to have the defence secretary – the erstwhile de facto Chief of Defence Staff despite being junior in status to the three service chiefs – hand over the baton of India’s defence to the National Security Adviser.

NSA Doval heads the Defence Planning Committee and the Strategic Planning Group based merely on executive orders without statutory sanction.

The executive’s fear

What are the reasons of this impasse in appointing a Chief of Defence Staff? What are the apprehensions of the principal players – the politicians, the bureaucracy and the chiefs of the three services? 

Until the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, politicians did not consider national security as a plank to seize and maintain political power. They simply delegated national security to the bureaucracy. Moreover, politicians lack knowledge about strategic affairs and military matters, and are compelled to rely upon the advice of the bureaucracy and sometimes of the service chiefs. Both the bureaucrats and the three chiefs have vested interests in the CDS matter, which leaves the politicians even more confused to take any meaningful step.

Despite the political control over the armed forces clearly established in Constitution, the politicians have this lurking fear. They do not want the executive military power to be concentrated in the hands of a single person – the Chief of Defence Staff.


Also read: Narendra Modi govt wants a strong military, but its defence budget can’t guarantee that


The bureaucracy’s hold

The defence bureaucracy thrives on the ignorance of the defence ministers and enjoys the power it wields over the three services. It traditionally plays ‘us versus they’ with the three services and gives impetus to the inter service rivalry. A CDS with direct access to the Prime Minister and the Raksha Mantri is the last thing the bureaucracy wants.

A strong government also dislikes bureaucratic hurdles. This, combined with the relatively ineffective defence ministers, is the reason for the NSA becoming the de facto Chief of Defence Staff in Modi’s first term. 

Services squabble

Each service has its own ethos and considers itself as the prima donna of war. The chiefs who presently perform both the military and executive functions feel that under a CDS, they will become virtual non-entities. The small services fear that they will be subsumed.

The Air Force advances the argument that it’s best to keep the force small and concentrated for economy of effort. Moreover, it argues that India is a status quo power and theatre commands are best suited for expeditionary forces. The Army supports the CDS but also argues that since our strategy will mainly be continental, the Army must play a predominant role in the theatre commands. The Indian Navy, by the very nature of its role, understands that ‘projection of power’ demands tri-service integration and is the strongest supporter of the CDS.  

The Modi government must rely upon empirical wisdom and appoint a CDS and create theatre commands with a clear mandate as part of an all-encompassing National Security Act. Once the die is cast, the modalities will automatically fall in place. Adhocism is not an option anymore!

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.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. While everyone is sort of gungho on the announcement of the long promised CDS finally seeing the light of the day. However no one is questioning the role, scope and mandate of this CDS.
    In the Western concept as with some regional powers that follow the CDS concept, the CDS or Chairman Joint Chiefs is an Operational Cdr who runs the operations, whereas the Service Chiefs are Staff appointments, with a mandate of “Man, Equip and Train” their respective Service. In our context, the Operational Cmd of the Services is still with the Service Chiefs, so what would the CDS do……..presumably, he will continue to do the same job as the CISC, albeit with a glorified designation.
    Similarly, with the Theatre Commands; both the General and some wise people who have commented have assumed that just because China has implemented the TC concept, we should follow suit. Again, what are the broad framework for this and do we have the same numbers / capacity / Resources as China or USA to implement this. Secondly, the Chinese Theatre opposite us covers the entire geographical extent and hence qualifies as a Theatre. Whereas, in whatever writings that are avbl in the open media, the Indian Army wants to have two or three Theatres opposite the same. The very idea goes against the concept of effi6that a Theatre is supposed to generate. Lastly, a Theatre Cdr (as with the ComCom in USA) is expected to report directly to the Chief Executive through the Def Min. In our case, will the Theatre Cdr report to the RM bypassing the Chiefs, and if so who will provide the single point input to RM since the CDS has neither an Operational mandate or the Op Staff to evaluate.
    If the chain of the Theatre Cdr is going to be through the Service Chiefs, then the whole purpose is defeated.
    It’s good to dream big but for all big dreams, a lot if groundwork is needed. Something our pseudo Strategist lobby might like to do before penning far fetched ideas.

