Not fully empowered chief of defence staff is a bad idea
The expert committee led by Lieutenant General (retd.) D.B. Shekatkar has recently submitted its report to the Defence Minister. The committee, composed mostly of retired senior military officers, was appointed in May 2016 and was tasked with looking at “Enhancing Combat Capability and Rebalancing Defence Expenditure”. Among its many recommendations is the appointment of a single-point military adviser to the Defence Minister. Since Manohar Parrikar has already spoken of his desire to move in this direction, the recommendations of the Shekatkar committee assume greater importance.
The committee has reportedly recommended the new post should be a four-star appointment – equivalent to those of the service chiefs. This top four-star officer is envisaged as a coordinator, who will not impinge on the operation or administrative functions of the military chiefs. The creation of such a post should be accompanied by the integration of the service headquarters with the Ministry of Defence. However, the committee has apparently recommended against integrating the three services into joint commands. This is seen as an American model tailored for expeditionary role rather than homeland defence and hence unsuitable for the Indian context.
While the committee’s recommendations are well-intentioned and such reforms long overdue, the proposed institutional design is deeply problematic.
The idea itself is hardly new. The Group of Ministers (GoM) following the Kargil Review Committee called for the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as a single-point military adviser to the Defence Minister. This stemmed from the lack of integrated planning and operations between the services during the Kargil War. In fact, this is a problem that has plagued the armed forces in every conflict since 1947. The appointment of a CDS was expected to usher in top-down integration among the services and better coordination between the services and the government.
The Vajpayee government created a new joint headquarters of the Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS). But it baulked at appointing a CDS and instead appointed a Chief of Integrated Defence Staff who would run the HQ IDS until the CDS was appointed. This half-baked solution persists to date. In fairness, HQ IDS has managed to bring a degree of coherence to issues like procurement and joint doctrine. But this is hardly adequate. More importantly, it has allowed the political leadership to perpetuate an illusion of reforms while continuing to resist the appointment of the CDS.
Then again, in the early years after the GoM report, the services themselves were a divided house on this question. In particular, the air force resisted the creation of a CDS – apparently on the grounds that it would pave the way for institutional domination by the army. This came handy to political leaders and bureaucrats in deflecting questions about their own unwillingness to institutionalise the system. Towards the end of the UPA-II government, the three service chiefs jointly wrote to the prime minister expressing support for the creation of a CDS.
Meanwhile, the government had appointed another committee led by Naresh Chandra to examine why the GoM’s recommendations of were not fully implemented and to suggest a new road map for national security reforms. This committee suggested that instead of a full-fledged CDS, the government appoint a permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee with a fixed tenure. By giving the chairman a fixed term of, say, two-years, it was hoped that he would have enough time to work on key issues of integration between the services. Now the Shekatkar committee has come up with another halfway house.
Any institutional solution along these lines is unlikely to deliver the necessary levels of integration. If the CDS does not outrank the service chiefs, then his ability to function as the single-point military adviser to the government will be undoubtedly circumscribed. At best, it will amount to an incremental improvement on the existing HQ IDS. Worse still, it will yet again create the illusion of progress and delay real reforms for years at end. The idea that such reforms should be imposed gradually or piecemeal is seriously mistaken. In most countries that have achieved institutional integration, the process has been driven politically from on high.
The CDS must be empowered fully. There should be no doubt about his being superior in the chain of command to the service chiefs. The appointment should be followed by the setting up of integrated theatre commands. For starters, the supply and logistics commands could be integrated. The claim that such theatre commands is only required for expeditionary forces is specious. It is an indispensable prerequisite for ensuring “jointness” in war fighting. Simultaneously, the service chiefs should prepare to relinquish operational control over the services and become what their titles suggest: chiefs of staff, primarily responsible for raising, equipping and training of the forces. The chain of operational command should run from the Defence Minister through the CDS to the integrated theatre commanders.
The advocates of compromise solutions miss the point that something is not always better than nothing. As the case of HQ IDS shows the half-life of such institutional short-cuts tends to be very long. More worryingly, it helps anaesthetise the system and masks need for real reform. Enhancing the combat capability and effectiveness requires full-blooded measures. It would be sad if the government perpetuates or aggravates the problem by using palliatives. It would sadder still, if the government were forced to consider real reform by another external crisis.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal