Military restructuring: India needs a CDS with full operational powers, not bureaucratic 'games'
India needs a CDS with full operational powers, a merged HQ IDS with MoD and integrated theatre commands, functional commands, all done in a cohesive manner
The media is yet again in hyperdrive over the possibility of a military restructuring in the country: With ongoing talks of appointing a single-point military adviser, tri-service commands/integrated theatre commands/China-style commands being formed, synergy being brought into the military; all signalling that the greatest ever restructuring of the Indian military is in the works.
But somehow, we fail to remember that similar hype over the restructuring is created periodically; which may well be termed as the bureaucratic “great game”. Reference to political masters is irrelevant here because they depend on the bureaucracy; and as the bureaucracy says, “governments come and governments go, but we are there forever."
New chapters in the 'great game' have unfolded from time to time, with some resulting in minor tinkering. To say that the present hype is more than just a political statement, with policy makers taking defence seriously, doesn’t gel well after the second successive negative Defence Budget announced on 1 February – which meets vital criticalities of operational components only fractionally, not the dearth of ammunition.
No amount of paid news or articles inserted by former defence accounts employees can convince that the current budget allocation is a right mix for the economy and national security, as they apparently have little idea of the rising security threats to the country and about how hollow the military has been made over the past years.
In the mid-1980s, symbolic cross services postings amongst the three Services Headquarters were affected; one-two officers posted in directorates dealing with operations, perspective planning etc. Subsequently, the Services Headquarters were renamed as Integrated Headquarters (IHQ) of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) (army/navy/air force).
That was the end of the ‘synergy’, but the media became used to announcing that the army, navy and air force headquarters had fully integrated with the MoD. Post the Kargil conflict, the then defence minister George Fernandes established the HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), which was to be an integral part of the MoD.
However, it came up as a separate HQ (just like another Service HQ) and when Fernandes expressed views to the contrary and tried to push for other reforms, the ‘deep state’ (elucidated in the NN Vohra Committee Report of 1993) implicated him in the ‘coffin scam’, forcing his resignation – a charge of which he was exonerated years after his demise.
Take the present instance where, instead of appointing a Deputy National Security Advisor (NSA) from the military, the sole two star military post in the national security advisory board (NSAB) has been eliminated. The 'deep state' would reason that the NSA can summon Service Chiefs for advice, as done during the Pathankot IAF base terror attack. It sure helps cover up ground realities even if smoke from fires is wafting out.
Both the Kargil Review Committee and the follow up Group of Ministers, headed by the then deputy prime minister and home minister LK Advani, had strongly recommended appointing a chief of defence staff (CDS). But, 18 years after the Kargil Conflict, where are we?
The excuse of differences amongst the army, navy and air force continues to be played out, even though the Service Chiefs unanimously affirmed to the then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee (now President) during a tri-services meeting on 8 September, 2005 that not only a CDS must be appointed immediately, he must be given “full operational powers."
Twelve years after the Kargil Conflict, the government appointed the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2011 to review defence management. This committee, in its report submitted in 2012, recommended appointing a permanent chairman to the chiefs of staff committee (PC COSC) instead of a CDS. In December 2013, media reports reflected that the government was planning to appoint a PC COSC “shortly”.
Subsequently, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar stated during the India Today Conclave in March 2015 that the CDS position was a must and hoped to propose a mechanism for the creation of the post within the next three months. In July 2015, media reported that the proposal to create the new post of a PC COSC was in "an advanced stage of planning". Not surprisingly, a faux pas has emerged on whether a CDS or a PC COSC will be appointed. A national daily mentions “consensus” about having a PC COSC instead of a CDS – but consensus amongst whom?
In 2005, news appeared that an Aerospace Command would be established “soon”, till the issue was killed because of a purported turf war between the navy and air force. Last year, there was much talk about the government being very keen to establish the Special Operations Command, Cyber Command and Aerospace Command, as proposed by the Naresh Chandra Committee.
But after the usual excitement, the issue was drowned among reports that the government wants the military to first create such capabilities before raising these commands. In the case of Cyber and Aerospace Commands, it was reasoned that if the military could create the required capabilities within the existing structures, then why would they need these commands?
In the case of special operations, the policy makers' unwillingness to think beyond direct type of raids was reflected in their argument that what capabilities does the military need to create beyond the existing capability.
As to the tri-service/theatre commands, what are we really looking at? A media report quotes a “South Block source” as saying that the government is looking at: Integrated Commands broadly based on the US military command structure, with theatre commanders reporting to the defence minister and ultimately to the prime minister; Western Command facing Pakistan likely stretching from Karakoram pass in Jammu & Kashmir to Kanyakumari, with complements of army, navy, air force integrated; Northern Command likely responsible for Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and borders with Nepal and Bhutan; Eastern Command likely responsible for borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar; Strategic Command and Transport Command based on functionality with pooled resources; and the Indian Ocean Command likely responsible for all seaboards and protecting Indian influence from Gulf of Aden to Malacca Straits.
Now here is the catch: With the CDS/PC COSC charged with only ‘acquisition and logistics’ and without any operational powers, he will merely play the role of an emoji for the MoD’s bureaucracy; the vital necessity of merging HQ IDS with MoD has been cunningly deflected; reports about middle rung posts in MoD being identified for manning by MoD indicates that bureaucracy will retain full control; without a merger of HQ IDS with MoD, induction of military professionals at the senior level in MoD and an impotent CDS/PC COSC, this so called “greatest restructuring” will be largely regressive.
Now this raises some important questions: With all theatre commanders reporting to the defence minister (through bureaucratic filters), will the Service Chiefs be left looking after logistics and acquisitions only? Do we require a Naval Chief with the Indian Ocean Theatre Commander directly under the defence minister? What muscle is being provided for these restructured commands?
If the so called single-point military adviser is not a CDS, with full operational powers, the whole exercise will be a waste.
The CDS must actually be a “single-point military adviser”, overruling what the bureaucracy craftily scripted in the CDS note under which HQ IDS was raised, wherein it said that, “As and when a CDS is established, he will have equal voting rights as the Service Chiefs and if two Service Chiefs disagree, MoD (read babus) will arbitrate”.
This line must be deleted because the CDS can hardly be a single-point adviser with such slanderous provisions. As for the MoD, we want to copy the US structures only to the point where it suits the bureaucracy. In China’s Central Military Commission, all members less, the defence minister, are military. Even Chairman of CMC (President Xi Jinping) has donned a military uniform as commander-in-chief of People's Liberation Army. In our case, the grossly, inadequately restructured MoD only facilitates continuation of bureaucratic rule.
This gives rise to two pertinent questions: Why, with all the importance of the Indian Ocean, is the MoD sitting on navy’s case for a Marine Brigade for the past 20 years. And why is it that the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) has not been given adequate teeth, when this group of islands is a natural aircraft carrier adjacent to the Straits of Malacca?
The bottom-line is that if we are not going in for establishing a CDS with full operational powers, merging the HQ IDS with MoD fully and then establishing integrated theatre commands and integrated functional commands in a cohesive manner, it would be a fruitless exercise. But then, this requires a rare quality of political leadership that can stand up to the 'deep state'.
The author is a retired Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army
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