From the idyllic greens of the National Defence Academy to the corridors of South Block, the need for inter-service cohesion has always been acutely felt. At the NDA, a tri-services environment has ensured that young Cadets will always share a special bond with their course-mates, whichever service they join; a bond that will last beyond the grave. NDA was created in 1954 and this tri-services bonhomie that the Armed Forces are so proud of has always been limited to social gatherings, course get-togethers and chance meetings with course mates. There is no denying that it has always been a powerful bond. But this spirit, though powerful, did not reap operational benefits, simply because it was never operationalized.
The Kargil Review Committee Report was damning in its indictment. Inter-agency cooperation was largely on paper and interoperability, a myth. It has been widely accepted that the Kargil intrusions happened because of intelligence failure. That part is true. Also true is that Border Management and Higher Defence Management left a lot to be desired. At the cusp of the 21st Century, Indian Defence Management was still suffering from the colonial hangover of the security framework formulated by Lord Ismay and recommended by Lord Mountbatten. The country’s political leadership at that time, clueless about matters related to higher defence management, accepted the framework. And the framework did not change. Not for the external threats we faced and continue to face from Pakistan and China or for the rapid nuclearization in our neighborhood. It could not formulate a response to the global tectonic security changes during and after the cold war or hybrid conflicts that we see unfolding all around us.
When the Prime Minister first spoke to the nation about creating the position of Chief of Defence Staff on 15th August from the ramparts of the Red Fort, there were waves of excitement in the defence community, both serving and veterans. But there were also many questions. What would the contours of this position be? Would it have real teeth or would it be another layer of red tape in South Block? Would the services accept a CDS from another service?
That the bureaucracy effectively scuttled the Arun Singh Committee Report did not help. Control of spending is a touchy topic. The forces want more say in how the budget will be utilized. The bureaucracy sites “civilian supremacy” to scuttle any such move. When we speak about civil-military relations in India, we are actually largely speaking about the distrust between the bureaucracy and the military. The office of the Chief of Defence Staff seeks, amongst other things, to bridge this gap.
The CDS will be the permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). He will administer all tri-services organizations. Other responsibilities will be the Cyber and Space Commands and also the tri-services Andaman and Nicobar Command. While the creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) is a step in the right direction, what impact it will have on the existing Head Quarters of the Integrated Defence Staff is yet to be seen.
As the head of the DMA specifically, the CDS will hold a position equivalent to a Secretary. It must be stated for the record that as a four-star General, he is already senior to a Secretary. He will be the bridge between the three services and the Defence Minister. He will also be the principal adviser to the Defence Minister. As military advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority, member of the Defence Planning Council, Defence Planning Committee and the Defence Acquisition Council, the government has decided to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room; the Armed Forces will have a direct say, jointly, in defence planning, acquisition, planning and deployment of strategic assets.
The CDS will be at the helm of another radical change. The official press release mentions “Facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilization of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through the establishment of joint/theatre commands”.
There is a lot of discussion on what the CDS will do and what will be the contours of his authority. It is safe to assume that the position will take time to settle down and Gen Bipin Rawat will have to navigate the “not-so-friendly” corridors of bureaucratic power. The Arun Singh Committee Report is a case in point. Turfs are ferociously defended.
One could have varying views on the appointment of CDS and the benefits that are likely to accrue, many as they are. The biggest takeaway for me is ‘Jointness’, the ability of the Army, Navy and Air Force to fight a war as one seamless entity, operationally, tactically and strategically. Jointness is the Holy Grail that we all seek. It is something to be admired or feared.
It depends on which side of the border you are on.