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Chief of defence staff: executive chief or staff officer?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement in his Independence Day speech of a new position of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is a much delayed, but truly necessary, appointment for India’s national security.  The CDS was first recommended by the Group of Ministers and Kargil Review Committee after the infamous Kargil incursions. The need for such a position has been awaited and written about for years.[1] This is an essential move that will enable India to completely restructure its colonial-era defence architecture and fulfil its ambition of becoming a leading power.

It is important to examine the role of a CDS and the support he/she will receive in order to run the defence architecture efficiently.

First, what will be the status of a CDS in the defence hierarchy? This depends on the CDS’ exact position: whether the CDS will be the head of defence forces (above the three service chiefs), or first among equals (i.e. the seniormost officer among the service chiefs), or a permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee – this is currently the practice in India, where the post of chairman rotates among the three service chiefs.

Second, appointing a CDS is not enough; it must be accompanied by the complete restructuring of the defence apparatus for the CDS to be effective. Bottom up, this must include not just restructuring of the area commands (of which there are 17 in the three services, such as the Indian Army’s Eastern Command or Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command) into theatre commands (which combines assets from all the three services), but also restructuring of the service headquarters and the reporting structure between all constituents of the ministry of defence (MoD).

Such a fundamental restructuring will certainly lead to bitter turf wars at all levels, not just among the services, but also between the services and bureaucrats, over matters like equipment acquisition, promotions and appointments. Moreover, expect battles to rage between the bureaucracy and the services on issues as substantial as who will provide single point security advice to the government.

India has experimented with the theatre command by raising the Andaman & Nicobar Command. But it is considered to be the lesser among equals as compared to the area command and lieutenants general (or their equivalent in other services) are loath to be posted as commanders here.

There have also been long-drawn-out and bitter debates between the three services over their relative strategic importance, and for a slice of the defence budget pie. This is what has delayed the announcement of a CDS position for about 20 years. Without a CDS and more responsive decision-making, combat power accretions by individual services will remain fiefdoms without the synergy of a tri-service organisation.

The MoD and armed forces will never accept such change from within; it has always been politically driven from the top. The U.S. is a typical example. The Goldwater-Nichols Act, 1986, enacted by the U.S. Senate to ensure unified command in the American armed forces, among other aspects, is an example of a top-down political decision. One of the better-known unified combat commanders was Norman Schwarzkopf, who had absolute command over all three – land, sea and air forces operating in his theatre during the war in Iraq – resulting in the successful prosecution of that conflict.

India is an aspiring superpower and jointmanship is the way forward, as seen by countries like the United States, China, UK and Australia.  It is these considerations which will shape the post of CDS, giving it meaning and purpose. It is essential that the CDS be given executive powers and command over his/her mandate.  He/she cannot be another staff officer in an already top-heavy organisation.

Brig. (Retd.) Xerxes Adrianwalla

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References:

[1] <https://www.gatewayhouse.in/india-unified-defence-command/>