Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally took the bull by the horns on Independence Day and announced the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff to fulfil a suggestion that entered strategic discourse way back in 1996, when it appeared in the National Democratic Alliance manifesto.

Thus, when the Bharatiya Janata Party first came to be at the helm of affairs in 1998, one of its two main promises was to enhance national security by integrating the three services into the Ministry of Defence and also to integrate defence planning and operations. This was meant to pave the way for a new system that would have given the military a greater role in making policies pertaining to national security as well as in managing itself. This did not happen for 21 years.

Much of this blame for the delay must fall on the services themselves. The politicians never understood the implications, even after China re-organised the People’s Liberation Army into theatre commands under the Central Military Commission. Modi gave us some idea what he has in mind when he announced that the new CDS will also be the government’s principal military advisor. Our military and civilian bureaucrats are capable of obstinate rearguard action and the Prime Minister’s Office must present them with a full and detailed plan with few options open.

Global practice

The need for integrated defence planning and operations need not be elaborated upon. Suffice to say that every major military power in the world has a combined defence organisation. It is only in countries where the services have a strong political tradition that separateness still prevails. In some countries these rivalries extend to ridiculous extents. In Argentina, the Navy is equipped with tanks, as it needs them to ward off possible Army assaults on its bases. Things are not so bad in India, but the rivalry between the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force has about the same keenness as the IAS-IPS rivalry.

It is generally agreed that India badly needs a Combined Defence Staff to integrate defence planning and operations. For a long time, it seemed that the Indian Air Force was marching to the beat of a different drummer. The consequence of this reluctance to plan and work together showed up in Kargil. The air force did not have the tactics and the appropriate weapons when called to assist the Indian Army.

Border Security Force personnel at a Republic Day Ceremony. Credit: Ahmad Masood/Reuters

So intent is the Indian Air Force on fighting its own wars that it even maintains a command system that is out of sync with the other two services. It has a Western Air Command headquartered in Delhi to ostensibly work with the Indian Army’s Northern and Western Commands that are headquartered near Chandigarh and Udhampur. The Indian Air Force has a Command headquartered near Ahmedabad that is apparently meant to function in tandem with the Army Command headquartered in Poona and the Navy Command in Mumbai. The air force’s Eastern Command is headquartered in Shillong, which does not even have an airfield, while the Army’s Eastern Command headquarters is located in Kolkata. Putting a Chief of Defence Staff in place must just be the first step before we create tri-service theatre commands.

Chopper debate

The Indian Air Force has a record of waging obdurate turf wars. It fought a long battle to keep all military helicopters under its control till good sense finally prevailed and the Army was given command of helicopters used for artillery spotting, anti-tank operations, tactical supply and medical evacuation. It all sounds a lot, but in reality means only Chetak helicopters. The Indian Air Force’s single-mindedness is best evidenced by the fact that it took it more than a decade to optimise a squadron of Jaguars for oceanside operations by fitting them with maritime radars. The air force has many other such feathers in its cap. It dragged its feet on MIG-21 modernisation for over a decade hoping for newer and more expensive aircraft. It then kept putting spokes in the evolution of the Light Combat Aircraft by constantly changing goalposts.

In recent times, the Indian Air Force waged a relentless campaign for the Rafale when it could have got half a dozen squadrons of modernized SU30’s or SU35’s with appropriately long-range missiles, such as the R77M or MBDA Meteor. Its not that the Army or Navy are wanting in similar cussedness, but its just that they do not have the same opportunity to be so as the air force is a capital intensive service and takes a major share of the defence allocations.

Similarly, the Indian Army relentlessly pursued the somewhat dubious quest for a “Strike Corps” for the mountains. It demanded and got a sanction of Rs.67,000 crores for this, and was unwilling to work with the air force on how best the borders with China can be secured. Now consider this. If these strike formations have to be rushed into active deployment, they will need to be acclimatised for about three weeks first. Then where is the holding capacity up in them mountains?

It is not that we do not have a joint chiefs system now. It is a rotational system with the senior-most chief as the chairman. They go even one better in Pakistan where they have a separate Chief of Defence Staff, four stars, house, flag and all, except that the job does not matter at all because it is the Chief of Army Staff who calls all the shots. Thus what happens is that the post is used to park a flunky or someone politically inconvenient.

The Pakistan example

We must ensure that our Chief of Defence Staff doesn’t end up like their Pakistani counterparts. A supernumery on a sideline. The chiefs will fight to hang on to their turf and they will fight to see that the CDS is another four-star job for one of their own. They will try their utmost to make the CDS the last among equals. What we need is a Commander-in-Chief who can whip the three services into a united, efficient and cost effective fighting machine. This person must be chosen on the basis of ability and not date of birth or entry into service. If we need to pin a fifth star on someone’s lapels to get this, we must not hesitate to do so. In matters relating to the military, it is better to have one chief rather than three or four.

The mere creation of a Chief of Defence Staff will not do the job unless it is followed up by the integration of operational commands. The military organisation needs to be restructured not only by allowing it to take part in the framing of policy, but also to make it more capable of implementing policy. The logical further development of a having a CDS is to have integrated theatre commands. It might even make sense to bring the Border Security Force and Coast Guard units in these theatres under the command of the theatre commanders.

The integration of the military is yet to happen, but it will have to follow. For that is the only way to go. The government seems willing and some day good sense will descend on the chiefs. That too is inevitable.