To the credit of the government, the Prime Minister announced the intent to create the post of a Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) on August 15, 2019, and a communiqué was issued on the nuts and bolts related to the adoption of the CDS system. That is in contrast to the 18 long years it took after the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and the Group of Ministers (GoM) had recommended the creation of a CDS and the integration of the defence ministry. This delay is not something unusual as most countries which have adopted the joint military security model have done so riding roughshod over opposition from within the armed forces and civilian bureaucracy. The United States, which considers itself a model of integration today, did move rapidly into the joint theatre concept after 1986 but till then its four services (including the Marines) resisted it tooth and nail. Only legislation, famously called the Goldwater Nichols Act, saw implementation of the integration under President Ronald Reagan after the failed Grenada operation and the earlier disastrous rescue operation of hundreds of hostages at the US embassy in Tehran in 1980.
In India, Kargil 1999 triggered the need for a CDS. The need was felt for a single-point strategic military adviser to the government. Even after the KRC and GoM recommendations, the government seemed reluctant and moved less than halfway to create a HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), headed by a three-star officer, to address joint aspects. HQ IDS was to be the CDS’ domain, but awaited its true head for 18 years.
What has finally emerged may, of course, not meet every aspiration but a fairly exhaustive communiqué has clarified much. As a four-star officer the CDS will the “first among equals”, but by virtue of his retiring age being 65 will mostly be senior in service seniority to all the three service chiefs. He will exercise no operational command over the three constituent services, but will be the permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (CoSC), giving that appointment stability for up to three years for the present, as against the short tenures which had become a characteristic of the CoSC. There is some criticism about appointing a CDS with only four-star rank; the perception prevails that equivalence of rank does not carry the stamp of authority. However, this is generally the rule in most other nations, and the physical seniority consideration would give authority as per norms of the uniformed services. The CDS will exercise authority over the only conventional joint command — the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) and also the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), where the nuclear launch resources of all three components are integrated for a nuclear response. The latter will make him the nuclear adviser to the PM, although the actual command and control of the nuclear forces may have several other layers. The CDS would also take under his wing the three special agencies involving domains of cyber, special forces and space, and all other systems relating to innovative technology. The 15-year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) will also evolve under him as will modernisation, and he will be the one allocating priorities after taking into account the recommendations of the three service headquarters. That means the financial allocations will be his responsibility, and that is where his power will largely lie.
An additional aspect is the three-year leeway given to the first CDS to prepare the ground for an integrated theatre command system. Thus, it is clear that the current CDS system is evolutionary and will progressively adopt more means of integration and joint functioning until an integrated theatre command system emerges something akin to the American model, where the theatre commander reports directly to the President through the defence secretary. Interestingly, an issue has been raised politically about a relative lack of clarity about the “first among equals” system; on who exactly will render one-point strategic military advice to the government since the CDS has no authority over the three service chiefs. In fact, it is heartening to note that after a long time a critical decision relating to the military is being debated within political circles. Even in the service community this doubt has been raised, and consensus appears on the fact that in the interim the CDS and the three service chiefs will all be invitees to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS); a virtual four-point advice as the CDS exercises no operational command and control over the component services and only commands the resources directly under him. Two points of significance here. First, that this is a work in progress and much depends on how the CDS system progresses from here; perhaps only the CDS may be consulted by the government and a service chief may be called upon to render more operational details, contingent upon the type of operation and the service primarily involved. Second, if and when the integrated theatre command system is in place, none of the service chiefs will have operational control over their forces; it is the theatre commanders who will enjoy that. In that situation, the CDS will be the one-point adviser to the government after the consultations with the integrated theatre commander have been conducted. There is nothing sacrosanct about this, and a unique system suited to Indian conditions may well emerge over the next few years.
Lastly, there is a question being raised about the newly-created department of military affairs, which the CDS will head with the status of a secretary. It is to be seen whether this will the precursor to a more integrated MoD if the HQ IDS acts as the core of the DMA with some inducted civilian bureaucracy. The defence secretary will obviously remain the coordinator between different departments of the MoD, but the CDS will have the power to send files directly to the Raksha Mantri (RM), thus circumventing the bureaucracy. A long-pending anomaly also needs correction when such momentous decisions have been taken. It is time the defence of India devolves on the RM. By a flawed understanding, this still remains the responsibility of the defence secretary, who is neither experienced nor empowered enough to execute it.
Much more debate on the CDS will follow in due course, but for now we need to celebrate a sound decision taken after years of political and bureaucratic procrastination.