CDS is the single point military advisor to Indian government

Indian Army’s T-90 Bhishma tanks (front) are driving during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India, January 26, 2016. REUTERS-Altaf Hussain

Towards the end of 2019, the government decided to appoint the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), which is being considered as   the most significant initiative during the past 50 years or so, to revamp India’s defence establishment.

As widely expected, General Bipin Rawat was handed over the coveted new post, without making him a 5-star General. He will be the senior most defence officer, yet “first among equals” with the defence chiefs. He will also be the Secretary of the newly established Department of Military Affairs in the ministry of defence. Soon after his taking over on 01 January 2020, the CDS started a flurry of time-bound activity, which would eventually shake-up and reorganize the existing military organization of our country.

A large number of people are wondering as to what was the dire necessity of this upheaval at this point in time. But the fact remains, that the need for this upgrade had been discussed or demanded for quite sometime now, and certainly, not without adequate justification.

Following the Kargil Conflict in 1999, the Kargil Review Committee headed by K. Subrahmanyam, had officially suggested to appoint the CDS, but due to the lack of political consensus and apprehensions among defence services, the proposal could not be implemented. The CDS has now assumed the role of being the single point military advisor to the government.

Significantly, his charter of responsibilities also entails integrating operations of the three forces as required by modern warfare and creating theatre commands to augment combat capabilities. He is required to reduce wasteful expenditure and ensure optimal utilisation of infrastructure. These organizational changes are considered extremely essential to ensure jointness and synergy between the three services. Reasons for such restructuring certainly have two dimensions, economic and strategic.

Focussing on economic aspects, as of now, India remains the fourth largest defence spender as well as second largest importer of arms in the world. Defence allocation of Rs 4.7 Lakh Crore in India’s budget for the year 2020-2021 is the highest among all ministries.

Yet, ballooning salary and pension bills, along with day-to-day running expenditure, does not leave much for new military modernization projects after “committed liabilities” are paid for arms deals earlier signed. Even prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, India’s economy was not doing too well, and owing to enormous disruption caused by this pandemic, serious economic slowdown is here to stay for a while. Therefore, an urgent need is felt by the government to grossly cutdown costs by slashing the non-operational manpower and at the same time, integrating and optimally utilising the existing man and material resources currently available with our armed forces. The present hierarchical order and organization of our defence forces are obviously not in a position to sustain such drastic changes of integration.

Post Covid-19 pandemic, which may lead to emerging of new power- blocks in world politics, India’s strategic needs to effectively deal with a dominant China, Kashmir- obsessed Pakistan and other not- so friendly neighbours, would certainly not reduce and may perhaps demand more focus and allocation of additional resources.

Presently, Indian defence forces have 19 military commands: (Army-7, Air Force-7 & Navy-3 and 2 Joint commands). All these are located at various locations and control different geographical zones or specialized activities without many common attributes between them. We need to compare this scenario with other military powers of the world, such as China and US etc., to realistically assess our need to reorganize.

To illustrate, aiming to give more teeth to its defence forces, in 2016, China restructured its three defence arms into only 5 “theatre commands”. While China’s western command is required to deal with India and South Asia, its Southern Command strategically focuses on maritime requirements of South China Sea.

Similarly, other commands have also been formed. In addition, while implementing this reorganization, China had also planned to substantially reduce manpower. Similarly, even though US defence forces have a global role to play, yet they have only 9 Combatant Commands, which include 3 functional Combatant Commands and only 6 geographical Combatant Commands. Similar situation exists in a large number of other military powers of the world. If we take clues from such strategic concepts, India certainly needs to undertake substantial reforms, both in terms of reorganization and operational functioning. Nations have now realised that warfare can no longer be pursued by a single force alone.

Therefore, for India, one such suggestion is to establish 3 theatre commands:

  1. Western Theatre Command – Integrating all army, air assets facing Pakistan
  2. Eastern Theatre Command – Integrating all army, air assets facing China
  3. Southern Theatre Command – Integrating army, air & naval assets of peninsular India (India surrounded by Arabian Sea on west, Bay of Bengal on east & Indian Ocean down south)

Additional commands to include:

*Integrated Air Defence Command pooling all air defence assets

*Strategic Forces Command for nuclear delivery systems

*Integrated Logistics Command for moving men & material

*Cyber Command for offensive cyber operations

*Special Forces Command integrating special operations from 3 services

*Space Command integrating all satellite assets.

Towards achieving similar aims in a timebound manner, newly organized department of military affairs consists of a blend of military and civilian officers under the CDS. This department comprises 2 joint secretaries, 13 deputy secretaries and 25 under- secretaries.

In addition, a number of working groups have already been formed in Service HQs to work out the modalities of the proposed plans. Presently, proposals such as formation of a joint Air Defence Command, which combines army, navy and air force’s anti-aircraft weapons and creating common logistics support in stations, where more than one service is present, are presumably under active consideration of the CDS. In addition, CDS has asked defence services to have a major re-look at their operational priorities and what they really require, and not to insist on arms imports, which have become increasingly cost-prohibitive.

While the appointment of the CDS has been ostensibly welcomed by the defence chiefs and others, some significant issues, which may impact effective functioning of the CDS, both adversely and positively, deserve a mention. Some of these are briefly enumerated below:

  1. The concept of CDS being the ‘first among equals’ may not be the best option in a military set-up, where clear hierarchy and command are the bedrocks of the structured organization. Status of the CDS, one rank above the defence chiefs, would have certainly been more appropriate.
  2. Reorganization of defence organization would lead to substantial sharing of material resources and manpower, which may lead to considerable disputes or arguments. CDS would need extra discretion and competence to deal with such problematic situations.
  3. The 3 arms of defence forces are known to have different ways of functioning, varying perceptions, conceptions and loyalties. CDS will have to win the trust of the 3 services through skilful guidance and leadership to help men in different uniforms tide over inter-service rivalry on highest priority.
  4. On a positive note, unlike service chiefs, CDS being the secretary of newly formed department of military affairs, need not route his files through a secretary, and can directly approach the defence minister. However, as secretary, his status will remain at par with a service chief.
  5. CDS would not have any operational role and military command over the 3 service chiefs. However, he would be heading prestigious inter-service organizations and will also be performing vitally significant roles in the functioning of Defence Acquisition Council and Nuclear Command Authority.

Let us hope that CDS will be able to bring about the proposed revamping of the defence forces so that the Indian armed forces become additionally capable of meeting security challenges of the modern warfare by adopting an integrated approach towards defence strategy.




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