  2. While everyone is sort of gunshot on the announcement of the long promised CDS finally seeing the light of the day. However no one is questioning the role, scope and mandate of this CDS.
    In the Western concept as with some regional powers that follow the CDS concept, the CDS or Chairman Joint Chiefs is an Operational Cdr who runs the operations, whereas the Service Chiefs are Staff appointments, with a mandate of “Man, Equip and Train” their respective Service. In our context, the Operational Cmd of the Services is still with the Service Chiefs, so what would the CDS do……..presumably, he will continue to do the same job as the CISC, albeit with a glorified designation.
    Similarly, with the Theatre Commands; both the General and some wise people who have commented have assumed that just because China has implemented the TC concept, we should follow suit. Again, what are the broad framework for this and do we have the same numbers / capacity / Resources as China or USA to implement this. Secondly, the Chinese Theatre opposite us covers the entire geographical extent and hence qualifies as a Theatre. Whereas, in whatever writings that are avbl in the open media, the Indian Army wants to have two or three Theatres opposite the same. The very idea goes against the concept of effi6that a Theatre is supposed to generate. Lastly, a Theatre Cdr (as with the ComCom in USA) is expected to report directly to the Chief Executive through the Def Min. In our case, will the Theatre Cdr report to the RM bypassing the Chiefs, and if so who will provide the single point input to RM since the CDS has neither an Operational mandate or the Op Staff to evaluate.
    If the chain of the Theatre Cdr is going to be through the Service Chiefs, then the whole purpose is defeated.
    It’s good to dream big but for all big dreams, a lot if groundwork is needed. Something our pseudo Strategist lobby might like to do before penning far fetched ideas.

  3. You speak of the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom, the Chief of Defence Staff is equivalent in rank to the permanent under secretary of defence( the administrative head of the UK defence ministry and equivalent to the Indian Defence secretary). The three service chiefs rank below the permanent undersecretary of defence in an established mechanism which reflects civilian control of the military. Now the 3 service chiefs got upgraded to the status of cabinet secretary in India by charming Indira Gandhi. Will they accept a lower rank in order to have a CDS? 😀

    Would respectfully request senior retired officers such as yourself to publish the whole picture and not just half of it!

  4. The E India army was constantly at war and and this continues after 1857 when the Indian army was controlled by the crown we had the constant frontier wars. Over this time the civilian administration of the Indian army was streamlined and adjusted to the requirements of perpetual war. Over two centuries the army evolved into a magnificent institution fully complemented with the civil administration. This process did not happen overnight but was a slow evolutionary process, the army constantly reacting to its fighting environment, adjusting and improving.
    The army of Robert Clive and Lord Cornwallis, reformed by now forgotten Commanders like Gen Hugh Rose, led Lord Kitchener and Auchinleck , with its proud regimental traditions ethos and structure was handed over lock stock and barrel to the bureaucracy of Sardar Patel.
    Over seventy years of Azadi this Rolls Royce of a machine the Indian Army, has come to be driven by drivers of the bullock cart. Today the Hindutva screaming baying mob from Nagpur have infiltrated our officer corps and many in senior command.
    Well it’s finally happened! The House that Jack built over three hundred years has finally come to ruination. Defeat in war will be the sharp shock.

  5. A great impediment to the creation of a CDS and theater commands is inter-service rivalry, not just the timidity or disinterest of the political class or the machinations of the bureaucracy. A reason for this is the status-obsession of the higher echelons of the army, which is repugnant to the air force in particular. It could be said that after Pakistan and China, the biggest enemy of the Indian Army is the Indian bureaucracy, followed closely by the Indian Air Force! Neither do the top brass in any service – with the slight exception of the navy – show the intellectual capacity to innovate, evolve joint doctrines, build a vision around indigenous armament development and so on. On the other hand we see a great many turf wars – for instance over which service will fly the Apache attack helicopters and so on; rejection of indigenous hardware like the Arjun tank or Tejas aircraft; gripes about the delays in procurement, the lethargy of the DRDO and so on; but we see little ‘leadership’ in the true sense of carrying all disparate institutions together. Time and again we have been caught lacking the requisite military capability when we badly needed it, for example after 26/11 or during Kargil when we should have exploited Pakistan’s violation of the LOC to strike into PoK and recover some territory we call our own but have done nothing to recover. I wonder how much of this quest for the elusive CDS is about truly integrating defense preparedness, and how much is merely a desire to get an extra pip on the shoulder and move up the order of precedence. PM Modi has strengthened Mr. Doval’s position as the NSA because the latter shows the clear-eyed killer instinct and strategic thinking that the PM himself has, combined with deep experience of the shadow war that India has long fought with Pakistan and China; and partly because PM Modi’s style is to delegate key areas such as security, economics and party political management each to a closely trusted member of his core team. No CDS can replace that unless he has the trust of the PM and the competence to truly fill the role. The brass of the armed forces will have to earn the role if they covet it.

