It has been clear for two decades that big military reforms cannot take place without political will. On August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signalled that such political will had been summoned when he announced that the armed forces would now have a Chief of Defence Staff, a post for which there was a long felt need. Its creation was recommended two decades ago by the Group of Ministers in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government that was tasked with studying the Kargil Review Committee and coming up with concrete proposals from it. The KRC had redflagged the urgent need for structural reforms in the military. The GoM proposed a five star CDS who would bring unity of command between the three services, rising above the often competing views and claims of the Army, Navy and Air Force, to advise the prime minister and defence minister on a host of issues such as strategy, procurement of weaponry, manpower requirements, as well as work towards tri-service operational “jointmanship”.
However, through all these years, the proposal could never find enough backers either in the political class or the defence bureaucracy. The three services were not convinced either. Politicians were worried that concentrating power in the hands of a high military official would give rise to praetorian tendencies; the defence ministry feared a change in the civilian-military equation that would result in its own loss of supremacy; and the Air Force and Navy opposed it because they believed that the CDS system would be dominated by the Army. Even a watered down version of the CDS suggested by the 2011 Naresh Chandra Committee, which was essentially a slightly more empowered version of the existing Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee system, did not see the light of day.
The decision to appoint a CDS would be meaningful only if the government clears these speedbreakers, which still exist. In addition, now there is also the Defence Planning Committee headed by the powerful NSA, who is the de facto CDS. The real test of Modi’s announcement will be known when the time comes to delineate the powers of this office. Without a purposeful mandate, it would end up becoming just another military office. It is clear that the CDS must be able to report to the prime minister and defence minister, and must be seen as the senior-most military official, rather than as just “first among equals” with the service chiefs. In the US, the powers of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are defined by a 1986 law. In the hierarchy, he is placed above the service chiefs, and his role defined as that of the “principal military advisor” to the president and defence secretary. The same law also lays out what the CJCSC cannot do. For sure, there will be resistance to an empowered CDS, because the military, like most organisations, is loath to change. But the Indian armed forces know, too, that this is the best way forward to a modern army that is prepared for today’s challenges.