Focus on formulating integrated operational plans and creating integrated theatre commands

by Gurmeet Kanwal

In a surprise announcement from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day in August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared the government’s intention to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). A committee headed by National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval — who also heads the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) — was appointed to work out the modalities and draw up a charter of responsibilities for the CDS. With former Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat having taken over as India’s first CDS, a long-pending gap in the management of higher defence has been fulfilled.

The creation of the post of CDS was a major recommendation of the Group of Ministers (GoM), headed by former deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, that analysed the Kargil Review Committee report. Several analysts have termed this an incomprehensible omission for which three reasons were cited. First, political consensus on the establishment of the post of CDS was lacking. Second, the civilian bureaucracy was never in favour of the concept of CDS. And, third, there was some opposition even within certain sections of the armed forces to the idea.

The first item on the agenda of the CDS should be the formulation of integrated operational plans. In fact, the CDS should be instrumental in obtaining the defence minister’s approval for an integrated tri-service operational directive. It is well known that the operational plans of the armed forces are single-service plans, and they lack the synergy that comes from integrated planning. It is also well known that in 1962, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was not given any strike role to play during the war with China when it could have made a huge contribution. In 1965, the Indian Navy was not even informed about the plans to launch a three-pronged attack across the international boundary (IB) into Pakistan.

It is repeated ad nauseum that the 1971 war was a well-coordinated tri-service effort that led to a grand victory. The rather limited coordination that was achieved during the war with Pakistan in 1971 was mainly due to the personalities of the army, navy and air force chiefs. During the 1971 war, Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw was able to carry his naval and air force colleagues along with him due to the personal rapport that he had established with them. Yet, there were several glitches in the planning and conduct of the land and air campaigns and it cannot be stated that India fought a coordinated “air-land” war.

The Indian intervention in Sri Lanka was a disaster from the joint planning point of view. The Kargil conflict of 1999 is the only real example of a coordinated effort. Even here, there were initial hiccups and it took the IAF several weeks to begin bombing the Pakistani intruders’ Sangars (ad hoc bunkers) on the Indian side of the LoC.

Hence, it emerges that operational planning must be seamlessly integrated in modern conventional conflict. After gaining some experience with the CDS-led operational planning, it will be time to graduate to integrated theatre commands to further optimise the planning and execution of joint operations.

Will the appointment of a CDS will have any impact of nuclear command and control? India’s prevailing security environment is marked by regional instability with a nuclear overhang. More than ever before, it is now necessary for the national security decision makers to be given “single-point military advice” that takes into account the operational strengths and weaknesses, and the interdependence of each of the armed forces on the other, to meet complex emerging challenges in a nuclear environment.

Such advice can come only from a CDS who will be the principal military advisor to the prime minister who heads the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). The CDS will streamline the operational readiness and employment of India’s nuclear forces. While India’s nuclear doctrine and policy are guided by the NCA, their execution is entrusted to the services and here a joint approach is mandatory. The Strategic Forces Command (SFC), constituted for the planning, coordination and control of India’s nuclear weapons, should function directly under the CDS, even while functional control over the nuclear warheads and the delivery systems comprising the “triad” remains with the civilian political leadership.

The CDS will have several other important responsibilities. Policy planning for the optimum exploitation of aerospace, information warfare, cyber-security and issues such as the management of the electro-magnetic spectrum, including frequency management, electro-magnetic compatibility (EMC), electro-magnetic interference (EMI), electronic emission policy (EEP) and the offensive employment of non-communications devices such as radars for electronic warfare, will all be legitimately the domain of the CDS and HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS).

As and when tri-service Aerospace Command, Cyber Command and Special Forces Command are raised to meet emerging challenges in these fields and to better manage all available resources, they will function directly under the CDS.

On the non-operational side, training institutions such as the National Defence College, the College of Defence Management and the National Defence Academy and organisations such as the Armed Forces Medical Services, Canteen Stores Department and a host of others must be placed under the direct command of the CDS for better synergy in their functioning and optimum exploitation of their potential.

While the CDS should be the planner-in-chief of integrated operations, the Army, Navy and Air Force chiefs should continue to oversee the development and acquisition of weapons and equipment for their respective services, plan recruitment, guide and coordinate training at specialised training establishments and control administrative matters such as management of the annual budget, pay and allowances, maintenance support and medical services etc. However, a Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS) should have been appointed to head the newly-created Department of Military Affairs. The present Chief of Integrated Defence Staff should have been renamed VCDS.

Gurmeet Kanwal is former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi