There is a design flaw with this military post

Creating a Chief of Defence Staff is problematic; it also erodes civilian supremacy over the defence establishment

January 08, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 09:11 am IST

The scale of the First World War underscored the command and control dilemmas of concurrent conflicts playing out simultaneously in multiple theatres of conflict.

War and the West

During the locust years of Great Britain, an issue that received consideration was the British higher command and control structures. With the declaration of the Second World War, the onus for the higher direction of war fell to the remit of the War Cabinet serviced by the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The British legislative system functioned through the Second World War. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, was given supreme powers but stayed accountable to Parliament through the War Cabinet. He assumed the portfolio of Minister for Defence, with the resultant duty of overseeing the British War effort. This allowed him, as Chairperson of Chiefs of Staff Committee, to exercise both tactical and strategic options.

After the United States entered the war, following the Pearl Harbor attack, an integrated command became the norm during the Second World War as diverse allies including the Soviet Union had to work in unison. A unified command required a single commander liable to the joint chiefs of staff supported by a joint staff and exerting command over all constituents of his allocated force irrespective of their service.

After the war ended and the world split into two ideological blocs, General Dwight D. Eisenhower became the First North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supreme commander while political power was vested in the NATO Council. The First Supreme Commander of the Warsaw Pact Forces was Marshal Ivan Konev, while de-facto political authority resided with the General Secretary of the Soviet Union in Moscow. The United States, vide the National Security Act 1947, established the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were jointly tasked to be Military Advisers to the President and the Secretary of Defence. Despite the experience of the Second World War, they chose not to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). The U.S. amended this structure vide the Goldwater–Nichols Act in 1986 by having a chairperson and vice-chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs in unison are again the principal military advisers to the government. There is no CDS. The military chain of command runs directly from the theatre commanders through a civilian Defence Secretary to the President. However, Britain, conversely in 1959, created a Chief of the Defence Staff. Air Chief Marshal Sir William Dickson became the first CDS after serving as the rotational chairperson of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Was it required or was it the hubris of a declining power — the jury is still out on that.

The outline for India

In India, ‘in 1947, Lord Ismay, the Chief of Staff to Lord Mountbatten, Governor General of India, recommended a three-tier higher defence management structure to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Three committees were constituted: the defence committee of cabinet presided over by the Prime Minister; the Defence Minister’s Committee chaired by the Defence Minister, and the Chiefs of Staff Committee integrated into the military wing of the Cabinet Secretariat. The chair of the committee was rotational, with the Service Chief longest in the committee becoming the chairperson’.

This procedure operated into ‘the middle of the 1950s despite the Commander-in-Chief only being an invitee to the Defence Committee of Cabinet. The designation of the Commander in-Chief of the three services was consciously altered to Chiefs of Staff in 1955. After the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet first morphed into the Emergency Committee of Cabinet and then later into the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs’. It is now the Cabinet Committee on Security, or CCS. This system has served India well over the years.

On December 24, 2019, a Press Information Bureau release on the Cabinet clearing the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)said: “The following areas will be dealt by the Department of Military Affairs headed by CDS: The Armed Forces of the Union, namely, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence comprising Army Headquarters, Naval Headquarters, Air Headquarters and Defence Staff Headquarters. The Territorial Army. Works relating to the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Procurement exclusive to the Services except capital acquisitions, as per prevalent rules and procedures.”

It added, “The Chief of Defence Staff, apart from being the head of the Department of Military Affairs, will also be the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. He will act as the Principal Military Adviser to the Raksha Mantri [RM] on all tri-Services matters. The three Chiefs will continue to advise RM on matters exclusively concerning their respective Services. CDS will not exercise any military command, including over the three Service Chiefs, so as to be able to provide impartial advice to the political leadership.”

A subordination

Herein lies the contradiction and the design flaw. As Secretary in charge of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and having superintendence over the Indian Army, Indian Navy and Indian Air Force, there would be an implied subordination of the three service chiefs to the CDS notwithstanding any declaration to the contrary. As Secretary of the DMA, the CDS is tasked with facilitating the restructuring of military commands, bringing about jointness in operations including through the establishment of joint/theatre commands.

This will invariably encroach upon the domain of the service chiefs.

The CDS, as Permanent Chairperson of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, would outrank the three service chiefs even though theoretically all are four star. Moreover the advice of the CDS could override the advice of the respective Service Chiefs on critical tactical and perhaps even strategic issues.

With the creation of the DMA on most issues, the reporting structure of the three services to the Defence Minister would now be through the CDS; if not immediately it would become the norm over time. Even today while in theory the service chiefs report directly to the Defence Minister, in practice all files and decisions are routed through the Defence Secretary.

However most problematic is the erosion of civilian supremacy over the defence establishment in the Ministry of Defence itself. This impacts on the first principles of constitutionalism and has implications for our democratic polity also. Sophistry is being employed to suggest that the Secretary DMA would be in charge of military affairs and the Defence Secretary would look after the ‘defence of the realm’. The fact is that the defence of India is managed by the three services who would now report to the DMA.

Since the DMA would exercise control over the three services, it virtually makes the CDS the ‘Supreme Commander of the Indian Armed Forces’. A new czar has risen.

Manish Tewari is a lawyer, Member of Parliament and a former Information and Broadcasting Minister

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