Debate Around Chief of Defense Staff and Unified Command

For the past few decades, the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC, COSC) has been much demanded reform in the Indian armed forces. Creation of this office was recommended by a committee in 2001 in the aftermath of the Kargil War, but so far no concrete decision was taken in this direction so far. The present Government is pushing for this historic reform. The government is now saying that this reform may happen within a year’s time frame. The government has also set up an 11 member committee under Gen Shekatkar towards this. This committee with submit its report in 90 days and government is expected to take a decision in this matter after this. We note here that this issue was mentioned in the BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 general elections. If this comes into force, the country will be taking a solid step towards unified command.

Key facts

  • The creation of an office of CDS and a unified command has been a long standing demand. It was one of the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC).
  • The Naresh Chandra Committee appinted by UPA Government in 2011 had also given recommendation in favour of this crucial reform. However, that report is classified and only some part of it were exposed to public when they leaked to media.

Questions to Analyze

  • Why a unified command system is necessary?
  • What are the criticisms for the adoption of CDS?
  • What is the Way forward?
Why a unified command system is necessary?

Firstly, most of the countries in the world have a successfully functioning unified command system which could be beneficial in the Indian context also. Apart from providing a single point advice to the government, the chief of defence staff will also help to portray India’s military as a single, viable and effective war machine.

Secondly, with the absence of any integrating mechanism between the three services there tends to be individual service turfs and infighting amongst them. Given the fact that use of maximum combat power at decisive period influences the outcome of the battle, lack of coordination among the three service chiefs is detrimental to the security of the nation in the event of a war. Interestingly, maximum combat power does not mean the sum of the forces used but it is the product of synergies achieved by the coherent use of arms and services.

The autonomous ways of functioning of the services have already taught us some valuable lessons during the previous wars. The best example is the minimal use of the Air Force against China in 1962 and Kargil incursions in 1999. In both these wars, the Indian Air Force had resisted the use of air power citing various reasons. It is alleged that in 1962 war air power was not all used and in 1999 Kargil war Air Force began its operation after many days too late perhaps after the orders of the central government. So, in order to address the anamolies, the Kargil Review committee headed by R.K. Subrahmanyam recommended for the creation of a unified command.

Also, the present challenges require the coordination among the three services. For instance, anti-piracy operations require the use of naval power supported by ground and air power. Similarly, anti-Maoist operations require the use of Army bolstered by air and naval power in coastal areas. These types of operations tend to benefit tremendously from a unified command.

Thirdly, the present system of military organization was adapted from the needs of the colonial power whose main aim was to subjugate the indigenous population but was not designed to handle external threats. The system did not undergo any major upgradation since then.

Fourthly, in the Indian context, there always exists a possibility of war at two fronts. In such a scenario, it would not be wise to expect the three services to fight the war with coordination and coherence leaving behind their infightings. Fighting war at two fronts requires joint strategy, judicious use of resources between the two fronts and unity of command, which can only be effectively handled by the CDS system.

Fifthly, the CDS system will be useful to procure compatible equipment, complimentary weapon systems for integrated deployment of combat elements. The CDS system will also help to reduce the need for over a dozen and a half commands at present to 6-8 theatre commands. Thereby it will help to save money and time. It will improve the decision making process.

Sixthly, at present the Chief of Staff Committee has been vested with inadequate executive power. The Chief of Staff Committee is an organization that is not more than a committee. The committee has limited to no executive power. The current system of command by committee is like if an Air Force official advises the service chief or a theater commander (usually Army) that air power is not required then the theater commander has no choice but to deploy army men without any support from the air force, risking the lives of men and outcome of the war.

Further, apart from Kargil review committee, the Group of Ministers (GOM) report under the Chairmanship of L.K. Advani, had also recommended a unified command system in 2001. The Cabinet Committee on Security after considering that report decided to consider the issue of CDS later. Since then, the creation of CDS has not been effected.

What are the criticisms for the adoption of CDS?

The main opposition comes from the political class as they feel threatened by a possible military takeover of the country by a powerful CDS. Also, the service chiefs of the three forces are not willing to part their powers and confine themselves to only staff functions. These factors played a role when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, wanted to make Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw as the CDS. The move was bitterly objected by the then air chief and the defence secretary.

What is the Way forward?

Already the 1962 and 1999 wars have taught the imperatives of a unified command, an important principle of war. With the present challenges, if we continue to ignore it we may have to end up paying a heavy price for our failure to establish a CDS. India can also emulate the U.S. on how to effectively use the enormous combat power.

The CDS proposed to be created should not only confine itself with advising the government on military affairs. The CDS should be brought out in its full spectrum. It should undertake theatre commands directly under it leaving only staff functions under the control of service chiefs. The easiest and fastest way to start effecting changes immediately is by establishing a Joint Chiefs of Defense Staff to co-ordinate operations and equipment.

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