Consequent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement from the ramparts of Red Fort, the proposed structure for the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been deliberated upon. We should soon be seeing the first CDS take charge. The proposed charter of the CDS, his powers and status, etc, has been debated intensely. One school of thought recommends an evolutionary, incremental expansion of the role, while some feel he should be given greater operational control ab initio. Like many bureaucratic approval processes, turf battles often cloud judgements, the resistance to change tends to only marginally alter the existing status quo. In this case, too, Service HQs prefer to retain their powers, resources and establishments. Hence, to avoid a dilution of their spheres, they are in favour of the CDS taking charge of new organisations, domains, and also to handle the integrated structures.
Existing single-service responsibilities would remain largely undisturbed.
What should be the answer to this dilemma? A logical appraisal is warranted: Retention of existing warfighting structures, while the CDS takes control of newer organisations being set up for tackling future threats, has some merit. Development of future technologies and means to face emerging threats in the cyber, space, missiles domain, nurturing of AI-based platforms, usage of drones for various roles and such modern conflict realities is indeed important. These advancements are extremely costly, and the CDS can facilitate optimal, cost-effective integrated development and deployment of such structures.
Modern war and warfighting has tremendous economic costs. Defence budgets are invariably inadequate to meet the “wishlists”, and intense prioritisation of capabilities is inevitable. The CDS can be the vital fulcrum to undertake such prioritisation and rationalisation, and, therefore, can play a stellar role in the perspective planning and development function. Considering the high cost of future technology, the CDS can also contribute towards optimisation of existing structures. Such review of existing establishments and manpower should also be an assigned task for him.
But should the CDS be utilised only in capability building and cost cutting, and optimisation measures? Future conflict situations would possibly need integrated application of fighting formations and resources, with unitary operational control of deployed elements. The CDS would be better placed for integrated employment of war fighting potential, and therefore logically needs to be part of the operational control chain.
In the debates on CDS, one often heard the designated profile as “providing single-point military advice”. National security decisions are always taken after a multitude of advisory inputs from a number of agencies, duly analysing ramifications and end state probabilities. The CDS is better termed as the primary military advisor, with the service chiefs also remaining important military advisors. The CDS should not become another interposed level between the Raksha Mantri and the service chiefs, whose access to the minister should remain as prevalent.
In effect, the CDS should be in charge of newer domains and organisations, and be well poised to optimise, cut costs and prioritise different service demands. He could be an effective mentor for realising our military-industrial power potential, and for modernisation and capability enhancement. His tri-service position makes him the most suited driver for the integrated application of warfighting resources and facilitates unitary control in integrated operations. The CDS also has a primary advisory role, and therefore should not be boxed into administrative efficiency roles, but must be in the operational control chain. In the interim, the CDS may not override the operational responsibility of the service chiefs, and in due course, his operational responsibility can expand and become more “hands-on”.
Thus, it is clear that the CDS would play a far more critical role in the national security apparatus, than the three service chiefs. Our higher defence organisation would finally mature, and be more in tune with our rising power ranking. From being the “first among equals”, I would like to see the CDS graduate to “first above the others”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 21, 2019 under the title ‘A cut above’. The writer was General officer Commanding of the Indian Army’s Chinar Corps in Kashmir. Views are personal.