A Chief of Defence Staff? The dire need for tri-service integration

Sixteen years ago, the Kargil Review Committee had highlighted the urgent need for a Chief of Defence Staff.

Published: 14th January 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 14th January 2017 11:16 AM   |  A+A-

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar

Sixteen years ago, the Kargil Review Committee had highlighted the urgent need for a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Success in modern warfare is contingent upon an integration of the efforts of three services on the battlefield. Victory is a byproduct of tri-service integration and planning. Armed Forces have to shed stovepiped views of service insularity, and think and act jointly.

Traditionally, services in all countries have tended to oppose jointness and integration. They have squabbled to preserve their turf and autonomy. The lessons of all conflicts since the World War II, however, have highlighted the need and tremendous impact of synergy on the battlefield. At the start of the war, the Germans shocked the Allies with their combination of Panzer tanks and Stuka Dive bombers. The Japanese shook the world by their use of aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbour. Fighters and bombers based on carriers wiped out the battleships of the American Pacific Fleet. India had thoroughly ingested the lessons of jointness in the World War II. In the battles of Imphal-Kohima, entire garrisons were maintained by air and supported by fighters and bombers.

Thus, Gen Auchinleck and Admiral Mountbatten laid the keel by establishing joint services institutions like the National Defence Academy, where cadets of all three services trained. Despite this jointness at the entry and mid-career level, integration at the top was patchy at best and usually depended on individual chemistry between the service chiefs. The bureaucrats encouraged inter-service squabbling as a petty tool of divide and rule, at the cost of effectiveness of the forces. During the 1965 War, disputes arose between the Army and Air Force on the quantum and type of close air support. This reoccurred during the Kargil War. All that they could do was take their case to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Both these institutions lacked in-house military expertise to adjudicate between the three services on operational matters. No wonder, the Kargil committee recommended the appointment of a CDS. The bureaucrats fobbed it off fearing emergence of a “military supremo”.

At first, the Air Force was opposed to the idea but later swung around to this view. Air Marshal Reddy as the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff was instrumental in sensitising Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar about the need for the appointment of a CDS. The Chinese and Pakistani forces have inculcated jointness. Both have Chairman Chiefs of Staff or their equivalents. It was dangerous to delay this much-needed reform for the sake of a petty politics. The US government had enforced jointness over their squabbling services by ramming the Gold Water-Nichols Act of 1986, literally, down their throats.

Parrikar has proved to be one of the most perceptive defence ministers in recent times. One of his best moves was to bid for a CDS in the latest shuffle of Army and Air Chiefs. Unfortunately, due to the preoccupation of the PMO with demonetisation, the issues got delinked. It can now be reconstructed in hindsight that MoD had probably sent two proposals—Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, senior-most of the Army commanders, to be elevated to the position of India’s first CDS (or its watered-down version of a Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee) instead of the current rotational and ceremonial appointment. Gen Rawat, third senior-most, was to become the Army Chief based on his extensive experience of operations in J&K and the Northeast.

Unfortunately, the government could not really make up its mind on the CDS, and in the bargain and under time pressure, it was forced to announce the next Army Chief. This now appeared a case of deep selection as Gen Rawat had superseded officers who were senior to him. The Opposition took the government to task and there was outcry in the media. This needless negativity could have been avoided had the government made both the announcements concurrently. As per unwritten convention, the two senior officers would now have resigned. Media reports indicated that government had asked them not to put in their papers and await its decision on the appointment of the CDS.

From Parrikar’s media statement, it now appears that the appointment of CDS is likely this year. Its early announcement would have obviated the needless carping and criticism the government had to face by announcing the COAS appointment in a standalone mode instead of a package which would detail both a CDS and an Army Chief. The seniority principle would have been upheld and two very qualified and competent Generals would have contributed positively from the word go instead of dealing with needless negativity. It’s now hoped that the government will at last appoint a CDS or at least, its watered down version.

The country must come first—always and anytime.

Maj. Gen. (Retd) G D Bakshi
War veteran and strategic analyst

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