Premvir Das: A chief by any other name

Last Updated: Sat, Oct 20, 2012 18:40 hrs

There has been no shortage of articles in the media, most recently by a former service chief, arguing for the creation of dedicated Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in the armed forces and of integrated theatre commands instead of the existing 17 individual service commands. The Naresh Chandra Committee constituted by the government to recommend measures to optimise higher defence management, has stopped short of recommending creation of either a CDS or theatre commands. It is not known which of the recommendations of this new report have been accepted by government but this discussion is only about highlighting why this whole question of having a CDS is just much ado about nothing.

Recently, after several years of “examination”, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) “decided” that henceforth, attack helicopters will be operated by the army and not the air force. This decision follows sustained demands by one service and vehement opposition by the other. What is ironical is that the two services, despite years of verbal and written conflict, were unable to come to an understanding and it required the MoD to finally act as the arbiter. Since the minister himself is not expected to have enough knowledge of these predominantly professional issues, what we are seeing is the bureaucracy taking a view, getting the minister’s OK (or ‘blessings’, in Indian bureaucratese) and telling the two contending branches of the armed forces what is best in their professional affairs. In short, doing for them what they could quite easily have done themselves.

A similar situation arose in the mid-1970s. The navy depends upon air surveillance at sea for domain awareness and anti-submarine warfare. This need was being met, in some limited way, by Super Constellation aircraft operated by the air force. For many years the navy argued that air operations at sea required the closest understanding between the ships and surveillance aircraft, which was not possible under the prevailing arrangements, asking that the maritime air surveillance task should be transferred to the navy. The air force response was on expected lines — air assets must be optimised under one authority, pilots have no difficulty in adjusting to operations at sea, the navy will not be able to operate and maintain these large multi-engine aircraft and so on. At this time plans were afoot to acquire some anti-submarine and surveillance aircraft (Ilyushin-38s) from the then Soviet Union and the battle for control raged furiously. In one of the most amazing notes written, the then air chief submitted to the minister that the air force would be seriously demoralised if the maritime surveillance task and assets were to be transferred to the navy. Since the two chiefs could not agree it was left to the MoD mandarins to take a view and a decision was duly received, signed by the defence secretary — just as now — stating that command and control of the IL-38 aircraft would rest with the navy.

In both cases, actually, more can be cited: it was the defence secretary who functioned as a de facto CDS, not because he was delegated that power by any higher authority but because the service chiefs, unable to agree with each other, themselves left the decision making to him. This serious flaw in the functioning of our Chiefs of Staff Committee was commented upon adversely in the report of a group headed by the late K Subrahmanyam after the Kargil conflict which stated that the committee, as presently constituted, had not, over the years, been able to provide the government with useful advice on matters of importance. Following this, the Arun Singh Task Force examined these shortcomings and recommended that a dedicated CDS should be constituted as principal military adviser to the government, as was the case in almost all major countries. It is widely believed that then Prime Minister Vajpayee did not agree to this suggestion based on political inputs, but the fact is that sustained pressure was brought to bear on him by the entire community of retired air chiefs. Some years thereafter, an army chief, later to be appointed governor, also publicly stated that the Indian armed forces did not need a CDS. The Naresh Chandra group has also not been able to catch the bull by the horns; its recommendation to create a new post of chairman of the chiefs committee, without making him the principal military adviser, only puts in place a toothless tiger. This position exists in Pakistan and the incumbent looks after largely ceremonial business; there is no reason to expect anything different in India. And, therefore, the defence secretary will continue to act as the CDS, and the MoD bureaucracy, the determinant of inter-service disputes.

In any professional armed forces there will be differences of opinion among its constituents and, therefore, it is necessary to put in place a military authority with adequate experience and background which can examine these different points of view and decide one way or the other. If this is not there, the opposing positions will always have to be put up for decision to someone else and this authority does not have the necessary competence to make it. Even today, public posturing aside aside, service chiefs may well be happier without a CDS and content if an “outsider” acts that role. In short, there is need for introspection, not in the MoD, but in the armed forces. To differ on almost everything of substance in their own domain and then to decry decision making by some adjudicator is just laughable. The fault, dear chiefs, lies not in the MoD babus but in ourselves. The former chief is right: promote seriously the concept of a principal military adviser of whatever name, assume your rightful roles as chiefs of staff and let integrated theatre commands look after operational responsibility. That is the way ahead; else stop cribbing about the stranglehold exercised by the MoD bureaucracy.

The writer was a member of the Arun Singh Task Force on higher defence management. He has also served on the National Security Advisory Board

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