From the ramparts of the Red Fort as the tri-colour fluttered high on a rainy Thursday morning in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his government has decided to create the post of
Chief of Defence Staff.
If the decision fructifies, it will be the culmination of a long-drawn proposal that has seen much back and forth for nearly two decades.
What Does The Post Mean?
The Chief of Defence Staff will be an armed forces officer who will head the tri-services of Air Force, Navy and Army. In theory, the officer will be the single points person from the defence services who will directly coordinate with the political heads — the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister — on all issues related to the military.
Currently, India has a system through which the senior most chief of the tri-services is designated as the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC). But when the CoSC members interact with the political brass, it is through the Ministry of Defence setup, which is headed by the defence secretary — an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer.
When Was This Idea Floated?
The idea of the Chief of Defence Staff was first formally mooted post the Kargil War. Defence analysts felt that the service chiefs needed more powers to ensure that the forces were more than ready to tackle any external threat. In 2007, writing in IDSA’s Journal of Defence Studies, former governor of Assam and the then governor of
J&K Lt Gen (retd) S K Sinha highlighted the issue.
“The nomenclature of the three Chiefs was changed in 1955 from Commanders-in-Chief to Chiefs of Staff. This re-designation has been both meaningless and misleading. In our setup, the Chiefs of Staff are not part of the Ministry. They are not authorised to take any decision on behalf of the Government nor issue any Government orders. These functions are performed by civil officials in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The Service Chiefs continue to function as Commanders-in- Chief of their Service. Thus, it is a misnomer to call our Service Chiefs, Chiefs of Staff,”
In 2012, another panel headed by Naresh Chandra recommended a permanent chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Committee.
The Reason For The Delay
So why did we not see any progress in appointing a head of the Indian Armed Forces?
Lt Gen Sinha’s article provides some clue.
“First, is the political leadership’s fear of the man on the horse back. It is apprehended that the Defence Services will become too powerful and subvert civilian control over the military, a military coup will occur. Second, the opposition of the civilian bureaucracy to any arrangement in which their dominance and stranglehold over the higher defence set up is diminished. Third, the feeling among the smaller Services, particularly the Air Force, of Army dominance in defence policy formulation. Some fear that a CDS may lead to a situation like the one that prevailed before 1947 when the Army was the dominant Service. Fourth, is the inhibitions of serving Service Chiefs that their position would get undermined if the CDS were to be appointed. In a light hearted vein, it is often said that serving Service Chiefs are not enthusiastic about having a CDS but as their retirement approaches, they get converted to the idea of this appointment,” Sinha wrote.
On their part, past governments have kept the back end ready for a Chief of Defence Staff. For example, Integrated Defence Staff is already functional and reports to the Chiefs Of Staff Committee (CoSC). In addition, Tri Service Commands like the one in Andaman and Nicobar are also functional.
On paper, the Chief of Defence Staff is likely to take a lead in steering a National Security Policy from the point of view of the armed forces. The CDS will coordinate and synchronise the operations of all the armed services and at the same time have direct access to the political executive where he or she can pitch for faster resolution of procurement and strategic needs.
Will The Post Mean Anything?
But will the Modi government give enough operational freedom to the future CDS or will it be limited to being a ceremonial post? Remember that in April 2018, the Modi government had set up a Defence Planning Committee under National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. The panel has the three service chiefs, Foreign Secretary as well as Defence Secretary as members. Will the new Chief Of Defence Staff replace the National Security Adviser as the Defence Planning Committee or similar panels in the future?It remains to be seen if the Modi government has finally exorcised the fear of the political leadership of the “Man on the Horse back”