It was an idea whose time had come. On 24 December, the government approved the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for the armed forces. The announcement was made 20 years after it was initially proposed by the Kargil and Arun Singh committees. The model adopted is almost akin to the UK system where there are two advisors to the defence minister, the CDS and the Principal Undersecretary for Defence. Presently there are questions being raised in some quarters on the impact of the government’s decision. In my opinion, this is a major step which needs to be nurtured and developed patiently, without stepping on many toes and damaging the complex environment in which the armed forces operate.

An analysis of the press release would convey that the government hopes this step would set the ball rolling for more positive changes in the management of defence. As per the announcement, the CDS is expected to wear multiple hats. First, he would be the permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). Second, he would administer all tri service organizations, while commanding the Andaman and Nicobar Command, Cyber and Space agencies. Other triservice organisations would function under nominated service chiefs. The creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) is a welcome step, though it renders the existing HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) partially redundant.

The DMA would have a mix of military and civilian staff and function as a separate vertical in the MoD. The CDS, as the head of the DMA, would hold a post equivalent to a secretary. This is the third hat he will wear and his role here requires clarification. As per the Transaction of Business rules 1961, all departments of the government are headed by Secretaries. As secretary DMA, the CDS would handle all military matters flowing from the services to the defence minister, as in the UK model. These have been removed from the existing charter of the defence secretary.

The defence secretary also coordinates the functioning of the MoD and would continue to do so. The appointment nowhere lowers his protocol, as his rank (four star), places him senior to all secretaries. The structuring of the DMA has yet to be determined. Being a separate vertical within the MoD, cases emanating from the DMA would move direct to the defence minister. Hence, a branch of the uniformed services has been included in the MoD for the first time. The other hats the CDS would wear includes that of the principal military advisor to the defence minister on tri-service matters, with service chiefs handling their own.

The MoD handles more than just military matters; the CDS’ role is restricted to military matters. Finally, the CDS would be the military advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority, member of the Defence Planning Council, Defence Planning Committee and the Defence Acquisition Council. A major change flows from this sentence of the official press release, ‘Facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands.’

Theatre commands cannot be established unless there has been an in-depth analysis of the same, especially in the Indian context. It cannot be copied from any global model. This would be amongst the CDS’s major responsibilities. Creation of theatre commands implies common laws for the three services as also enhancing joint training in major educational institutes of the services, which is presently superficial. There are no joint doctrines or concepts for war fighting. These need to be created. In addition, it is necessary to determine the number, structure, role, area of responsibility and command chain of theatre commands.

Merging independent logistic establishments of different services into a common logistics command needs analysis. Simultaneously, concerns of services also need to be addressed. All these would need study groups under the CDS, working on a time-bound schedule. The level of approval would be the cabinet as establishment and chain of reporting of theatre commands would need an Act of parliament. Joint planning and acquisition have been the bane of the services. As Admiral Arun Prakash stated, “there is rarely a meaningful debate amongst the informed professionals (the Armed Forces) because of the unstated understanding amongst the Chiefs that ‘if you don’t interfere with my plans, I’ll not comment on yours’.”

With this responsibility under the DMA, there would be better coordination of capability development. The CDS will also be responsible for Out of Area Contingencies. This implies that any deployment overseas will operate under the CDS, obviating the creation of adhoc commands. However, there are other actions which should be implemented by the government. The first is changing the Allocation of Business/Transaction of Business rules, to accommodate the appointment of a CDS. The second is changing responsibility of national defence from the defence minister and defence secretary to the defence minister and the CDS.

The next is determining what constitutes military matters. This may flow in subsequent discussions between the defence secretary and the CDS. The structuring of the DMA needs to be carefully evolved keeping seniority of military versus bureaucracy in mind. The organization of HQ IDS needs to be reassessed and its strength reduced to cater for the creation of DMA. The roles and task of the CDS have been announced despite seven decades of resistance. The appointment has not been given powers which it should have had.

However, these are early days. There is intense work to be done by the DMA in the coming years to make the system receptive to the idea of greater integration and jointness. There would be teething problems, however they would be overcome. Most important is the CDS must be given support from the MoD and service chiefs to enable the model to be a success and transform the forces into theatre commands at an early date. Military personnel, serving and veterans, need to be patient and let the appointment settle rather than raise voices against it, even before it takes root.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)