Restructuring the military

On August 15 this year, PM Modi announced the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

Restructuring the military

Wide-ranging: The CDS will have several sensitive responsibilities which go beyond ensuring ‘jointedness’ among the three wings of the armed forces.

Shyam Saran
Former foreign secy and ex-chairman, national security advisory board

On August 15 this year, PM Modi announced the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This decision was long overdue but had been held up because of a lack of consensus among serving chiefs of armed forces, who feared a loss of status and authority. Civilian bureaucracy and political leaders harboured fears of a more powerful military. It is hoped that the incumbent is selected judiciously and for his leadership qualities. His authority over the service chiefs should be unambiguous and he should be the single point of military advice to the government. It would be preferable that he is a 5-star officer who outranks service chiefs. Appointing the seniormost retiring service chief to the post for a fixed tenure of two to three years is a less effective option. First among equals rarely works in military hierarchies.

The CDS will have several key and sensitive responsibilities which go beyond ensuring ‘jointedness’ among the three wings of the armed forces. Modern warfare spans a wide threat spectrum, encompassing land, air, sea and nuclear domains which are integrated with cyber and space-based assets. Security challenges are further complicated by sub-conventional threats such as cross-border terrorism and non-traditional threats such as climate change. Integrated planning, coordination and command will be indispensable in responding to such threats and the CDS should be enabled through adequate resources and empowered with appropriate authority to undertake this urgent mission. The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) provides a rudimentary structure to support the CDS but will need to be significantly strengthened with qualified personnel drawn from multiple military and civilian domains. The current head of the IDS should become a deputy to the CDS. The IDS currently has skeletal capabilities in the new areas of cyber and space but these require significant enhancement. Each service has its own separate cyber centre in parallel and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has a Defence Cyber Ops Group. It may need to be examined how these separate entities should be brought under the overall authority of the CDS. There are proposals for the setting up of an integrated cyber and space command. In the interest of integrated planning and operations, these may need to be brought under the purview of the CDS but this needs further deliberation. It is also envisaged that the Defence Intelligence Agency will operate under the authority of the CDS.

There is some controversy over whether the setting up of the CDS should lead to the reorganisation of the military into integrated theatre commands reflecting the jointedness which is the objective of military reform. It is difficult to see how this can be avoided but it is possible that a transition period may be necessary to modify/augment the force structure. The CDS should be tasked to oversee this transition.

Lack of jointedness is not only a feature of the current military structure. There is also a serious lack of jointedness between civilian and military arms of governance. This also leads to civil-military tensions which may undermine national security. For this reason, recommendations have been made for the cross-posting of civilian and military officers in the MoD and in Service headquarters, so as to increase mutual familiarity and understanding. The IDS should also have a mix of civilian and military professionals in its ranks to support the CDS.

The CDS will be a key functionary in the national security architecture and will have to work in close coordination with other components of the architecture. His relationship with the NSA will be particularly important because both will be influential advisers to the political leadership on security issues. An immediate issue will be the relationship between the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) set up in 2018 under the chairmanship of the NSA, and with the membership of the foreign, defence and expenditure secretaries and the service chiefs. The IDS chief is its member secretary. The committee is tasked with formulating a national security strategy, drafting a 15-year defence capability plan, work on creating a defence manufacturing eco-system and engage in defence and foreign policy diplomacy. Would such an entity be necessary once the CDS is in place? If the DPC remains in place, would the CDS be a member and subordinate to the NSA, and would the service chiefs continue to be its members? These are important issues to sort out in advance.

The CDS will have a critical role as the head of the Strategic Forces Command. He will be the custodian of India’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems and oversee its further development and qualitative improvement. He will undertake a regular review of the evolving regional and global nuclear environment and how this will impact the country’s security. This is one of the most important reasons to have a CDS because it will fill a gap in the smooth functioning of the Nuclear Command Authority. A Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee who is in office by rotation for just a few months before retirement as a service chief precludes long term planning and the framing of an appropriate nuclear doctrine. The role of the CDS as the head of the strategic forces and his relationship with the NSA, who is secretary of the Nuclear Command Authority, needs to be spelt out to avoid any ambiguity in the chain of command.

The role and functions of the CDS is being deliberated upon in a committee headed by the NSA and with the same membership as the DPC. It is likely to deliver its recommendations in December. It is hoped that some of these issues will be taken into account.

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