CDS, a Tri-Service Titular head
IT is well understood that the current ruling dispensation in New Delhi promises a lot, but delivers little. Driven by the single point agenda to grab headlines, the government rarely puts in the hard work to work out the details for implementing the policies.
First with the OROP (one rank one pension) and now on the promise of creating a credible-the chief of defence staff (CDS) post, the Modi government has once again shortchanged the armed forces. The twin reasons behind the appointment of CDS are: Smoothen civil-military interactions by reforming and improving ministry of defence (MoD) policy and procedures; enhance military effectiveness through the establishment of joint theatre commands and by clearly defining problems of jointness and developing appropriate solutions. However, on both counts, the government’s decisions leave a lot to be desired, mainly because general Bipin Rawat, India’s first CDS, was appointed in a hurry, more to reward the general than to lay a solid foundation for a new institution.
With great fanfare, prime minister Modi had announced from the rampart of Red Fort that the Indian armed forces will soon have a CDS, a long pending demand of the services to harmonise the inter-service dynamics. However, what is significant is that the government’s move is aimed more at bringing about ceremonial and cosmetic changes rather than altering the organisation and operation of the MoD and its military components-the integrated defence staff (IDS), which was created in 2001. There is hardly any clarity on the roles and missions of CDS vis-a-vis the three service chiefs.
By creating the department of military affairs (DMA) within the ministry of defence (MoD), one is not sure as to how DMA and IDS would interact with each other? Will the roles and functions of the two overlap? The DMA will promote inter-services jointness in planning, integrated requirements, restructuring of military commands and indigenous equipment, a job which the IDS has been performing for the last 19 years. Ever since its inception, the IDS has been working on various issues concerning the jointness among three services. It has prepared the blueprints for effective establishment of joint military commands and effective joint training to prepare a cadre of officers rooted in the spirit of jointness.
With a well established IDS structure in place, all that the government had to do was appoint a single tri-service authority that would be senior to all the three service chiefs and would pursue jointness at a faster pace. But all that Modi government has done is to appoint a four-star general to replace chief of integrated defence staff (CIDS), a three-star general who advised the chairman chiefs of defence staff. The CDS will be the permanent chairman chiefs of defence staff, who will now command IDS as well as the newly created DMA.
The fact remains that the hopes that the CDS, a tri-service head, would be a single-point military adviser to the cabinet committee on security in times of crisis have been dashed. Instead what the government has given us is another four-star general, of secretary-level rank, who will probably report to the secretary defence in the MoD and will be “first among the equals”. As a commentator says, the CDS is a “punctured balloon”. The first among equals is not a philosophy that works in any armed force. Imagine can a PM be cabinet minister for all portfolios and be first among equals? Will civil services accept a cabinet secretary of secretary grade, with just the designation. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has been done to the status of CDS.
The CDS with no operational command over the three services will at best be a titular head. According to a senior defence expert, “the CDS will administer tri-service agencies with cyber and space commands under him; be a member of the defence acquisition council and the defence planning committee; function as military adviser to the nuclear command authority; usher inter-services jointness in operation, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance within three years of the first CDS assuming office; ensure optimisation of infrastructure; implement the five-year defence capital acquisition plan and two-year roll-on annual acquisition plans, and assign inter-services prioritisation to capital acquisition proposals based on an anticipated budget.” The DMA under CDS will deal with procurements barring the capital acquisitions, which will continue to remain under the charter of duties of the defence secretary. With such undefined roles and missions, it is difficult to imagine how the CDS would be able to enhance military effectiveness and promote the spirit of joint-manship among services.
On the civil-military aspects, the creation of DMA creates more problems than it solves. The relationship between defence secretary who is in-charge of India’s defence and the CDS heading the DMA in MoD is not likely to be smooth. We are likely to witness a bigger turf war between the two. And this tussle is likely to further vitiate the military’s equation with the civilian bureaucracy.
The prospects of increased tensions between the service chiefs and the CDS are also likely to surface on the issue of the definition of the roles and missions. How the four will jostle for space in the MoD is something we are likely to witness shortly. The controversy has already surfaced concerning the uniform that general Rawat has designed for himself in his quest to appear different from the army chief. Commenting on this unprecedented issue an erudite military expert wrote in the social media, the “ex-chief of the army staff, general Rawat, removed his shoulder badges of rank of a full general, on being appointed as the CDS. This is only an appointment to a post but is not a promotion. To be addressed as a general he has to wear his general’s rank and no other self-styled shoulder badges as apparently he has created like some dictators who created their fancy dresses”. These may appear to be small issues, but they should have been thought through, discussed and resolved before appointing the CDS. Yes overtime the major and minor issues will get resolved, but the issue is that government could have adopted a more nuanced approach in appointing the CDS and ensured a more organised transition to a new era of jointness.