April 27, 2001


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Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Made in India CDS

For years, the defence and security community in India has clamoured for an overhaul of higher defence management. Now that it is beginning to happen, many of them are moaning and throwing a spanner in the works.

This is a typically Indian trait: complain when you have it, complain when you don't.

The proposed appointment of Admiral Sushil Kumar, currently chairman, chiefs of staff committee and chief of the naval staff, as the first chief of defence staff, has been greeted with scepticism.

The post of CDS is the first tentative step towards the integration of the armed forces and introducing joint planning, training and conduct of operations. It is ridiculous to suggest, as some writers have done, that it will create discord among the services, further disharmony between the services and defence ministry, and threaten civilian control over the military.

Who are the complainants? No marks for guessing. They are led by the Indian Air Force and include the civilian bureaucracy. Ever since the acronym CDS entered the seminar circuit, it was systematically demolished by airmen as unworkable, unnecessary and designed to weaken, not streamline the quality of decision-making. These critics have sparse comprehension of the CDS system in general and the interim model being introduced in particular.

A lot of groundwork has preceded the process of defence reform. It is not a kneejerk reaction to Kargil or Tehelka, though Kargil certainly precipitated the process.

The proposal for CDS first surfaced in 1983 though its echoes were heard earlier. The keel for the CDS was dropped in 1985 when the nucleus of the defence planning staff, under the chiefs of staff committee, was set up.

India with the fourth largest armed forces is the only country in the world that does not have any meaningful higher defence command structure. Even Sri Lanka has a CDS who acts as a force coordinator. In Pakistan, the army chief is also the CDS though they call him permanent chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee.

The patchwork and compartmentalized performance of the three services during our wars against China and Pakistan was a result of each fighting its own war.

The Kargil war did not take off smoothly as there was poor joint army and air force planning and training for high altitude operations. A recent Rand study commissioned by the US Army has concluded that IAF has not been able to translate its strategic advantages vis--vis Pakistan into operational consequences.

Similarly, the Indian Navy, with all its versatility, is unable to influence the land battle. A higher defence mechanism like the CDS would certainly harmonise and optimize the country's military assets.

Much confusion surrounds the post of the new CDS, his selection, role and functions. The government is expected to announce its reforms agenda which will include the vital statistics of CDS. It is almost certain he will be the fourth chief, first among equals but usually one who has not already been a service chief.

The post will be rotational and tenable by each service for two years. The CDS will be selected from a pool of three star officers, approved to be regional commanders in chief of their service.

In a nuclear-capable India, the CDS will command the country's strategic nuclear forces. The three other single service chiefs will continue to exercise operational command as they do now over conventional forces. It is in this configuration that the CDS unencumbered by the pressure of conventional battle, will be free to advise and receive higher directions from the chief executive (the prime minister) for employment of nuclear weapons.

For the next five years at least, the concepts of integrated theatre command, that usually accompany the CDS system, will stay on the back-burner. While each service chief will fight his battle on land at sea and in the air, the CDS will provide jointness and integration of the war effort.

Establishing theatre commands will be a complex task. For example, in the eastern theatre the navy, air force and army commands are located at Vishakhapatnam, Shillong and Calcutta respectively. A possible triservice eastern theatre command could be built around Ranchi or Bhubaneswar,

Similarly, clubbing of headquarters in the south or in the west is a monumental mission, a near jigsaw puzzle. The experiment for a triservice command can begin with a Bay of Bengal theatre command based on the Andaman and Nicobar islands where a loose structure for a triservice command is already in place. The island base is being shortly expanded into a full-fledged Far East Naval Command.

The CDS will be assisted by an elaborate multi-disciplinary defence planning staff headed by a vice chief of defence staff, who will most probably be an army general (the man being tipped for the job is Lt Gen NC Vij, now southern army commander in Pune).

The CDS will also perform other functions like presiding over short and long range joint operational planning, training and doctrine, take charge of all triservice institutes and establishments and prepare the Tenth Five Year Plan for the armed forces. He will guide the futuristic 15-year long term plan. Similarly the new defence intelligence agency, threshed out of army, navy and air force intelligence agencies will also be steered by him. Joint aspects of defence procurement will fall in his domain.

The CDS will chair promotion boards for army commanders and their equivalents in the other services as well as preside over complaint boards. In addition he will perform some ceremonial duties. The fourth four star at the apex command will wear one hat unlike the present chairman chiefs of staff committee, who is also the head of his service.

Why is Admiral Sushil Kumar, who would have gone home two years ago had Vishnu Bhagwat not been sacked, the right choice for CDS ? He is already holding the baton of chairman chiefs of staff committee, the Indian equivalent of CDS, is the seniormost chief by virtue of holding that office (otherwise six months junior to his other two colleagues) and has the experience and wisdom to wear the new hat.

The BJP-led government has given the country a swadeshi model of CDS who will pose no threat to civilian control over the armed forces. Unnecessary controversy has been generated over the CDS being the single point of advice for the government. Till the theatre command concept is introduced single service chiefs will continue to provide inputs to the government. The CDS, since he has no command function and therefore, no accountability, will even have difficulty in harmonizing the advice.

Therefore, the Made in India CDS, at least for the time being, is meant not only to keep everyone happy but also start the process of integration.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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