Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement on the formation of the chief of defence staff (CDS) during the Independence Day speech has fired several debates on the new post. People tried to define the new post on social media as superior to all three defence chiefs, or a super general who has the power to lead any battalion on a mission.
But in reality, the CDS is not a superior officer nor is it a new concept.
An officer in the rank of the three defence chiefs or one rank above them would be the CDS. However, the CDS would not have commanding power over military operations. The CDS would not have any authority over the defence chiefs or operational powers even over a soldier.
The idea of the CDS had been mooted by several panels and people since the 1960s. K Subrahmanyam led high-level committee, set up after the 1999 Kargil War, had recommended the appointment of such a defence chief. The council of ministers led by the then Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, who studied this report, had also put forth such a demand. Naresh Chandra Committee in 2011 and the Lieutenant General Shekatkar Committee had also strongly recommended for this post.
The 'star' power
All the defence chiefs - Army General, Navy Admiral and Air Force Air Chief Marshal - are four-star officers. These stars adorn their uniforms and are found even on the number plates of their official cars.
As per the defence rank structure, there are five-star ranks too above them. Field Marshal for the Army, Admiral of the Fleets for Navy, and Marshal of the Air Force for the IAF would be the five-star rank officers.
Though officers in these ranks function in foreign countries, they do not exist in India. Army chiefs Sam Manekshaw and K M Cariappa were accorded the five-star rank as an honorary step after their retirements.
However, most of the committees who recommended for a CDS did not seek the appointment of an officer with a five-star rank. Their suggestion was for a fourth officer who is on par with the three defence chiefs (four-star rank). This is most likely to be implemented.
Why the fourth officer
There are two main roles of defence chiefs - 1) operational commander and 2) strategic doctrines and advising the ruling administration of the long-term weapon requirement. The advice or the recommendations are not directly given to the cabinet but through defence secretary and defence minister.
Most of the time, the advice reaches the state in a lopsided manner as per the interests of the civil bureaucracy.
Instead of this, a senior defence officer would enquire about the requirements of the three defence forces, these would be studied by the expert staff committee and then directly communicated to the State. This is the new concept being mooted.
As the same chief is tasked with both operational command and planning responsibilities, it was found that adequate preparations on impending security crises were not often made.
The current structure
The three chiefs currently discuss defence strategies in the Chief of Staff council. The senior-most of the three chiefs would be the chairman of this council.
After discussing the defence functioning and the future strategies, these three chiefs would appraise the State of the details. However, the trio would often have three different interests.
For instance, when discussions were on increasing the combat strength against China, the Army sought for the formation of a core army, Navy demanded a naval fleet capable of striking till the Pacific coast and the Air Force sought to deploy the fighter-bomber jets in the northern region. There was confusion over which combat method has to be adopted.
In such a scenario, the role of the CDS becomes crucial. By studying the three different aspects of all the suggestions such as less-expensive, easier to implement, and that does not affect other policies, the CDS would recommend the best option to the State. If the CDS is implemented, then the defence chiefs can focus better on the daily functioning of the forces and other activities.
Why an officer of the same rank?
If a five-star rank officer becomes the CDS, then the other defence chiefs, who only have four stars, would be forced to follow his orders. That's how the defence structure functions. This would become a commanding authority in time. The CDS would be able to command the defence forces. If it is of the same rank, then the officers can question one another and discuss issues as peers.
The defence command (for operational purposes) would be vested in the chiefs itself.
Both money, work can be saved
The other main task of the CDS would be to coordinate the requirements of each of the three defence forces. Currently, each defence force makes specific demands. This often leads to needless expenditure and requires double the work.
Take the example of combat helicopters. If all the defence forces need helicopters of similar calibre, each of their demand would reach the cabinet after passing through the various levels of the senior officers, including the defence secretary. The civil bureaucracy does not have the expertise to assess whether each defence force needs the said helicopter or whether the helicopter of the same range can be procured by changing the required technical aspects.
However, in the CDS model, the three chiefs would discuss this with the fourth officer. And the CDS would be able to make the apt decision. This can reduce the defence expenses to a large extent.
Not just the CDS...
Merely the formation of the CDS is not enough. All the high-power committees, including the Subrahmanyam panel, had recommended for an extensive restructuring of the defence forces. One suggestion was to restructure various military commands as per the region's power tactics. Each defence force has several regional commands. The Navy's south command is in Kochi, IAF's command is in Thiruvananthapuram and the Amry's command is in Pune. There is hardly any coordination between these three.
Only a joint command is needed in the southern region, as per the council's recommendation. All the three defence forces can undergo joint training, planning and operation at the command. Commanders can be assigned from each defence force in a rotational system.
This system is followed at Andamans, which has India's only joint command.
The other option would be to give prominence to one of the defence forces depending on the geography of the region. A naval officer should lead the south command which is crucial for the Navy. Army should be given prominence in the command guarding the western border. The IAF can be given priority in the northern command where the air force is needed to combat the Chinese forces. Most of the mighty nations follow such a system. China had recently shifted to such a model.
Why was CDS delayed for so long?
The CDS had to face opposition at three different levels. The first opposition was at the political level. In the years after India won its independence, the political top brass looked at the military with suspicion. The popular notion was that military generals, who were used to saluting the British king and Viceroys, looked down at the politicians with contempt. Also, the military was overpowering the rulers in the several newly-independent countries during that time. So, the political thinking was to keep the military away from the administrative functions.
The opposition by the civil democracy was another reason. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) lobby feared that their prominence would reduce after the defence officers get the nod to give military advice. Several defence officers believe that this administrative lobby had derailed the earlier recommendations for the CDS.
The final problem was the resistance within the defence forces itself. Though several expert committees had argued in favour of the CDS, the Air Force was against it. The IAF feared that the Army would get prominence in the CDS system. The Air Force let go off this argument very recently.
The CDS and the civilian administration
The formation of the CDS would not adversely affect the current civil-military relation. The supreme commander of the defence forces is the president.
The president discharges his duty as per the advice of the cabinet. The national security advisor of the prime minister advises the security committee of the cabinet. He is the head of the national security advisory board. The civilian officer is responsible for all issues concerning national and international security.
The CDS would be responsible for giving defence advise to the cabinet. This is different from the responsibility of the security adviser. The CDS would advise the cabinet only on defence matters such as what all combat weapons the defence forces would need in the next 10-15 years, whether the county has the technical knowledge to develop these, whether the rival country is focussing on naval strength or air force, on what should India focus to overcome that and so on.