Need for defence staff chief

GENERAL NO. 1: The Group of Ministers on National Security in 2001 made a specific recomme-ndation for appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff.

Need for defence staff chief
The need for a ‘General No 1’ to provide a single point military advice to the defence minister for preparation of the force and its calibrated utilisation for creating tri-service military effect and planning has been felt over a period of time. Eminent diplomat, the late Ali Yavar Jang had even mooted a proposal for creation of such a post, as far back as in 1967 before the Administrative Reforms Committee in this regard, but did not succeed.

It goes to the credit of the Group of Ministers (GoM) on National Security in 2001, chaired by then Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani that a specific recommendation to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff was made at the political level. The GoM report acknowledged the need by recommending “...far reaching changes in the structure, processes and procedures in defence management world, to make the system more efficient, resilient and responsive.”

To overcome the shortcoming, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was proposed to provide ‘Single-Point Military Advice’ to the Government, something clearly lacking in the system, where each service chief renders his advice on military need, based on assessments of respective service perspective, which could be at variance to those of other chiefs. A well-quoted example in this regard was the purported difference in the approach between the then Army and Air Chief(s), on application of air power during the Kargil War. 

In creating the appointment of the CDS, it was felt that maximisation of our defence capabilities will occur through professional merger and optimisation of perspectives which will ensure desired results. Optimal utilisation of resources through synergy amongst the armed forces would be its by-product. A joint military perspective and vision representing the wholesome military authority, in support of Comprehensive National Power would be achieved through the creation of CDS and Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQIDS), which will meet future requirements.

Besides ushering joint-ness amongst the forces, this structure comprising of the CDS and HQIDS, was to also drive the aerospace, land and maritime future security visions.  However, while HQIDS came about, the intended reform was left soulless by not sanctioning the appointment of CDS. This made the reforms meaningless.

Military operations in the 21st century are more likely to be an inter-agency process. It will require two or even more services to operate jointly. Divergence in views on either the objective or on the application of the force ideally needs to be resolved within the sphere of the military, before proceeding with the integrated inter-agency process, which a CDS duly empowered, would ensure.

The fact that no decision on the CDS had been taken for 15 years post the GoM’s recommendation indicates the degree of reluctance in accepting it. Fear of the command of all three Forces being vested in a single authority could be a reason. The entirely apolitical culture amongst our forces should, on the contrary, show why this fear is misplaced.  More likely, it is the substantial weakening of control over the military by the bureaucrats, on appointment of the CDS, which is the reason for the proposal being stalled.

In the wake of The Mumbai terror attack, a Task Force headed by former Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra was set up in 2010, to examine implementation of the GoM recommendations and reassess reforms to improve the national security system. The panel’s recommendations, not officially in the public domain, reportedly recommended appointing a Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC COSC) before eventually appointing a CDS.

For practical purposes, the PC COSC will be a diluted version of the CDS with responsibility to coordinate tri-services issues including budget, planning and procurement, administer tri-services Commands and Institutions. He would, however, bear no operational authority.

The defence minister’s recent statement on government’s decision to appoint a ‘Joint Chief’ for the defence forces is therefore heartening. Though the statement does not elaborate on whether the proposal being progressed is for a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or a Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC COSC), either would be a forward movement towards promoting the much needed convergence of strengths and jointness not just amongst the armed forces, but importantly, in the entire national military-security apparatus.

Unbiased military advice
The CDS as the GoM proposed or the PC COSC would be a 4-star officer drawn from the three defence services ranking primus inter pares in the COSC. He would be the "Principal Military Adviser" to the defence minister allowing him requisite objectivity and independence to render unbiased military advice without any conflict of interest.

What would then be the attributes of the revised framework and what changes would it entail? Foremost is the need for the defence services to themselves accept the need for substantial jointness. While they have been pleading for institutional changes and inclusion into decision making processes, formidable mindset problems persist and discordant notes are still audible. Next is the need for a ‘mindset change’ within the defence ministry. 

The requirement today is to go much beyond the precincts of the services headquarters and the defence ministry and adopt a fresh holistic approach to the entire edifice of national security.  It is in these that the CDS or the PC COSC must be given a cardinal central presence if the concern and voice of the military is to be heard.

The defence minister’s statement reveals a shimmering hope that good sense, at long last, has come to prevail and systemic changes are being made to fill the glaring voids in India’s military-security decision-making apparatus.

(The writer is former chief of integrated defence staff)
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