Bottomline | Half Steps

CDS and Aerospace Command are a must for modernisation

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Defence minister A.K. Antony has repeatedly assured the defence services that modernisation will continue apace. This is a welcome development more so because there are certain critical operational gaps that need to be plugged by the new ‘fast track procurement’ procedure. Case in point is the acquisition of 40 Su-30 aircraft for the Indian Air Force required to arrest the fast depleting combat strength. However, acquisitions alone will not suffice. Considering that the perspective of the armed forces has undergone a metamorphosis to include roles and missions outside the geographical limits of India, certain organisational changes have become necessary. There is also the need to have a credible minimum deterrence. Moreover, the concept of war with the traditional adversary, Pakistan has changed; the next war will be short and intense to achieve desirable objectives below the nuclear threshold level, implying closer coordination between the army, navy and the air force. At the minimum, three organisational changes are a must to derive optimal results: Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Aerospace Command, and the service headquarters genuinely integrating with the defence ministry. The government in February 2001 in the ‘group of ministers’ report agreed on the need for the CDS, with three defined tasks: to provide single point military advice to the government (cabinet committee on security headed the Prime Minister), to exercise administrative control over strategic forces through the commander-in-chief Strategic Forces Command, to improve the intra and inter-services procurements prioritisation, and to ensure ‘jointness’ in the three services. In the absence of the CDS, it is a half-baked house.

The CCS does not get formalised regular military advice, the strategic forces command suffers from serious operational and administrative shortcomings, the acquisitions are both service-centric and ad hoc, and jointness for operations is a far cry. What exist are compromises that look decent during peacetime, but will have serious implications in war. It is known that the bureaucracy and the air force oppose the CDS; while the former does not want to loose powers to the CDS, the latter feels that, one, the army, that little understands the use of airpower will by its sheer size grab the CDS post, and two, the CDS if formed could lead to the creation of ‘theatre commands’ that it opposes. Unfortunately, the political leadership that barely understands military power agrees with the bureaucracy that toppling the applecart could be dangerous.

The case for the Aerospace Command is just the opposite. Here, the army opposes this because it does not fully appreciate its needs and thinks that the air force will eventually dominate it. The army has suggested that Aerospace Command could be under the Headquarters Integrated Command, an organisation that remains headless without the CDS and is really an administrative rather than an operational entity. Consequently, all three services are working on respective Network Centric Warfare (NCW) requirements, the system that will shorten the sensor-shooter loop by providing situation awareness simultaneously to all command levels. The air force meanwhile is hoping to set up an aerospace group within its resources that can interact better with ISRO for use of space for passive military requirements. However, in the face of this dissonance and intense inter-service rivalry, all three services claim that operational coordination has never been better. Yet, all three services have their own doctrines that highlight each service to be the winning one. This is not all. There is also the tri-services doctrine written by the Integrated Defence Headquarters that for obvious reasons has not been made public. Regarding the integration of the three service headquarters with the defence ministry, this has been done on paper and looks rather impressive. In reality, the service headquarters remain what they were: attached offices of the defence ministry where decision-making is an excruciatingly slow process.

All this must change if India believes that its armed forces have a meaningful role to play in the nation’s rising stature. Just the other day, a senior US diplomat was complaining that the Indian defence ministry does not have appropriate corresponding offices to the US set-up for meaningful interaction. What he was really saying was that Indian bureaucrats who know little about military matters are not suited to interact with the US military officials in the Pentagon. This indeed is the problem that can be removed only by political directive. Should this happen many more benefits will follow. For example, India and Pakistan have recently signed a nuclear risk reduction agreement that as of now is a low level effort. This means that in addition to strengthening existing communications between the two director generals military operations, the two foreign secretaries would also be on a hotline. Earlier the two countries had agreed on informing one another of ballistic missile test-firings by either side. The next logical step for both sides will be to have a manned nuclear risk reduction centre (NRRC) with dedicated staff in respective countries that should be linked with a hotline. The NRRC would be tasked to study nuclear thresholds and signal control and communications in crisis situations. This, of course, should be under the CDS. The existing chiefs of staff committee will neither have the time nor the authoritative weight to lead the NRRC.


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