Chief of Defence Staff: Giving the military its due

Modi's announcement of the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff is an overdue step, almost 20 years after the Kargil Review Committee recommended the same

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15 announced the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This is an overdue step, almost 20 years after the Kargil Review Committee recommended the same. In the absence of a CDS, the defence secretary, a generalist bureaucrat, has tended to act as the de facto CDS. However, what forms the CDS will take will only be known in the months ahead.

Earlier, during the first term of the Modi government, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was appointed the chairman of the Defence Planning Committee (DPC), which has the three service chiefs and the defence secretary, among others, as its members, thereby reducing the role of the defence minister.

Post the Balakot airstrike and Doval being granted a five-year extension and elevation to cabinet rank, there have been comments in the media suggesting that there was no need for a CDS. Nothing would be more unwise and unfair to the defence forces and to Doval himself. The latter is a fine police and intelligence officer but does not have the requisite military domain knowledge. The post of the CDS is best left to a military man, considering nuclear and other strategic capabilities.

When Modi took over as prime minister in 2014, much was expected from him in terms of modernizing our armed forces, which unfortunately did not happen. His focus appeared to be on internal security. The September 2016 cross-border surgical strike and the Balakot airstrike of 2019 were largely counter-terrorist actions in nature that were executed by the armed forces. Now, post-election, the prime minister seems to have turned his attention to prepare the defence forces for war-fighting which, if true, has not come a day too soon, considering that the Chinese dragon is at our very doorstep.

However, the prime minister has a difficult task ahead of him. Our defence expenditure now is just 1.44% of our GDP as against China’s 3% of its much larger GDP. The Indian Army is currently manpower intensive, with inadequate funds to make it a lean, mean fighting machine. The government has recently approved the army’s reorganization, but that by itself will not be enough to take on China.

Just as the armed forces, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) are all in need of drastic reforms. India has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest importer of arms and equipment but burdened with a cumbersome defence acquisition procedure.

Earlier this year, former vice chief of the Army Lt General Sarat Chand told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that 68% of the army’s equipment is vintage and that it does not have ammunition to fight even a 10-day intense war. The navy is woefully short of submarines and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, even as Chinese submarines pop up in the Indian Ocean waters with alarming regularity. The air force is down from 42 squadrons to 36 squadrons and falling.

The long-pending demand of the three services to establish Cyber, Special Operations and Space Commands has been accepted, albeit as tri-service agencies. Now that the CDS is to be appointed, the theatre command proposal, which has often met with resistance from some in the services, will have to be rammed through, too, by the government.

The CDS could also act as a barometer of the morale of serving and retired defence personnel. There has been a growing distance between the government, on the one hand, and the serving and retired fraternity, on the other hand, especially over the One Rank One Pension (OROP) issue. Most serving  personnel and veterans will tell you that Nirmala Sitharaman spent most of her time as the defence minister ambushing the armed forces, with issues such as opening the cantonments to public without adequate consultation, reducing canteen facilities, stopping authorized rations in peace areas, pegging the Armed Forces Head Quarters (AFHQ) personnel higher in the equation with defence personnel, tasking the army to build railway overbridges in Mumbai, and asking them to clear garbage left by tourists on the mountains, etc., thus bringing down the morale of the armed forces.

Rajnath Singh’s move from home to defence ministry may be the best thing that has happened to the armed forces. This may also be Rajnath Singh’s opportunity to debunk theories that his move was a demotion and do for the armed forces what no other defence minister has done so far.

Already, the healing touch is apparent with the government revoking the stoppage of authorized rations in peace areas and considering revoking Income Tax on disability pension. The creation of the CDS could be a game-changer to integrate the defence forces and improve civil-military relations in the country.

(The writer is a former Principal Director, Naval Intelligence, and Director in the Cabinet Secretariat)

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