India desperately needs a chief of defence staff

Brig SK Chatterji (retd)
Brig SK Chatterji (retd)Jun 30, 2017 | 16:50

India desperately needs a chief of defence staff

The dynamics of modern battlefields call for joint planning and conduct of operations by amalgamating all three services — the Army, Navy and Air Force — under a joint commander. It also calls for joint training, integrated logistics and compatible equipment.

Over 65 countries have gone in for joint models each suited to its own conditions. These include all the major powers. Amongst the late entrants to this joint-manship club are China and Pakistan. However, 70 years after independence, and five wars that threw up a whole mountain of lessons learnt, we are miles away from such an optimised model for fielding our military prowess.


The current model that we have is of three services having their own chiefs, while one of them officiates as the chairman, chiefs of staff committee (COSC) based on his seniority in the rank of chief. The chairman COSC is served by Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). He thus wears two hats; his own service and that of the chairman COSC.

If jointmanship is to progress, there are two options. The first option is to appoint a permanent chairman for COSC who will not really have a say in operational matters. The other would be to appoint a chief of defence staff who will be the final authority in terms operational planning, intelligence, force allocation to integrated theatre commands that will replace our existing system of separate command headquarters of all three services.

We have also had a few reports by various committees that addressed the gamut of national security. These include the Kargil Review Committee Report and a group of ministers (GoM) report in 2000-2001.

In 2011, the government ordered the Naresh Chandra Committee; supplemented lately by the Shekatkar Committee report. All these reports have advanced jointmanship as a prime necessity for force structure modernisation. The reports have also underlined the necessity of appointing either a chief of defence staff (CDS) or a permanent chairman (COSC), with the GoM opting for CDS, while the Naresh Chandra Committee votes for a permanent chairman (COSC).


A small section also continues to ideate and inform our political leadership that so much of power to one man, what if he stages a coup?

The reports notwithstanding, so far, the only tangible proof of progress that we have is the re-designation of the Ministry of Defence as integrated headquarters without the requisite structural changes to ensure specialist military advice being available. Decision-making is based on professional expertise built into its staffing model. As of now, overworked joint secretaries take decisions without a fuller understanding of the issues on table.

The other examples of jointmanship that we have been able to kick-start are the tri-service command at Andaman and Nicobar Islands, strategic forces command and a few training institutions being placed under headquarters IDS. It’s doubtful whether such limited endeavours can be called progress. In our chase to optimise force employment, or floral tributes, we have tacitly created to burry jointmanship beneath their foliage.

The naysayers for permanent chairman COSC or CDS are many. To start with they are within the three services. But, that’s not uncommon. The Americans required a legislative act and some five-odd chiefs going home before jointmanship could be rolled out.


In our case, the not-so-uncommon turf battles inevitably prevail. The Air Force will find it difficult putting its heart in it. They will lose the most. Today the biggest Air Force globally is the US Navy Air Force, not US Air Force.

Also, in the ranks of naysayers are the bureaucrats. Get a CDS in South Block and he becomes the prime adviser to the raksha mantri (defence minister) and the PM and thereby governments. The defence secretary loses some turf.

A small section also continues to ideate and inform our political leadership that "so much of power to one man (the CDS) is not advisable, what if he stages a coup"?

A gullible segment among the top leadership believes the possibility of the improbable becoming probable. They don’t realise that the combat resources will be under several theatre commanders, not the CDS. Even today, the Army commanders command their armies. The chief of army staff’s loyal entourage is limited to his staff officers and ADCs.

There are a few other problems. Will joint theatre commands subsume the current operational commands of the three services?

Put together, the three services have over a dozen-and-a-half commands; both territorial and function specific. Manning these organisations provides vacancies for a lot of senior ranks. As such, promotional prospects in the forces cannot be compared with other civil services and early supersession leads to high dissatisfaction levels. Nor can these numerous organisations be suddenly wound up without incredible loss to operational efficiency.

The need is to first decide on the rationale for creating joint commands. Should it be on geographical basis or also take into consideration threats. Certain areas like cyber, space, information operations, special forces require separate commands. Should we amalgamate all/some of these and bundle as a part of strategic forces command, or raise independent commands? 

The other rather steep roadblock encountered too often is the reluctance of the government to sanction additional manpower. The issue can be obviated by nominating the existing command headquarters of the service nominated to lead the particular joint command as the pivot on which the others services will build up. The build up would be based in parts by milking existing command headquarters of all three services, supplemented by some additional vacancies being released. This issue of manpower provision needs to be resolved.

Mundane as it may appear, our arcane functioning stops files of momentous import even on such counts.

The issue remains, should we opt for a permanent chairman, chiefs of staff committee or a chief of defence staff? Initially, it may be easier to opt for permanent chairman, COSC. The mandate for the permanent chairman will include functioning of already established joint organisations, procurement of weapon systems, standardisation between the services, overlooking joint training organisations and integration of logistics. 

Simultaneously, the division of responsibilities in varied functional areas between the CDS and service Chiefs will need to be decided upon. The exact division of functions between the CDS and the chiefs requires absolute clarity. This phase should also be utilised for cross pollination of headquarters of various services by officers of the other services. Such a cadre of officers will be required by the CDS, once the office comes into being.

The appointment of the chief of defence staff needs to be made in the next few years and operational and intelligence aspects along with other functional areas as identified, will need to be vested in him.

Simultaneous with the appointment of CDS, theatre commands integrating the three services needs to be undertaken. The CDS would also be the single point of contact for the political leadership. The three chiefs will remain responsible for recruitment, training, equipping, and maintaining their respective force.

There would be turbulence while these changes are executed, however, the system will stabilise in the next couple of years and while ensuring optimisation of capabilities will also lead to savings. The transformation is already overdue and needs to be executed without wasting any more time.

Last updated: June 30, 2017 | 16:50
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