In remarks made last month, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar created a buzz in strategic circles when he accepted the need for appointing a chief of defence staff (CDS) on the grounds that “the integration of the three forces does not exist in the existing structure”. Without naming a date, he said that he needed some time “to work it out” and would bring up a note before the Cabinet Committee on Security within the next two to three months.
While giving hope to the (small) community of military reformers, the statement is also a cause for some alarm. The last thing India needs is a rush to a quick-fix solution imagined behind closed doors by a small team of bureaucrats — civilian or military. Parrikar should instead, if necessary, take a little while longer and implement a well-thought-out plan and also take advantage of a once-in-a-generation constellation of factors to transform the Indian military.
India is perhaps the only major military that does not have a CDS-type post. This has created problems for the integration of the three services and also on other issues like inter-services prioritisation and joint training and planning. Creating this post and strengthening the powers of the Integrated Defence Staff, which was itself created after the Kargil War, will not only enhance military effectiveness — the sine qua non for having a military — but also lead to budgetary savings. For instance, under the current structure, the three service chiefs are protective of their turfs and perpetuate a single-service approach to training, planning and operations. Left to themselves, they have not even been able to agree on training their musicians together, let alone pooling resources for joint training and logistics. There is an expectation, therefore, that a CDS will adjudicate on these matters and take a detached view, thereby enhancing effectiveness and improving expenditure. In fact, in many countries, “jointness” has emerged from fiscal considerations. In India, the service chiefs are used to almost complete autonomy, leading to unnecessary duplication, wasteful expenditure and a single-service approach.
The demand for creating a CDS post is almost as old as India’s higher defence organisation. Mountbatten’s papers, kept at the University of Southampton, reveal that he was aware of growing problems in India’s military posture from not having a joint staff or a CDS. He approached — and not just once — successive Indian prime ministers, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and, a year before his assassination, Morarji Desai, and urged them to undertake such a measure.
However, by then civilians had become slightly apprehensive of a possible loss of civilian control if this measure were adopted and there was, moreover, opposition to this from within the services. That opposition was primarily from the air force because of its fears of being dominated by the numerically superior army (it did not help that some army chiefs spoke dismissively of the other two services). As a result of all this, the idea of a CDS was quietly shelved.
The post-Kargil defence reforms process once again saw a strong push to create a CDS. But, under pressure from the Congress party, the air force and civilian bureaucrats, then-PM A.B. Vajpayee vacillated at the last moment. The Naresh Chandra Committee, formed in 2011 to re-examine defence reforms, also looked at this issue and recommended the creation of the post of Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee — a quasi-CDS appointment. For the first time, the air force accepted the need for such a post. Parrikar’s comments, thus, appear to close the loop and fulfil a long-cherished vision of the strategic community.
So what is wrong with going ahead and creating such a post? First, there is no clarity on what is being envisaged. Parrikar should not spring upon the cabinet and the nation a magical “solution” imagined by his advisers. Instead, there should be a public debate, taking advantage of India’s vibrant strategic culture, on the issues and challenges facing higher defence management. This will also put to test some institutional myths. For instance, for many in the military, appointing serving military officers as joint secretaries in the defence ministry would automatically resolve existing problems. This conveniently overlooks potential conflicts of interest and the need to have checks and balances. The necessity of the latter becomes clearer in light of the current controversy after the harsh judgment by the Armed Forces Tribunal criticising the army’s “Command Exit” policy implemented in 2009. It shows how relatively easy it was for senior officers, with suspect motives, to push through contested and divisive policies. The best way to start the debate is to release into the public domain, with redactions if necessary, the report of the Naresh Chandra Committee.
Second, a critical element for successful defence reforms is to have vigilant monitoring and perhaps even external oversight, an aspect the defence minister has seemingly ignored. It is not enough to simply announce measures for institutional change and leave it to the bureaucracies to implement them. As we well know from organisational theory, bureaucracies will readily embrace change that they like and shirk from measures they find unpleasant. This becomes clear, for instance, when one examines how the services have undermined India’s first joint command in Andaman and Nicobar. So it might be prudent to create a defence reforms unit, drawing on personnel unattached to any single institutional prism — whether civilian or military.
Third, before appointing a CDS-type figure, it is necessary to bring clarity to the role and powers of the service chief. There is an unrealistic assumption that the chiefs will enjoy the same powers even after the creation of such a post. If this is so, the CDS will be a mere figurehead, reduced to attending fancy parades. To prevent this, some powers from the chiefs will have to be passed to this position. Nowhere in the world has a CDS been appointed without opposition from the service chiefs. The sooner the political leadership wakes up to this reality and enforces its vision the better it is for all concerned.
To be fair to the defence minister, he seems to be following the right script so far. Removing the DRDO chief, raising (even if symbolically) FDI in defence and showing a willingness to take on the trade unions at the inefficient and underperforming ordnance factories and defence PSUs have sent the correct message. In remarks largely overlooked, Parrikar seemed aware of a crucial faultline — the relations between military and civilian bureaucrats. Referring to the tensions between the two, Parrikar spoke about the “they-we” complex and how it needs to be transformed into a more collegial “us”. Such self-awareness is a refreshing change from his predecessor, who simply stumbled from crisis to crisis.
But before preparing a cabinet note for his colleagues, Parrikar needs to step back, take a little while longer perhaps, and think through what it is that he is visualising and how he is going to get us there.
The writer is an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore