Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally took the bull by the horns and announced the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to fulfill something that had entered the strategic discourse way back in 1996, when it appeared in the NDA’s manifesto. Thus, when the BJP first came to be at the helm of affairs in 1998, one of its two main promises was to enhance national security by integrating the three services into the ministry of defence and also to integrate defence planning and operations. This was meant to pave the way for a new system that would have given the military a greater role in making policies pertaining to national security as well as in managing itself. This did not happen for 21 years.
Much of this blame for the delay must fall on the services themselves. The politicians never understood the implications, even after China reorganised the PLA into theatre commands under the Central Military Commission. The PM gave us some idea what he has in mind when he announced that the new CDS will also be the government’s principal military adviser. Our military and civilian bureaucrats are capable of obdurate rearguard action and the PMO must present them with a full and detailed plan with few options open.
The need for integrated defence planning and operations need not be elaborated upon. It would suffice to say that every major military power in the world has a combined defence organisation. It’s only in countries where the services have a strong political tradition that separateness still prevails. In some countries, these rivalries extend to ridiculous extents. In Argentina, the Navy is equipped with tanks, as it needs them to ward off possible Army assaults on its bases. Things are not so bad in India, but the rivalry between the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force has the same keenness as the IAS-IPS rivalry.
It is generally agreed that India badly needs a Combined Defence Staff to integrate defence planning and operations. For a long time it seemed that the Indian Air Force was marching to the beat of a different drummer. The consequence of this reluctance to plan and work together showed up in Kargil. The IAF did not have the tactics and the appropriate weapons when called to assist the Indian Army.
So intent is the IAF on fighting its own wars that it even maintains a command system that is out of sync with the other two services. It has a Western Air Command headquartered in New Delhi to ostensibly work with the Indian Army’s Northern and Western Commands that are headquartered near Chandigarh and Udhampur. The IAF has a command headquartered near Ahmedabad which is apparently meant to function in tandem with the Army Command headquartered in Pune and the Western Naval Command in Mumbai. The IAF’s Eastern Command is headquartered in Shillong, which does not even have an airfield, while the Army’s Eastern Command headquarters is located at Fort William in Kolkata. Putting a CDS in place must just be the first step before we create tri-service theatre commands.
The IAF has a record of waging obdurate turf wars. It fought a long battle to keep all military helicopters under its control till good sense finally prevailed and the Army was given command of helicopters used for artillery spotting, anti-tank operations, tactical supply and medical evacuation. It all sounds a lot, but in reality means only Chetak helicopters. The IAF’s single-mindedness is best evidenced by the fact that it took it more than a decade to optimise a squadron of Jaguars for oceanside operations by fitting them with maritime radars. The IAF has many other such feathers in its cap. It dragged its feet on MIG-21 modernisation for over a decade, hoping for newer and more expensive aircraft. It then kept putting spokes into the evolution of the LCA by constantly changing goalposts. In recent times, the IAF waged a relentless campaign for the Rafale when it could have got half a dozen squadrons of modernised SU-30s or SU-35s with appropriately long range missiles (BVRAAMS), such as the R77M or MBDA
Meteor. It’s not that the Army or Navy are wanting in similar cussedness, but it’s just that they do not have the same opportunity to be so as the Air Force is a capital-intensive service and takes a major share of the defence allocations.
It is not that we do not have a joint chiefs system now. It is a rotational system with the seniormost of the three chiefs as chairman. They go even one better in Pakistan, where they have a separate Chief of Defence Staff, four stars, house, flag and all, except that the job does not matter at all because it’s the Chief of Army Staff who calls all the shots — quite often literally. Thus what happens is that the post is used to park a flunky or someone politically inconvenient.
We must ensure that our CDS doesn’t end up like the Pakistani CDS. A supernumery on a sideline. The Chiefs will fight to hang on to their turf and they will fight to see that the CDS is another four-star job for one of their own. They will try their utmost to make the CDS the last among equals, when even a first among equals may not do. What we need is a Commander-in-Chief who can whip the three services into a united, efficient and cost-effective fighting machine. This person must be chosen on the basis of ability and not date of birth or entry into service. If we need to pin a fifth star on someone’s lapels to get this, we must not hesitate to do so. In matters relating to the military, it is better to have one chief rather than three or four.
The mere creation of a CDS will not do the job unless it is followed up by the integration of operational commands. The entire military organisation needs to be restructured not only by allowing it to take part in the framing of policy, but also to make it more capable of implementing policy. The logical further development of a having a CDS is to have integrated theatre commands. It may even make sense to bring the BSF and Coast Guard units in these theatres under the command of the theatre commanders.
The integration of the military is yet to happen, but it will have to follow. For that is the only way to go. The government seems willing and some day good sense will descend on the Chiefs. That too is inevitable.