The Union cabinet’s approval for the post of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on Tuesday brings to fruition the process set in motion by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech when he announced that “… after formation of this post, all the three forces will get effective leadership at the top level”. The office of a principal military advisor to the government was first mooted many decades ago but it got a serious push only after the 1999 Kargil War. The Kargil Review Committee, headed by the late K Subrahmanyam, stated the requirement which was fleshed out in detail in 2001 as a substantive recommendation of a CDS by a Group of Ministers (GoM) on National Security in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. But the recommendation did not find favour with either the Vajpayee government or the UPA government, largely due to bureaucratic and political resistance to the idea of an all-powerful military commander and also because of the interservice rivalry between the Air Force, the Navy and the Army. Meanwhile, another expert committee, headed by Naresh Chandra, again recommended a top military advisor, not a CDS but a Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee — but it, too, did not see the light of day.
The major task of the CDS, as stated by the government, is to ensure coordination between the three services, especially in matters of defence procurement, besides helping in force structuring of the services to bring in savings and operational synergy. The CDS will prioritise requirements of the three services within budgetary allocations, taking a big responsibility away from the ministry, and has also been tasked to facilitate “restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands”. That is an important role, which also points to a reform roadmap for the future — towards the eventual creation of joint theatre commands.
While the CDS will provide principal military advice to the government, he is not the commander of all the armed forces in the country — a far cry from the Commander-in-Chief of the British colonial era. In fact, the government made it clear that “CDS will not exercise any military command, including over the three service chiefs, so as to be able to provide impartial advice to the political leadership”. It also means the dilution of the 2001 GoM recommendation which had envisaged the CDS as a single-point military advisor — not limited to principal advisor — to the government. Not only is there no concentration of power, he will be functioning as the secretary of a department within the ministry, while being at par with the three service chiefs in military status and rank. Some teething problems can be expected in the beginning but things are bound to fall in place as norms, processes and rules are worked out between the three services, the CDS and the defence ministry. It will require the navigation of entrenched institutional interests, hierarchical powers and military traditions, to lay the foundations for a strong and functional CDS.
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