The contours of independent India’s biggest military reform are slowly becoming apparent. On December 24, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approved the creation of the post of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) along with a significant new organisation within the ministry of defence. The Narendra Modi government had left the defence ministry (MoD) untouched in its first term, but the prime minister did stress the need for reforms in higher defence management in 2015. “It is sad that many defence reform measures proposed in the past have not been implemented. This is an area of priority for me,” he told a joint conference of commanders on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya in 2015. In his second term, he has taken up this unfinished agenda.
The Department of Military Affairs (DMA) is the second most significant aspect of the reform because it vests real power with the defence forces. All three service headquarters currently function as ‘attached offices’ of the department of defence, headed by the powerful defence secretary (who is part of the civilian bureaucracy). ‘India is perhaps the only major democracy where the Armed Forces Headquarters are outside the apex governmental structure,’ the landmark Kargil Review Committee headed by strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam noted in 2000. The defence secretary is currently chief advisor to the defence minister on all matters of policy and administration, and is the first among equals among four other secretaries in the MoD.
Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat, now seen as the frontrunner for the post of CDS, knows the limits to the powers of a service chief heading an attached office. His plan to radically restructure the army, by cutting down troops and raising new departments, is yet to take off because it hit a bureaucratic wall in the MoD this year.
The government’s formal approval of this key post envisages a four-star general-ranked officer, equal in protocol to the three service chiefs. The ambit of his responsibilities will make him independent India’s most significant uniformed officer. For starters, the CDS will wear three hats-single-point military advisor to the political leadership, permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee and head of the yet-to-be-constituted DMA.
The entry of the CDS and creation of the DMA will give reform moves a fillip. The DMA, proposed as a fifth department within the MoD, will report to defence minister Rajnath Singh. It will add to the existing departments of defence, defence production, ex-servicemen’s welfare and research and development-each headed by an official equivalent to a secretary to the government of India (see graphic: The New Top Gun). Not insignificant is the fact that the CDS or his deputy will have powers equal to a secretary to the GoI. “This is a historic step-from being just attached offices, the armed forces have entered the central edifice of the government of India-something we have been asking for years,” says Admiral Arun Prakash (retired), former navy chief and member of the Naresh Chandra Task Force on Defence Reforms.
The government believes that ‘work exclusively pertaining to military matters will fall within the domain of the DMA, while the department of defence (headed by the defence secretary) will deal with larger issues pertaining to the defence of the country’. The division of responsibilities is still to be defined-that is the mandate of an implementation committee headed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval-but the DMA’s charter to promote integration, jointmanship and indigenisation is significant.
“This is the first time in India’s history that you have a structure specifically set up to promote jointness and tri-services integration,” says Sujan Chinoy, director-general of the defence ministry think-tank, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). Gen. Rawat, set to retire on December 31, is the seniormost of the three service chiefs, and is currently Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. A step-up to becoming CDS would hence not upset the applecart in a seniority- and protocol-conscious military. The announcement will follow after the process of selecting a new service chief is over.
Insiders say there was a silent power struggle between the civilian bureaucracy and the uniformed personnel inside the defence ministry, with the latter fighting tooth and nail to get procurement powers for the CDS. As head of a defence ministry department, the CDS will now have a far greater say within the government. The DMA that he heads, say government sources, will have ‘the appropriate mix of civil and military officers at every level’. It will promote jointness in procurement, training and staffing for the services, restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources and promote use of indigenous equipment.
The CDS will have an important say in arms procurements of the three services, but the actual role of arms acquisitions will still remain with the DoD headed by the defence secretary. This, defence officials argue, is not necessarily a minus. “The CDS has been made responsible for force restructuring which is linked to strategy and not for acquisition which is a process and better done by the DoD,” says a defence official.
What the CDS will do is set long-term plans like implement the five-year Defence Capital Acquisition Plan (DCAP) and the two-year roll-on Annual Acquisition Plans. He will be a member of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by the defence minister and the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) headed by Doval. The CDS will assign inter-services prioritisation to capital acquisition proposals based on the anticipated budget-a bugbear for the government because procurement lists floated by the armed forces are delinked from budgetary realities. The Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ-IDS) currently performs this task but its recommendations were not binding on the services. A service headquarters, for instance, could overturn HQ-IDS’s recommendations on acquisitions.
The CDS will command no troops on the ground, will merely administer tri-services organisations like the Strategic Forces Command, the Andaman & Nicobar Command, the Defence Cyber Agency and the proposed divisions for space. Lt Gen. D.B. Shekatkar (retired), who headed a panel which recommended the CDS in 2016, says it is important for the bureaucracy and military to work together. “Going forward, the perception of the bureaucracy as the hurdle to operational preparedness of the armed forces needs to be removed,” he says.
A key deliverable for the first CDS will be a three-year plan to bring about ‘jointness’ of the three services. This will mean creating organisations like the Integrated Logistics Command and a maintenance command-which would handle revenue procurements for the three services. The government has not indicated a time-line for the ‘theaterisation’ of the armed forces-streamlining them from 17 different commands into just 3-4 where the three services will be integrated. That will happen, defence analysts feel, in Phase 2 of the reforms.
The CDS and DMA are the first of many reform moves expected over the next few months. The DPC will soon present a white paper on National Security Strategy-a key roadmap which will identify future conflict zones which the military has to equip and train for. In his 2015 speech, Modi had identified some of the future challenges-“we need forces that are agile, mobile and driven by technology, not just human valour. We need capabilities to win swift wars, for we will not have the luxury of long-drawn battles.” In beginning this process, he has finally bitten the proverbial bullet-a silver one to reform the defence ministry.