With less than a month to go and the government yet to announce a replacement for the outgoing chief of army staff, speculation has arisen that New Delhi may at last consider creating a chief of defence staff (CDS) position.
The CDS in some form or another is a key military reform that has been repeatedly recommended over the past three decades, would place a single officer in charge of all three services. More importantly, it would create a chief of defence staff committee staffed by officers from the army, air force and navy and ensure a joint military command structure — something lacking in India today.
The idea of a CDS has been raised repeatedly over the past decades. It was recommended in the public sphere in the K Subrahmanyam committee report issued after the Kargil war. But there have been many similar official commissions, reports and white papers that have made a similar recommendation. And it was among a set of national security recommendations put before Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first year in office.
A CDS and a related tri-service staff will also be important because it will provide a single-point interlocutor for the government, notably the defence ministry, to interact with in determining an integrated defence strategy and thus the budgetary allocations to support such a strategy.
Appointing a CDS by itself amounts to little. A system that allows officers from all three services to be placed in the other services has to be put in place with the idea of creating a career track that ends with being part of the CDS staff. This will do more than almost anything else to create a genuine tri-service officer corps.
But the real flesh on the bones of all this is the creation of an integrated military structure so that the deployment of ships, tanks and planes will happen in a joint manner rather than the present three layered hub and spoke system that exists today.
Earlier attempts were stymied by the early unwillingness of the army to surrender its predominant role in the military, by political fears that a CDS could increase the chances of a coup and opposition from the defence ministry bureaucracy who feared the creation of a body that would undermine their decision-making powers. With any luck, a Modi government with a desire to show track record of implementation will overcome these and other obstacles.
Modern warfare is about coordinating and communicating the firepower and resources that the military has available. In World War II, thousands of bombers were used to carpet bomb hundreds of square kilometres even if the actual target covered just a few city blocks. Plenty of firepower but no ability to target or coordinate the munitions that were dropped. Today, a smart weapon can bring a single warhead to bear on a single room if necessary.
Multiply this reality across a three-dimensional battlefield and realise being able to tightly coordinate the actions of soldiers and tanks on the ground, airplanes and drones in the air and ships and submarines at sea is an enormous force multiplier.
Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military theorist, wrote that being able to reduce “the fog of war” as a key determinant in victory versus defeat. Integration of commands is one of the key means by which the chaos and unpredictability of military action can be drastically reduced. It is a key strength of the Israeli military — it compensates for its small size by brilliantly in merging its firepower in all spheres in an efficient manner.
The US recognised this when it empowered the chairman of the joints chief of staff to become the president’s principal military adviser in 1986. Concepts like airsealand warfare were the tactical flip side to the creation of an integrated command.
The problem India’s military has today is that in any major military operation, its three services will effectively fight independently of each other. Communications between them will either be through a cumbersome process of going up and down chains of command or ad hoc conversations at the local battlefield level. Both of them are recipes for disaster in 21st century warfare where a battle will be decided in just a few hours of intense combat or in an era of cyber-offensive capabilities that can blow holes in communication networks.
“Jointedness” is an awkward phrase but it is arguably the most important concept in modern warfare today. Time to make it a serious part of the India’s defence structure.