The recent decision to appoint a committee under Naresh Chandra to review defence reforms in India is a step in the right direction. While it would be premature to comment on the functioning of the committee, this announcement has been welcomed by the entire strategic community and has already triggered a useful debate. Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik’s recent comments on the chief of defence staff (CDS) have also re-ignited this controversy. This post was recommended by a Group of Ministers in 2002, but was not created due to opposition from some political leaders and the Indian air force. However, the debate has been along such narrow lines that leading journalist Inder Malhotra has exasperatedly argued that either the CDS should be appointed or the post “should be firmly ruled out forever, with whatever consequences this would have.” While the continued silence of the other service chiefs might reflect their desire to avoid a media controversy, but sooner rather than later, they will have to come up with a considered view. This, therefore, provides us a perfect opportunity to understand what is at stake and to usher in the next generation of defence reforms.
Air Chief Marshal Naik, while expressing his views (and the views of the air force, according to him), made three points on the CDS question. First, the air force is not opposed to the appointment of the CDS, but “does not want a CDS in its present form.” In that case, the air chief needs to clarify what form of CDS he visualises. It is unfair to oppose without offering an alternative. His second point was a somewhat rhetorical question: “what role model of CDS do we want?” Again, this is a question that the air chief must take a first call on. It is inconceivable that over the last 10 years, the Indian air force has not studied, evaluated and thought of an acceptable model for the CDS. The final point was his assertion that we “don’t need a CDS for the next five-ten years,” again without any clarity about this duration. In other words, what would have to change during this time that would warrant the appointment of a CDS? These observations are not meant as a criticism of the air chief or the Indian air force, but it is important to engage in a substantive debate. To his credit, in the seminar on national security reforms, the air chief had urged for more informed debate on the question.
It is well known that the Indian air force, like most other air forces, has historically opposed the appointment of a CDS. Moreover, statements from some army officers have done little to assuage their legitimate fears that appointing a CDS might lead to an army-dominated arrangement. The army, as the largest service, must go out of its way to deal with such insecurities. For instance, if some form of the CDS is implemented, the first chairman could be from any of the other two services. After two or three CDS tenures have been completed, another committee could examine the system to suggest whether it should be continued with, and in which form. In fact, the process of defence reforms should be institutionalised by periodic and constant self-analysis. That is what professional organisations do.
In the months ahead, it should be the endeavour of all members of India’s strategic community to rise to the debate, and do so objectively and respectfully. Among the models that must be debated is whether we need a CDS concept or a joint chiefs of staff (or one can call it permanent chairman, chiefs of staff committee) with integrated theatre commands. Most modern militaries have some form of theatre commands. It is well known that India’s current arrangement of geographically separated command locations has led to suboptimal strategic and operational outcomes. Moreover, in the absence of a CDS, the functioning of the Integrated Defence Staff has been undermined. There are problems in inter-services prioritisation, defence planning and overall defence preparedness. As India continues to face considerable internal and external security challenges, inattention to these important issues can carry a high price.
Rarely, if ever, have efforts at integrating the three services in any country been uncontroversial, a fact that our political class must keep in mind. While consensus-based change is the preferred approach in a democratic society, in matters of organisational restructuring, there will be disagreements as service and civilian bureaucracies will lose some turf. Their disagreement, however, should be examined strictly on rational grounds. Ultimately, for the current attempt at defence reforms to succeed, the government has to overrule opposition from entrenched bureaucracies, both civilian and military, to be able to implement workable recommendations made by the committee. For this, the Naresh Chandra committee must ascertain the views, preferably in writing, of major political parties on defence reforms, and on the CDS in particular. It is time now for the major political parties to state clearly their position on an issue where India’s future security is at stake.
General V.P. Malik is a former chief of army staff. Anit Mukherjee is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
Courtesy: The Indian Express, 11 July 2011
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies).