Chief of Defense Staff and Unified Theater command

Chief of Defense Staff and Unified Theater command

Kamaraj IAS Academy | Chief of Defense Staff and Unified Theater command
  • August 16, 2019, 6:38 pm

Chief of Defense Staff and Unified Theater command

One of the most significant announcements made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Independence Day is the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to ensure better coordination between the three services. This has been a long pending demand of the defence forces and was recommended by both the Kargil Review Committee led by K Subrahmanyam in 1999, as well as the Committee of Experts set up by the Ministry of Defence.


Need for CDS

The reality is that while the Indian armed forces are repeatedly lauded as being the nation’s ‘pride’, they have received little institutional empathy or understanding. One reason for the armed forces being less effective is that the three services operate in insular silos, and there is no substantive integration of capabilities and resources, much less a joint operational philosophy. Inter-service rivalry is embedded in the DNA of militaries across the world. India is not the first democracy to have faced such a dilemma in the pursuit of military jointness. The creation of integrated commands has always been top-driven by the civilian political leadership. Both the United States of America and the United Kingdom have gone through this experience in their defence reviews and reorganisation.


Who is CDS?

CDS will be a four-star military officer, who would act as the single point adviser to the government on military matters. The CDS would also coordinate amongst the three services and bridge the differences. 

Modern military battles cannot be fought by each service fighting independently. The present Indian Armed Forces are colonial constructs and were configured primarily to serve the interests of their colonial masters during the great wars. The restructuring of armed forces, therefore, has been a need as future wars are going to be short intense affairs where all organs of the state are likely to be employed simultaneously. Such a scenario would require unity of command, which is feasible only when the country has a unified command structure led by the CDS. However, political insecurities and bureaucratic stranglehold over the Ministry of Defence have prevented this important void from being filled.


CDS idea is not new

There has been an institutional divide between the civilian and military realm in India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had an uneasy relationship with the military top brass and was opposed to the creation of a CDS — the fear of a coup being an unstated factor. After the 1971 military victory, General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw’s name was proposed for the first CDS of India and did not materialise.

After the 1999 Kargil war, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government made an earnest attempt to restructure the entire higher defence edifice, with the creation of a CDS as integral to the new matrix. The Arun Singh committee under the Vajpayee government made the first substantive recommendation for creating the CDS in a holistic manner that included the integration of the armed forces into the ministry of defence. However, 2001 was a tumultuous year, and higher defence reforms fell by the side.

Reforms in the defence sector are long overdue.The CDS as announced by PM should be empowered appropriately through an act of Parliament, and not become a more visible, but ineffective, permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

This would entail a root-and-branch reorganisation of the Indian military into integrated theatre commands with the CDS at the apex and the current service chiefs assuming more of a staff role. The reluctance of the Indian Air Force to robustly endorse the concept of a CDS and integrated theatre commands is well known and some of these deliberations have been conducted in the public domain.

Currently the armed forces are in silos and their fiscal allocation is caught in a strait-jacket. The CDS would have to advise the government on whether India should invest more in cyber-space-spectrum capabilities or acquire more tanks, fighter aircraft or submarines and this prioritizing will be the perennial dilemma. Harmonising the intelligence grid to national security requirements, catalysing indigenous Research & Development improving DRDO and defence PSU performance, and manufacturing, speeding up military inventory acquisition/modernisation are likely to be other big ticket issues for the new CDS.

Would CDS solve it all ?

The government thinks it can solve deep human problems in the military through what is at best a bureaucratic ‘reform’ based on a 20-year-old recommendation. It may find that all it does is like joint service command, add another layer of military and civilian bureaucracy with zero actual improvements in anything, be it operational, strategic or logistical.

The root of the problem is two-fold. The first is the human capacity deficit across the board in the military. This manifests itself in several ways starting with a deeply problematic understanding of budgets or economics and progressing worryingly onto a lack of standardisation of equipment.

The second problem, which derives from the first, is the heavily army-centric approach of the Indian military as a whole, ignoring the fact that it is air forces and navies that win modern wars. Worse still, while armies themselves have moved towards a less manpower-intensive paradigm, the Indian Army continues to invest heavily in manpower, as for example the ill-fated mountain strike divisions.

The problem then as now was that precision munitions were too expensive to expend on targets such as 5-10 man ad hoc bunkers and we were fine expending human lives to compensate. To this day we have not solved the problem of mass producing cheap precision munitions.

Complicating this was poor leadership and atrocious supply chains because of a heavily-outdated logistics chain, too many different types of ammunition and equipment to bring about economies of scale and general disinterest in logistics despite Erwin Rommel’s (German war strategist famous for Op sickle cut) dictum “the quartermaster wins the battle even before it has begun”. How a CDS would have solved this problem then is a mystery and now even more so. For example, to this day our soldiers lack proper body armour, proper helmets, proper rifles, etc. Yet the Indian Army is more interested in howitzers and tanks, when the French Army, for example, is able to control an area twice the size of India in North Africa with just trucks, jeeps and helicopter and a mere 3,000 troops.

The navy continues with white elephants such as aircraft carriers, despite the fact the MiG 29s on the INS Vikramaditya suffer from serious problems and the fact that the submarine wing, the air wing and surface wing cannot properly communicate with each other seamlessly. Meanwhile, the air force is on its own trip, its future plans dependent on no less than four different types where even the US Air Force and Navy will be rationalising to just two types of fighters. Moreover, three of the four IAF types will be heavy, ruinously expensive twin-engine aircraft with limited weapons, engine and systems commonality.

Way forward

The government may have to take a leaf out of the US Goldwater-Nichols Act and push the three services. To begin with, all defence land and capital budget must be put under the CDS and appointments in inter-service organisations must be made essential for further promotions. For the CDS to be effective, he must have direct access to the defence minister and through him to the prime minister. After the reorganisation of MoD and establishment of theatre commands, they should directly be responsible to the defence minister through the CDS for all combat operations. Each service chief should only be responsible for equipping, organising and training of the forces. The creation of the CDS will need to be followed up with further reforms to reconfigure the armed forces to meet India’s aspirations to be a global power