The issue of the creation of a Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) for the Indian armed forces is one who’s fate has been the hostage of usually reluctant government discussions and opposition from various quarters. The issue was raised at the armed forces’ Unified Commanders Conference held last week.
There are many reasons cited by those reluctant or opposed to the idea of a CDS. Firstly, a future CDS is perceived to threaten the supremacy and the influence of the Indian civil service bureaucracy. While the standing of a future CDS in the governmental hierarchy is not yet clear, it is generally accepted that any CDS would be of five-star rank and not merely the equivalent of the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which is a position held by rotation of seniority by the four-star rank chiefs of the three services (The so-called first amongst equals). The five-star rank of Field Marshal and equivalent was only belatedly remembered and inducted in the government’s Warrant of Precedence last year after the death of Field Marshal Sam Mankeshaw and the controversial absence of senior government officials from the funeral of India’s greatest military hero.
The Warrant of Precedence is the Indian government’s declared protocol of hierarchy. The five-star rank was assigned to position number 12, which is also the position of the three service chiefs in the protocol hierarchy, after the death of Field Marshal Manekshaw. While the Warrant of Precedence is used for ceremonial events, it is significant in laying down hierarchies.
In the event a CDS is appointed, he would likely be of five-star rank, which has made the civil service bureaucracy insecure. This is because so far the five-star rank of Field Marshal has been a non-operational and largely ceremonial position. If however, a five-star rank CDS is appointed, his appointment is apprehended to likely challenge the exiting hierarchy. The head of the civil service bureaucracy, the Cabinet Secretary is at position number 11, just above the three service chiefs, who are of four-star rank. It must also be remembered that five-star rank officers do not retire.
There is also insecurity about the concentration of the powers of the armed forces in a single position. Scenarios of military takeovers are half-seriously conjured up and examples of India’s neighbors are cited, in an attempt to create apprehension about the appointment of a future CDS. “Let’s get one thing straight. The CDS is not going to replace the President of the Republic of India as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The proposed CDS is a position at the head of the armed forces to facilitate jointsmanship. Even in France, the UK or Canada, the CDS take their orders from the President, monarch or her representative,” says one senior officer.
There are also objections questioning the need for a CDS on the premise that ‘the system has worked well in the past’. “But it hasn’t!”, points out the officer. “Those who say this are not aware that lack of coordination between the armed forces in the past has been responsible for the loss of thousands of lives,” he says, explaining, “In past wars, lives and territory could have been saved if there had been better coordination between the armed forces. The Indian Air Force was relegated to a supply role in the 1962 war. We lost a lot in that war, of course, for other reasons as well.”
Some also question the need for a CDS for a country like India. ‘CDS is required for larger countries like the US, which operate across the world while we are only interested in guarding our borders’. This is an example of the sort of talk that is seen as short-sighted by the Indian security establishment who are frustrated by the absence of strategic thought and the presence of the typically Indian attitude of disinterest towards planning ahead in those raising such objections. “So maybe we haven’t conducted operations in theaters around the world yet. But the way India is growing in economic and military strength and influence, we will also have crucial strategic interests around the world. Interests which have to be protected, for which we have to have the ability to operate in a wide range of regions. We have to plan ahead for this eventuality,” says the officer.
There also assumptions made that there would only be a single point of advice from the armed forces to the government if the position of CDS were to be created. “Of course not,” says the brasshat. “The CDS will not be the only interface between the armed forces and the government. He will facilitate greater communication between the two instead. While there may be a filtration process, all contingencies will be worked out whereby the armed forces will be able to provide the government all the necessary inputs,” he says.
Answering the charge of lack of consensus amongst the three services over the issue, he says, “But consensus and agreement have to be worked out. Jointsmanship wasn’t easy for the US either, but they managed to work it out and have achieved far greater operational efficiencies. So too with the UK, Canada and France and their CDS.,” he says, adding, “Who is appointed CDS and which service he belongs to are all organization issues that can be sorted out.”
“The issue of the creation of a CDS is actually one of jointsmanship in the armed forces. The reason for a CDS is that there is no apparatus for taking strategic policy decisions at the Ministry of Defense. The senior civil service is more or less serving their term until they get transferred to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare or Tourism or something. We need a system for strategic thought and jointsmanship at the Ministry of Defense, something for which the civil service bureaucracy isn’t trained,” he explains, adding, “Operational necessities require single-point decision-making, having fully appreciated the inputs of the three services. So far the armed forces are isolated from the decision-making structure, where policy is discussed by bureaucrats without proper appreciation of the requirements of the services and operational demands. Ironically, the civil services claim ‘the armed forces wield enormous influence on decision-making and the Defense Secretary is the weakest Secretary to the Government of India of a ministry that has the highest budget’. Nothing could be further from the truth.”