CDS will be a strategic and not a military advisor
The debate on the need for the Chief of Defence Staff gets usually resurrected when a service chief is about to retire. For example, the army chief, General J.J. Singh has recently said that time is not ripe for having the CDS. India needs to first calm the insurgencies in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast. The unresolved borders with Pakistan and China should be settled. Next, there should be integrated ‘Theatre Command’ comprising personnel from the military, and experts from the defence and external affairs ministries. Only when all this is accomplished, the CDS could be appointed as the single window military advisor to the government.
This is not all. General J.J. who is also the chairman, chiefs of staff committee (COSC) expressed complete satisfaction with the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar command (ANC) and the Strategic Force Command (SFC). He was inaugurating the Centre of Joint Warfare Studies under the Integrated Defence Headquarters that he hoped would excel itself. Not to miss another joint command, the army chief said that the aerospace command would soon be a reality. His reasons for not having the CDS are understandable from the army’s perspective. The other two services do not agree with him for their own reasons. For example, a former chief of air staff told me that he opposed the CDS not because he was wary of the CDS from the army or navy, but from this own service.
Elaborating, he said that as the single point military advisor, he would go to the government to give advice on aerospace matters confident that he knows more than the serving air force chief. There is of course more to the issue than he said. Left unsaid by him is the air force’s apprehension that the CDS from the army would pitch for a greater support role for air power to land forces, something anathema to the service. The navy that is removed from the air-land battle to be fought with Pakistan is probably most candid about the CDS. The recently retired chief of naval staff, Admiral Arun Prakash who also held the post of chairman, COSC has repeatedly emphasised on the need for the CDS. As a dispassionate observer, I completely agree with the admiral.
There are three compelling reasons why India needs the CDS. India needs a credible minimum deterrence that is not possible without the CDS. At present, the commander-in-chief, SFC, a three-star military officer reports to the COSC and the National Security Advisor, both of whom have sundry tasks to handle, strategic forces being one of them. Shrouded in utmost secrecy, this is certainly not the most important job for them as it remains beyond the scrutiny of the assertive media. Considering that India has entered into a nuclear deal with the US, the need for the CDS to administer strategic forces assumes criticality. Leave alone the SFC, the tri-service ANC leaves much to be desired. Repeated requests by FORCE to visit ANC for a cover story have been turned down on grounds that it is a sensitive matter. Considering that India desires a strategic role for itself, such requests by the media should indeed be welcome. Unless of course there are issues to be hidden in terms of services’ bickering over the ANC. Former ANC commanders tell me that this indeed is the case.
This then is the other reason why we need the CDS. Complete ‘jointness’ between the defence services is not possible without the CDS. And there are two reasons for complete jointness: One, against a nuclear backdrop, the window of opportunity for a conventional war with Pakistan is extremely limited in time and space. This requires excellent synergy for decisive operational results. Two, India has embarked upon the strategic reach option for its armed forces. Once the services go beyond the tactical interactions with friendly defence services (which is what they are doing at present), the need for inter-services jointness would become paramount. Considering that India is buying foreign equipment for credible strategic reach capabilities, it would not be long before New Delhi will need to decide on advanced military exercises with friendly powers. As of now, the air force does not agree with this thinking. It says that good coordination between services through the COSC that already exists is sufficient. If this was indeed true, why did the 2001 Group of Ministers report say that: ‘The COSC has been unable to fulfil its mandate’? The third reason is that the CDS as the single point advisor, like the NSA, should be present at most Cabinet Committee on National Security meetings presided by the Prime Minister. He, unlike the three service chiefs will be the strategic player. The service chiefs as top operational commanders will be responsible for their services implying that on service matters, they, and not the CDS will render advice to the political leadership. At present, the defence services do not have a strategic role. This is incongruous with the bigger role that India desires to play in Asia. The CDS is no longer a debate, but is a requirement whose time has come. He will not be the single point military advisor but the single point strategic advisor.