Taking half measures to address lack of coordination among services has been endemic in India’s culture. While a key military reform pending for two decades was finally announced last month, its efficacy remains suspect among the country’s top generals

by Saikat Datta

On India’s 72nd Independence Day, August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood on the ramparts of the historic Red Fort to deliver his equivalent of the state of the union address. Among the few newsworthy items in the speech was his announcement of a new top post in India’s military, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

“Our forces are India’s pride,” Modi said. “To further sharpen coordination between the forces, I want to announce a major decision from the Red Fort: India will have a chief of defence staff. This is going to make the forces even more effective.”

The CDS was envisaged nearly 20 years ago as filling a “single-point military advisory role” for the government. It was meant to end the confusion among the three services during a conflict and ensure that the government could get all three to speak in a unified manner.

The proposal to appoint such a unifying official came in the aftermath of the Kargil conflict, a short, sharp war between India and Pakistan fought in the summer of 1999.

In late April of 1999, mountain shepherds discovered the presence of Pakistani army soldiers occupying Indian military posts that had customarily been vacated during the winter when temperatures fell to nearly minus 20 degrees Celsius. That was the tacit arrangement between the Indian and Pakistan armies until the Kargil war.

The Indian Army mobilised and began operations to evict the Pakistanis who threatened to cut off a strategic highway that connected Kashmir to the Ladakh region in the east.

Gaping Holes

The failure to detect the Pakistanis in timely fashion led to a considerable debate and the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) was set up under former bureaucrat K Subrahmanyam. Hailed as the doyen of India’s modern strategic thinkers, Subrahmanyam used the opportunity to push for military and intelligence reforms responding to problems he had grappled with throughout his career in the government.

The KRC identified a series of intelligence and military failures that prevented the Indians from identifying the Pakistani moves in time.

The lack of a single-point military adviser to the government was a key lacuna identified by the KRC. It examined the military hierarchies in the US and UK and came around to the fact that the military needed to set up the position of the CDS. The position would be similar to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military, or the CDS in the UK.

“After the CDS was mooted, the Indian Air Force became a major opponent to the recommendation,” a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Defence told Asia Times. “For over a decade they worried that their ability to function independently would be curtailed once a CDS was appointed.”

The nub of the problem for the air force was India’s ingrained predilection for looking at the army as the primary force to deal with all external threats. “For decades, the army has dominated budgets and Indian military planners have taken a continental approach to warfare,” a senior Indian Air Force officer said. “But the nature of warfare has changed dramatically, and now superiority in the air is the deciding factor.”

“The fact that Indian Army plays a leading role in dealing with armed insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and India’s North East also explains why they are considered the primary force,” he said.

Military strategists also looked at history and past threats to India for understanding how to shape the conflicts of the future. Most invasions into India came from the north, with some invaders crossing the Hindu Kush to attack the Indo-Gangetic plains or to settle down as conquerors.

But the Indian Navy is quick to point out that the greatest conqueror in India’s history came by water. The British colonialists arrived via the sea and kept the Indian colony going for over 200 years using their ships.

But Subrahmanyam and his colleagues on the committee were dealing with modern threats that had to take the needs of each service and match them to the wars of the future.

“The root of the problem is that in South Asia we don’t have any concept of joint operations,” the senior defence ministry official pointed out. “Look at the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. The Eastern Command of the army is in Kolkata, while the Air Force Eastern Command is a few hundred kilometres away in Shillong, which does not even have a decent air field. They don’t even sit together. How will they operate together. It is a fact that India’s three armed services have not learnt how to fight together.”

Building Synergy

During the second world war, a maverick British officer, Major General Orde Wingate, took it upon himself to blunt a planned Japanese invasion into British India through Burma. As British and American troops gathered hastily to take on the challenge, Wingate came up with a bold plan.

He decided to train three brigades and send them behind enemy lines into Burma to harass the Japanese army divisions that were designated for the invasion of India. Using Royal Indian Air Force and United States Air Force planes to supply the three brigades, Wingate created havoc among the Japanese. That was the last time the army and the air force trained and operated together in a major campaign in the Indian sub-continent.

Since then, the army, air force and navy have trained and operated separately, making separate plans for various kinds of contingencies. Worse, the ministry of defense became the India hub for bureaucrats as the military was pushed out from key policy making areas.

“There was fear that India could fall prey to a military coup,” a senior Indian Army General said. “This ensured that those in uniform were kept out of most policy decisions.”

Subrahmanyam and his colleagues on the Committee tried to resolve this fundamental issue. When they recommended the CDS, they had the US Chairman, of the Joint Chiefs and the Pentagon in mind, a military veteran who worked with them in 1999-2000 said.

They studied the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which had reformed the US military and brought in joint operations capabilities previously lacking.

Subrahmanyam’s recommendation was to create an “integrated headquarters of the ministry of defence” that would allow serving military personnel to also serve as bureaucrats. This was never permitted and was quietly buried.

“Simply appointing a CDS will never address this,” the general said. “If he is from the army, what will he know about air force and naval operations? Will he be able to provide the best possible advice to the government?”

The current army chief, General Bipin Rawat, is tipped to be the first CDS. Considered close to the government, Rawat was picked over two of his seniors to head the army two years ago.

That’s not set, though. For now the government says that a CDS implementation committee headed by the national security adviser will look at all aspects of the issue before the appointment is made a couple of months from now.

It is also a matter of concern that the proposed CDS will be a four-star General, just like the current service chiefs are. He will also not have any operational control over any formation. This, say observers, is likely to create more problems and reduce the role of the CDS without addressing systemic gaps in the Indian military.