Soon after the Kargil war in 1999, a committee set up to examine the failures of that military campaign came up with a revolutionary proposal. It recommended that a post of chief of defence staff be created for “single-point advice” to the government of the day.

Close to 15 years on, the Narendra Modi government is considering turning the recommendation of the committee – led by the doyen of strategic thought, K Subrahmanyam – into reality. According to top government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, the decision could be taken “very soon” and the position created with the appointment of an Army general as the first chief of defence staff.

The current chief of Army staff, General Dalbir Singh Suhag, is set to retire on December 31. Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi, who is next in seniority, is expected to succeed him, as per tradition. However, there is talk that the Army’s current vice-chief, Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat, is also a contender. If the government decides to create the post of a chief of defence staff, one officer could be appointed Army chief and the other named to the new position.

Such a decision would be the single biggest reform in India’s higher defence management since Independence.

A 15-year debate

For over 15 years, this proposal has been debated and opposed by various quarters. During the National Democratic Alliance’s rule under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998-2004), lack of political consensus prevented the formation of such a position. Subsequently, reservations from the Indian Air Force ensured that the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government also did not go ahead with the appointment.

However, during General Bikram Singh’s time as Army chief in 2012-’14, the chiefs of all three armed forces jointly wrote to the government, accepting the proposal. But yet again, the government did not go ahead with the decision.

The defence forces have felt the need for a chief of defence staff for a while now, because of their lack of cohesion in military planning and with each service pulling in a different direction. As a short-term measure, the Vajpayee government had created an Integrated Defence Staff, but it was practically a defunct body, ignored by service headquarters. Headed by a lieutenant general, it was a three-star position while the three chiefs are all four-star appointments. The chief of defence staff, if the appointment comes through, would be a five-star appointment.

Consensus among the forces came through an informal understanding. The Indian Air Force took over the Strategic Forces Command that is in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal. The Navy had first preference over the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command. All three services are, therefore, in agreement that the first chief of defence staff should come from the Army.

The need for such a position has been felt by modern militaries across the world. In the United States, the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 led to the reorganisation of the US military’s higher defence management and elevated the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, a post that was first created in 1949, as first among equals. This body would not have any operational control over troops, but would serve as the principal adviser to the government. The United Kingdom, following a similar structure, has a chief of defence staff too.

The Kargil experience

For decades, a revolution in military affairs and the advent of a greater need for joint operations led to the requirement of a unified view that could be given to the political leadership. In India, this need was felt particularly during the Kargil war, which saw sharp differences between the Army and the Air Force over troop deployment. While the Army was keen that the Air Force be introduced early in the war, the latter was worried that this might lead to a major escalation of what was till then a limited conflict. In the end, the government decided to use air power, which made a major difference to the outcome of the war.

Eliminating the risk of an all-powerful military office that could lead to a coup, the chief of defence staff in India would not have any control over operational formations. This would ensure that the current command structure is not greatly disturbed with the creation of the new position. A parallel, but limited example, is the role played by the director of the Intelligence Bureau. He is the senior-most police officer, with a four-star ranking, and by convention, provides single-point advice to the government on a range of security issues.

While a chief of defence staff would ensure a unified view, the formation of such a position would also likely lead to confusion down the chain of the military hierarchy. This needs to be calibrated delicately. The government already has its hands full with the fallout of its demonetisation policy, security concerns after a spate of attacks on defence establishments from Pathankot to Uri and now Nagrota, and lingering protests over its implementation of the one-rank-one-pension scheme for ex-servicemen. In some quarters of the government, it has been argued that the appointment of a chief of defence staff would help it recover some lost ground in the armed forces constituency. Whether the government bites the bullet on this major reform remains to be seen.