Nothing explains NSA Doval as de facto CDS, unless the executive is scared of military power being concentrated in the hands of a single person

by Lt Gen H S Panag

The 2019 Lok Sabha election put national security at the centre stage of Indian politics. After the formation of the new Narendra Modi government, focusing on national security reforms is now a political compulsion. In Modi, India has the strongest Prime Minister in a long time, and a heavyweight defence minister in Rajnath Singh.

Modi’s government today looks at the bureaucracy merely as a facilitator of executive decision. The military Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals, as they have always done, will do what they are told to by the political executive. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a cabinet minister and the current de facto Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), is part of the Cabinet Committee on Security.

But India needs, and there could not be a better time for it, an actual Chief of Defence Staff. No more committees and dithering can be justified, which the Congress-led UPA and BJP-led NDA governments have done over nearly two decades, ever since the Kargil Review Committee in 1999 recommended comprehensive integration of the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force – under a Chief of Defence Staff.

So why does India fear the prospect of a Chief of Defence Staff? An underlying reason could be the proverbial fear the politicians have of the military – ‘the man on the horseback, the usurper of power’.

World Moved On; India Stuck In Past

About 100 years ago, at the end of World War 1, it was concluded that the complexity of war demands inter- and intra-service integration backed by a formal higher defence structure for strategic decision-making. The inter war years saw the ‘Chief of Staff Committee’ system take shape in Britain, with similar systems being put in place in all modern armies. In India, the Army’s Commander-in-Chief controlled all imperial forces.

World War 2 forced the creation of ‘Supreme Commanders’ commanding all forces in their respective theatres and controlled by the combined Chiefs of Staff of Britain and the USA. After World War 2, western countries debated about formalising the process to create the post of Chief of Defence Staff and theatre commands. This was vehemently resisted by the services and the bureaucracy, which used the same arguments we in India have heard over the past 72 years. However, an enlightened political class prevailed to formalise the creation of CDS through acts of parliaments in western nations.

As the colonial military system was adapted for independent India, General Hastings Lionel Ismay gave us the Chief of Staff Committee system to manage joint operations of the three services. It was an interim measure, but we continue to revel in this archaic system.

De facto CDS – Defence Secretary To NSA 

About 16 years ago as the Director General of Military Training, I was hosting a delegation of China’s People’s Liberation Army, which was led by the Commandant of one of its three army war colleges. The General was candid in telling me that his main charter was to learn about the tri-service integration in India since the PLA was planning to do the same. Given the sordid state of tri-service integration, I was in a dilemma. To save face, I concocted a theoretical and exaggerated version of the “impending” reforms in our armed forces – a subject under debate at our Defence Services Staff College since 1949. The PLA General was very happy with my detailed inputs. In fact, he singled me out for praise in front of the entire faculty and students of the war college during a return visit six months later. He said my inputs had been taken note of by the PLA’s study team of which he was a part.

In January 2016, the PLA, army, navy, air force and rocket forces were fully integrated into five theatre commands under a joint headquarters, at Ürümqi, which in turn operates under the Central Military Commission. Now the Western Theatre Command (army and air force) looks after the entire border with India. By contrast, we have three army and three air force commands carrying same names – Western, Central and Eastern – and located at different places.

Things would have been different had the NDA and then UPA governments not dithered over recommendations in the wake of the Kargil War, their bureaucracy hadn’t dug in to maintain the status quo, and the services hadn’t squabbled and fiercely guarded their turf. So, as a result, we moved from the Naresh Chandra Committee to Shekatkar Committee without any reforms. Ironically, the only change we made is to have the defence secretary – the erstwhile de facto Chief of Defence Staff despite being junior in status to the three service chiefs – hand over the baton of India’s defence to the National Security Adviser.

NSA Doval heads the Defence Planning Committee and the Strategic Planning Group based merely on executive orders without statutory sanction.

The Executive’s Fear

What are the reasons of this impasse in appointing a Chief of Defence Staff? What are the apprehensions of the principal players – the politicians, the bureaucracy and the chiefs of the three services?

Until the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, politicians did not consider national security as a plank to seize and maintain political power. They simply delegated national security to the bureaucracy. Moreover, politicians lack knowledge about strategic affairs and military matters, and are compelled to rely upon the advice of the bureaucracy and sometimes of the service chiefs. Both the bureaucrats and the three chiefs have vested interests in the CDS matter, which leaves the politicians even more confused to take any meaningful step.

Despite the political control over the armed forces clearly established in Constitution, the politicians have this lurking fear. They do not want the executive military power to be concentrated in the hands of a single person – the Chief of Defence Staff.

The Bureaucracy’s Hold

The defence bureaucracy thrives on the ignorance of the defence ministers and enjoys the power it wields over the three services. It traditionally plays ‘us versus they’ with the three services and gives impetus to the inter service rivalry. A CDS with direct access to the Prime Minister and the Raksha Mantri is the last thing the bureaucracy wants.

A strong government also dislikes bureaucratic hurdles. This, combined with the relatively ineffective defence ministers, is the reason for the NSA becoming the de facto Chief of Defence Staff in Modi’s first term.

Services Squabble

Each service has its own ethos and considers itself as the prima donna of war. The chiefs who presently perform both the military and executive functions feel that under a CDS, they will become virtual non-entities. The small services fear that they will be subsumed.

The Air Force advances the argument that it’s best to keep the force small and concentrated for economy of effort. Moreover, it argues that India is a status quo power and theatre commands are best suited for expeditionary forces. The Army supports the CDS but also argues that since our strategy will mainly be continental, the Army must play a predominant role in the theatre commands. The Indian Navy, by the very nature of its role, understands that ‘projection of power’ demands tri-service integration and is the strongest supporter of the CDS. 

The Modi government must rely upon empirical wisdom and appoint a CDS and create theatre commands with a clear mandate as part of an all-encompassing National Security Act. Once the die is cast, the modalities will automatically fall in place. Adhocism is not an option anymore!

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years