Bottomline | A Case for CDS

The government needs to push for this for its own sake

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

We know that of the three defence services, the Indian Air Force, for reasons never elaborated, has consistently opposed the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) post. On 11 May 2001, Group of Ministers’ (GoM) report headed by the deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani not only approved the CDS but had said that the institution should be the first step towards the needed structural reforms.

The IAF’s unexplained opposition to the CDS led to unease in the Parliament Committee on Defence, and the Vajpayee government decided on a step-by-step approach. First, the post of Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS) was created, which in September 2001 was renamed as Chief of Integrated Staff to Chairman (CISC), because without the CDS, there could not be the VCDS. The CISC was to report to the Chairman of the COSC, the institution that the GoM report noted ‘had failed to fulfil its mandate’. After a full decade of guessing, the cat was finally out of the bag, when the outgoing Air Force Chief and Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik at his farewell media interaction on 26 July 2011 patiently answered my queries on the subject. To my question whether he favoured the CDS, to be replied in a yes or a no, he said an emphatic no.

Why so? 
“I would favour the CDS if it was held after a national debate, and the CDS is appointed as the single point military advisor to the defence minister,” was his explanation. He added, that, “To my mind, the CDS is five to 10 years away as we require the requisite technology like Integrated Command, Control and Computer System (ICCCS) before we have the CDS. As the defence services today are meant for territorial defence, the CDS is not needed.”

This intriguing response led to my next question as to what technology had to do with creating the CDS office. He sagely said that, “Once we have networked fully and shortened the sensor to shooter loop, the CDS may be needed for controlling the overall operations.” His incredible reply spurred me to ask my last question.

If there was a formalised system for the COSC to meet the Prime Minister, and how many times in his two-year tenure as the air force chief, had he met the Prime Minister? He said that the COSC meets with the defence minister only. Meeting the Prime Minister is done with defence minister’s clearance.

Paraphrased, this is the IAF’s wisdom: The CDS would be needed when the three defence services are fully networked, within themselves and with one another, for optimal response in out-of-area (strategic reach) operations. The CDS should then be the overall operational commander and also the single point military advisor to the defence minister. As the Chairman, COSC, ACM Naik did not see the need for regular one-on-one interactions with the Prime Minister.

To take the last issue first, the unmistakable inference is that the service chiefs are content being operational players, with no military person at the strategic level. This is the biggest chink in India’s armour. As Indian Prime Ministers do not understand military power (a major lacunae after the 1998 nuclear tests), they either develop cold feet half-way, or decide not to retaliate against grave provocations. Either way, the enemy is emboldened. Cases in point are Operation Parakram launched after the terrorist attack on Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks by the ISI, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying in 2005 that he favoured converting Siachen into a mountain of peace without checking with his army what it entailed; he of course back-tracked leading to a national embarrassment.

Numerous service chiefs, since 1998 when India declared itself a nuclear weapons state, that I have met informally after their retirement told me that there should be a formalised interaction between the military leadership and the Prime Minister. India cannot have its Prime Minister ignorant of military matters when the two nuclear-powered adversaries have their militaries fully integrated at the highest levels. Not only they understand the role of military power in diplomacy better, in case of a war, their decision-making will be faster.




The reverse is equally bizarre. The Indian service chiefs are unaware of security policy nuances that directly affect the armed forces. The recent report that the army chief, General V.K. Singh was denied participation by the defence ministry in the US Pacific Command sponsored biennial Pacific Armies Chiefs Seminar in Singapore makes the point. No one in the government told the army chief that cosy relations with the US had cooled down. His own army think-tank failed to analyse the obvious for him. The down-select of both US competitors, based on technical evaluation, from the IAF’s MMRCA competition, and defence minister, A.K. Antony’s subsequent statement that India desired equidistance with all friendly powers were open admission that India was unhappy with the aftermath of the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement on which, at one stage, the Prime Minister had staked his own office.

Similarly, when ACM Naik told the media that Pakistan’s short range nuclear capable Nasr ballistic missile is not a ‘game-changer’, or India is fully geared with a ‘violent and heavy nuclear strike’, he sounded less than credible. In reality, the Nasr missile can be the ‘game-changer’; if indeed a tactical nuke is fired (the Pakistan Army will not be stupid to do so), the conventional war would end, and a new game will commence. Regarding second strike capability, it is doubtful if operational players fully know the range of India’s nuclear capability. The service chiefs, according to insiders, do not participate in most meetings held by the National Security Advisor with DRDO, BARC and atomic commission personnel. They are special invitees on rare occasions.

Given this, the CDS, a five star rank officer, is needed as the single point military advisor to the Prime Minister. This will be a step more than the 2001 GoM report which approved the CDS as the single point military advisor to the defence minister. As the strategic player, he will be the bridge between the strategic and operational levels. As the Prime Minister’s senior advisor, he will be in the policy-making loop of all national security organisations like National Security Council and ministries concerned with national security like home, external affairs and finance.

The other important task of the CDS will be in the nuclear weapons policy formulation, update, and execution. The commander-in-chief, Strategic Forces Command will report directly to the CDS, who in turn, will report to the National Security Advisor (NSA). While the strategic target list update will be the joint responsibility of the NSA and the CDS, after clearance from the Prime Minister, it could be kept in NSA’s custody. The nuclear weapons’ chain of command for execution would run from the Prime Minister to the NSA to the CDS and thence to the C-in-C, SFC. The service chiefs will be outside the nuclear weapons’ loop. Both the NSA and the CDS will be members of the National Command Authority headed by the Prime Minister. As India has a second-strike nuclear weapons policy, there should be a clear demarcation between the nuclear and conventional war chain of commands.

Who will be chosen as the CDS? The service chiefs should not be elevated to the CDS rank on retirement. They carry too much service parochialism and would not be trusted by the other two services. The VCDS instead should be elevated to CDS on a two or three years fixed tenure. It should, however, be ensured that the CDS and VCDS are not from the same service. This will have four advantages: One, the CDS, having served as the VCDS, will be an impartial personality having risen above his original service. Two, the allure of becoming the strategic player will attract bright officers from the three services to do stints in the IDH at various levels of seniority. Three, the IAF’s apprehension that a CDS from the other two services will not understand its operational ethos will get allayed. And four, overtime, the new arrangement will pave the way for other structural reforms like integration of service headquarters with the defence ministry (something which have been amended on paper in the Transaction of Business Rules), and maybe, theatre commands as desired by the army. As an aside, I am not in favour of theatre commands, but this is a separate subject.