CDS: An idea whose time has come
General NC Vij, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM

The Chief of Defence Staff is expected to render mature, single point advice while remaining a first among equals with the service chiefs.

The word on the grapevine is that the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), or at least its toned-down version, a Permanent Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (PCCSC), is round the corner. Briefly put, the case for a CDS has been built around the argument that it is necessary to have a professional body of the highest standing to facilitate 'jointmanship' and render single-point military advice to the government on matters of national security. The CDS was intended to reconcile possible differences in service-specific opinions to enable the government to arrive at considered military decisions. He was also to be an important link in the chain of the National Command Authority and render advice on the various facets involved in using nuclear weapons.

The institution of a CDS is best justified by the importance of strategising for a robust and cost-efficient national defence policy. Implicit in this is the role the CDS would play in fostering inter-services jointness in terms of budgeting, equipment purchases, training, joint doctrines and planning of military operations-an imperative of modern warfare.

Hitherto, besides the uncertainties of the government about the CDS concept, there were also many concerns within the services themselves. There was internal resistance stoked by a perceived fear of the marginalisation of service headquarters and the dilution of the defence bureaucracy's grip on military decision-making. And with the principled repudiation of nuclear assets as weapons of war, it was argued that a collegium of the National Security Advisor, service chiefs and Strategic Force Commander could best perform the advisory role on nuclear strategy. Lastly, the CDS was regarded as the harbinger of joint theatre commands, perceived as unworkable under the prevailing military leadership which was neither enthusiastic nor adequately experienced in inter-services operational command.

My response to such fears is that the existence of as many as 17 single-service Command HQs, contentious in their self-centric doctrinal focus and preparing for three different kinds of warfare, is little short of anarchy in this era of integrated military operations. Surely this must trump all objections to the CDS.

That said, some peculiarities of our operational compulsions still need to be considered. Most of India's land borders remain in a continuous state of volatility due to infiltration, incursions and the looming threat of territorial encroachment. Under these conditions, the army has to be in a perpetual state of readiness. When it has come to fighting wars, the army has carried the primary responsibility. In terms of future wars too, it would be the tool as well as target of conventional and tactical nuclear strikes. In military operations astride our borders, therefore, the army would have to bear primary responsibility and it would be imperative for the army chief to exercise centralised control over his war wherewithal. As for possible out-of-area operations like in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, a joint command could well be created.

The case I am making is that the CDS must be tailored and phased to meet our specific functional and operational requirements. It cannot be accomplished in a single all-encompassing step. And in service-specific operational and administrative matters, the primacy of the service chiefs would have to be retained.

To start with, a newly-appointed CDS could control the Strategic Force, Andaman and Nicobar Command, the futuristic Special Forces, Cyber and Space Commands, the National Defence University and Coast Guard. Most significantly, the appointee would exercise control over capital acquisitions and all joint services matters like joint military doctrine, force structuring and training.

Thus, in the first phase, the role and responsibilities of the CDS should cover the aforesaid aspects of joint management and planning and subsequently, over the next seven to 10 years, we could change to joint theatre commands.

The CDS is expected to render mature single-point advice while remaining a first among equals with the service chiefs. For this, the CDS must be duly empowered as the 'high arbitrator' on inter-services matters. The institution would need to synergise the integrated functions of the three services to propagate one strategy and back it up with tri-services capability building. Concomitantly, the service chiefs would have to retain their primacy in operational and command matters.

The time has come for the government to bite the bullet and institute the appointment of a CDS. As I have suggested, this must be accomplished through a process, one that will hopefully also catalyse change in our defence ministry. We should not be preparing to fight future wars with yesterday's force and command structure and training.

Published in India today on 11th May 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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