  6. The threatened coup by then Chief of Army Staff , Gen V.K. Singh, over his birth certificate, is reason enough to avoid concentration of power in any one person. Also let us not forget the mutiny of Sikh soldiers after Operation Blue Star.
    There is an integrated command for the Andaman Islands. One could have a similar system for the Northern, Western, Eastern and Southern Commands.
    However, I agree with the General about the choice of a Defence Minister. When Parrikar was packed off to Goa we did not have a full time Defence Minister for about six months. Later I was shocked at the appointment of Nirmala Sitaraman as the Defence Minister. Fortunately Rajnath Singh is a better choice.
    As for Doval, the master spy, he was earlier described as the most powerful man in India, after the PM. He is a matter of grave concern, with his penchant for “surgical strikes”.

    • There has been a marked deterioration in the quality of the top brass, especially the army chiefs. General V K Singh’s sorry display over his date of birth is a good example; as is the public display of bad blood between him and General Suhag and the tales we heard about the machinations from the time of General Kapoor over succession in the army. Compare that to the likes of Gen Manekshaw who had the courage to read the rule book to defense minister Krishna Menon and the wit to resist PM Indira Gandhi’s pressure to launch the war in 1971 until the armed forces were fully prepared. The armed forces have a lot to do in terms of again developing true leadership and promoting meritocracy.

      • Mr Ajai Singh Commentator – the young RSS Prachark earned his first spurs early by helping organise the Mill workers in Ahmedabad and polarising the vote by instigating the 1969 Gujarat riot not to be confused with the later 2002 riot.
        As organiser under Advani the Pracharak played a pivotal role in organising the Rath Yatra which toured the country followed by baying mobs spreading hatred which led to the demolition of the Babri mosque.
        This is all part of the historical record.
        I write this because you are mistaken the Prachark is neither a military genius or a strategist.
        The Parcharak is no doubt gifted on methods to garner the vote, but has not much formal education, has a distorted view of history and is ignorant of what the Indian Army is about.
        And You are wrong Sam Manekshaw never stood up to Krishna Menon, I doubt if he ever knew Menon. The person he stood up to was Jagivan Ram whom he first met in Fort William, Calcutta in 1969 when Sam was GOC Eastern Command. Menon and Nehru were in an entirely different league to Sam Manekshaw.
        Sam Manekshaw although some people of the hindu faith are making him into a deity, was a self serving ambitious officer and a show off, his contemporaries were just as good as him, many of them had fought in the jungles of Burma and all of them got accelerated promotion when the British left India. Some of them like Sam being Anglicised held the pidgin English speaking Indian politician in contempt. Certainly Sam Manekshaw would have held the Pracharak in contempt along with your hero Doval.
        Today batches of Generals join on retirement the BJP, some have been sworn in by a serving BJP defence minister, these are suspected RSS members, Generals like VK Singh and ilk whom you are critical of, are like yourself big fans of Modi and Doval.

  7. I think winning in 2019 on the national security plank – amidst so much economic gloom – was a flash in the pan, the bolt of lightning that does not strike the same spot twice. Pakistan is small potatoes, and no sane person is predicting a war with China. So national security does not really keep the political class up at night. If CDS had been a wonderful, transformative idea, it would have got done soon after Kargil. Since then, more than this potentially five star post, what a India has missed is not having a series of stellar Raksha Mantris.

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