Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was a much-awaited endorsement of the recommendation made by the Group of Ministers (GoM) in February 2001, in the aftermath of the Kargil conflict. The decision on this vital issue had remained on the backburner for over 18 years owing to some concerns of the bureaucracy, incongruity in the views of the three services and the status-quoist stance of decision-makers. It required a strong government with a decisive leadership to finally take a call that will pave the way for far-reaching military reforms. The Modi government deserves kudos for taking some historic decisions and proactively pursuing national security interests in a focused manner. To ensure time-bound implementation, the government has formed a committee, which will recommend within three months the role and charter of the CDS and suggest the modalities for implementation.
As per the timeline given to the implementation committee, the government, after due deliberation, will be in a position to confer the rank on the selected Chief by December 2019. By then, the present Air Chief will have retired. The Army Chief, who took office in December 2016, has more experience of the strategic politico-military arena under his belt vis-a-vis the other two chiefs, who took charge of their organisations this year. He is also better placed in terms of the understanding of the regional instabilities that threaten our national interests, internal security challenges and various prongs of national strategy being evolved under this government. Logically, he emerges as the frontrunner. However, given the strong credentials of the government, it could spring a surprise based on its internal evaluation of not just the three chiefs but also the commanders-in-chief of the three services. It could even extend the tenure of the Air Chief should he be the preferred choice.
The implementation committee, while suggesting modalities for launching the first CDS, should dispassionately study the concerns of all stakeholders and not get bogged down by their biases and past assertions. The jointness models of friendly foreign countries along with their best practices should be examined, albeit with an eye on our unique security challenges.
It is important to ensure that the CDS is suitably empowered not just in terms of his role and mandate but also in terms of his authority to push through various transformational initiatives. It needs to be understood that the basis of all command and control in the military is the authority vested in a commander over his or her subordinates. In this, rank plays a major role. A four-star CDS, as being suggested by some sections of the strategic community, would fail to elicit the desired levels of accountability from the three services in implementing major reforms. With the three chiefs donning the same rank, a four-star CDS would be tantamount to a mere nomenclatural change to the current Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
A five-star CDS will certainly have the authority over the three chiefs to leverage the optimal potential of their organisations in creating “ready and relevant” multi-domain joint capabilities. The concerns regarding civil control and inter-se relativities with the bureaucracy can be suitably addressed by realigning the inter-se seniority and protocol. The Cabinet Secretary, who is the topmost executive official and the seniormost civil servant of the government and senior to the three chiefs in protocol, should be elevated as deemed appropriate by the government. Moreover, the apprehensions about a five-star CDS acquiring sweeping powers and at some stage undermining democratic institutions are ill-founded and illustrative of the lack of understanding about the Indian military’s ethos and its unquestionable subordination to policy and civil control. The heterogeneity of the Indian military is its strength, and it will continue to act as a bulwark against any unsavoury activity. The loyalty of all ranks to the Constitution runs deep and is non-negotiable.
Transformational initiatives should not create operational imbalances and vulnerabilities at any stage of their implementation. Therefore, prudence suggests that the reforms are undertaken in a phased manner. In the initial phase, the CDS should start functioning from the existing headquarters of the Integrated Defence Staff, with its chief taking over as the Vice CDS. All integrated joint commands and agencies should be placed under him and he should also be mandated to administer the Strategic Forces, besides being an adviser to the National Command Authority. Being the single-point military adviser to the government, his participation in the Cabinet Committee on Security should be institutionalised. Preferably, the first year should be utilized in evolving joint military strategies; joint war-fighting doctrines and concepts, creating need-based additional command and control structures, evolving joint acquisition processes and preparing the roadmaps for the establishment of theatre commands. These commands should come up in the second phase, which will be spread over a number of years. Concurrently, for ideal synergy, the ministry of defence should consider constructing an all-encompassing integrated headquarters around New Delhi. The present arrangements are grossly inadequate to fight future wars. The models of other countries, such as the Pentagon in the United States, could be examined in the backdrop of our operational and strategic needs.
Transformation in a large organisation is a time and energy-consuming process. While it is comparatively easy to change strategies, policies, concepts, processes and create new structures, the challenge invariably is on account of the human capital. People by nature resist change as it entails stepping out of their comfort zones. In this case, it will take time for senior leaders of the three services to shelve their biases, differences and change attitudes. The desired levels of jointness will occur only when the three organisational cultures, which are based on service-specific beliefs, values, customs and traditions, merge into one homogenous joint culture and all personnel develop ownership of the reforms. Till then, the psychological friction caused by differing perceptions and views will continue to sap energies and impede implementation. The history of the transformational initiatives in the US military and the Chinese PLA aptly highlight these dynamics. Let us not forget that the US “Brigade Modernising Command” initiative took 10 years to complete.
Every great endeavour starts with the first step. Thankfully, it has already been taken with the Prime Minister’s announcement. It is now for the leadership of the three services to get their act together under the guidance of the CDS and move ahead in unison to create the desired joint multi-domain versatile military capability for protecting, pursuing and promoting our national security interests.