It would be no exaggeration to say that, after decades of procrastination by successive governments, the creation of two new entities — a Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) — a year ago, was the most significant development in the national security domain since Independence. The crux of this development lay in two crucial and long-overdue reforms. One, the management of the armed forces, so far assigned to the civilian Defence Secretary, was brought under a military officer, the CDS. And two, the designation of CDS as Secretary DMA (although an incorrect equivalence for a four-star general) made him the first military officer to be recognised as a functionary of the Government of India (GoI) by its Allocation of Business Rules.
This radical restructuring has raised hopes that since the DMA is now a part of the GoI, the anomalies and imbalances — organisational, hierarchical and financial — unilaterally imposed on the armed forces over seven decades would be addressed and remedied at long last. While the DMA is, hopefully, considering these issues and coming to grips with its assigned charter, it has seen fit to share with the media some incipient schemes with far-reaching implications. This has brought certain important issues into the public domain, which bear discussion.
With the nation facing a “real and present” military threat from two adversaries, it is incumbent upon the GoI — notwithstanding the economic downturn — to find the means to bolster national security. Bizarre as it may sound, the onus for accruing savings to fund defence expenditure seems to have been placed on the DMA, which has floated two schemes aimed at reducing the defence pensions bill. One penalises officers seeking early release from service and another envisages a three-year “Tour of Duty” for jawans. Both projects are based on unsound assumptions and, even if feasible, the first is likely to harm morale, while the second will degrade the military’s combat-capability in today’s technology-intensive battle-space. In the midst of a national crisis, it is the finance ministry or the Niti Aayog that should be devising ways of financing national defence, rather than the DMA, which must focus on military matters.
It is not clear whether the talk of “rolling out” theatre commands is a trial balloon or the outcome of in-depth deliberation and consensus between the three service headquarters with certain clear objectives in sight. Ideally, these objectives should be: (a) To hand over the military’s warfighting functions to the Theatre Commanders, while retaining the support functions with service HQs; (b) to combine India’s 17 widely-dispersed, single-service Commands into four or five mission/threat-oriented, geographically contiguous “Joint” or “Theatre Commands”; (c) to place the appropriate warfighting resources of all three services directly under the command of the designated Theatre Commanders; and (d) to achieve efficiency/economy by pooling of facilities and resources of the three services.
The creation of Theatre Commands, in response to a political diktat, must not become an end itself; lest it merely adds additional layers of military hierarchy to a reasonably functional existing organisation. The underlying, long-term premise of this exercise is that the Theatre Commanders and their staff will be so trained and groomed in jointness that they are able to plan operations and to employ land, maritime and air forces, regardless of the service to which they belong. For this to happen, radical changes are required in the content of our system of professional military education. Since, the Theatre Commander will also have the benefit of advice from component commanders representing each service, this post (like that of the CDS) would be, at least in theory, tenable by an officer belonging to any of the three services.
The system of Theatre Commands must, obviously, be tailored to meet country-specific requirements but two thorny issues that have emerged universally are the chain of command of the Theatre Commanders and the relationship of the CDS (or his equivalent) with the service Chiefs.
Since democracies are averse to over-concentration of power in any single military functionary, the system followed by the US ensures that the chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary (Minister) of Defence and then, directly to the Theatre Commander. While the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (C-JCS) has no command authority over any combatant forces, he, as the principal military adviser to the President and Defence Secretary, assists them in providing strategic direction to the armed forces and in the force-planning and budgetary processes. When rendering advice, the C-JCS is required to consult the service Chiefs, who serve as subsidiary military advisers.
In India, while the peacetime management of the armed forces is left to the MoD and the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), strategic guidance to the military, during war, has always come from the PM. However, in the system of higher defence under implementation, ideally, the Raksha Mantri (RM) needs to be brought into the command/operational chain of the Theatre Commanders, with the CDS acting as his adviser.
Unfortunately, such is the frequency of elections and intensity of politics in India that no RM has had the time or inclination to devote his/her undivided attention to complex national security issues. This is, possibly, one of the reasons why 70 years post-Independence India finds itself in a security dilemma. Therefore, unless the RM is an individual able to dedicate himself 24×7 to national security, it would be prudent to place the newly minted Theatre Commanders under the Chiefs of Staff Committee, rather than the CDS for operational tasking.
Finally, in the US, politicians, soldiers, academicians and the media, country-wide, engaged in four years of informed debate before the US Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Defence Reorganisation Act of 1986. Since India’s military reforms are equally complex, the GoI needs to seriously consider the constitution of a Parliamentary Committee, with military advisers, to oversee and guide this transformational process.
The writer is a retired chief of naval staff