1. Does India now or did India ever need a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)? Would we have done better in our wars after freedom if we had implemented a reform in our structure a few decades ago? The answer lies in a study of our past conflicts, how they were countered and managed, and how future conflicts are expected to unfold? The international order of stability has been under threat from many realms; rogue nations, revisionist states, sponsored non-state entities, migration and religious extremism. The spectrum of war comprises of terrorism, cyber warfare, space warfare, internal security challenges, non combatant evacuation operations, nuclear war etc. thus making the task of security complex, complicated, intricate and difficult.
2. An analysis of the challenges that India has faced, establishes that all possible forms of violence, all facets of the conflict spectrum, coercive threats and internal disorders have manifested at some point of time. The reaction or response to these issues has been piecemeal, delayed or even uncoordinated. This has been evident in the wars we have fought since independence. Technology may bolster every force with unthinkable potential but it will always depend on the military commander to be able to cohesively lead his men, with their assets, at every level of warfare. He will always have the responsibility of understanding all dimensions of war, managing it, and most importantly, applying changes in proper strategic context. These changes will have to be directed towards a well planned and deliberately thought about aim, rather than an event automatically impressing itself on the country. This is only possible with the synergy at the highest level, even amongst different services, because they will invariably have a common goal. This requirement of synergy has always been a fundamental in the past, the present and will remain imperative in the future as well.
3. The aim of this paper is to analyse the wars since independence and identify the shortcomings, if any, due to the absence of CDS in India’s higher defence organisation.
Why Do We Need a CDS?
4. As of today, Indian Armed Forces would be the only major military force, which is structured in a highly siloed manner. We have a total of 16 single service commands, 13 with territorial responsibilities, none of which have collinear boundaries or collocated headquarters. To put it mildly, it is a structural error that will lead to considerable inefficiency. While mechanisms for coordination between single service Cs-in-C do exist, in the absence of a unified command structure, it is unclear how cohesion will unfold during a conflict . There will be competing requirements for the employment of the limited assets, which may lead to unwarranted friction. Which service would decide on the objective, prioritisation of targets, allocate resources, and decide on other pressure points to be coerced? Who would have the macro view of the overall situation not only in areas of land battle but also in other domains? Who would be able to exploit success in one theater to achieve a favorable outcome overall, while the setbacks in another theater are being contained? Is it enough to have senior officers collect information from the various services and pass it on to the political heads? CDS obviously is the professional requirement in any conflict scenario.The fact is inarguable, that in a highly dynamic and fluid situation, that is complicated by the fog and friction of war, the future without a CDS is bleak. Some of the Identified issues are enumerated in succeeding paragraphs.
5. Inter-Service Rivalry. Inter-Service rivalry exists in all countries. The job of the politician is to resolve such rivalry and encourage cohesiveness. In the U.S., sparring between the services was evident during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and is well captured by the statement of General Curtis LeMay of U.S. Air Force who famously said in 1964, “The Soviets are our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy.” Realising the danger posed by unrestricted inter-service rivalry, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation in the form of the Goldwater Nicholas Act in 1986. On the contrary, it is believed, that India is the only country where the bureaucracy actively encourages inter service rivalry, largely to the ignorance of the politician.
6. Asset Prioritisation. An effect on the the Force Planning Process needs a special mention, as it is severely affected by the failure of the Indian Armed forces to integrate. It needs to be recognised that the need for optimum utilisation of our defence budget will only grow with time. Progressive improvements in service conditions will invariably result in higher revenue spending, thereby, putting pressure on the capital outlay. A realistic assessment indicates that a substantial hike in defence spending is unlikely. With budgets shrinking in real terms, there is a need for prioritising the equipment procurement projected by SHQ, so that funds can be channelised in the right direction at the right time. This prioritisation has to be based on an objective evaluation of the requirement, that a particular weapon system is essential in the prevailing threat scenario, against fund availability for that year. Currently, a modality for such an exercise does not exist as no Service Chief will except any curtailment of his requirement list by the HQ IDS (which compiles annual and five-year plans). The force planning process therefore consists of merely adding up the ‘wish lists’ of the three Services and forwarding them to the MoD. It is here that the pruning and prioritisation is undertaken, often arbitrarily. Whether it is a self-propelled artillery system, an aircraft carrier or a combat aircraft, there is rarely a meaningful debate amongst the informed professionals (the Armed Forces). The appointment of an integrated head who makes the decision for the forces is the only solution to this problem.
7. Segregation of Bureaucracy. Currently entire policy-making is at the hand of MoD, which leaves limited decision-making by the military heads even in purely military matters. Military recommendations and views are not accorded requisite importance in the absence of a CDS. It usually leads to major delays in policy-making and operations. Since we lack a common head of defence, there is usually some loss of time between the passage of ideas and orders from respective chiefs to defence ministry. India’s politicians have been of no great help and mostly have been observed with questionable military understanding. The politicians are more or less ignorant about the military and the roles of the different Services. For centuries, they have heard of the Indian Army and have been used to dealing with only the soldier. When asked how they treated the three Services, a respected and knowledgeable defence minister made a disturbing comment, “We listen carefully to the Army, we humour the Air Force and we ignore the Navy.” The CDS will not only highlight the common needs but may also bring awareness amongst the common man. The system will otherwise continue to remain divided and lead to more problems in times to come, especially during conflict.
REVIEW OF OUR WARS AND WHAT IF?
8. The Indian Armed Forces have had a noticeable growth in personnel and equipment since independence. The service specific structure at the top hierarchy and theatre-level has broadly remained same, despite lessons learnt from a few wars, campaigns and less than war situation. After every war, one specific lesson always came out loud and clear, that the military and political hierarchy were not on common understanding in most cases. A credible one-point military advice was missing, the joint planning has rarely been optimal, and the synergy amongst all the three services, intelligence agencies and other elements of the government were not in the best form. An unbiased review of Indian history does clearly bring out, that on various occasions, a lack of strategic foresight on part of our elected rulers and military leaders has cost us dearly. This has been highlighted repeatedly and yet we have deliberately chosen to turn a blind eye to this important issue. The helplessness shown by politicians, and at times even the military men, to rise above meaningless feuds, rivalries and petty squabbles is unpardonable. It can be said that the lack of this required coordination at the highest level has led to more than one military defeats and a number of other humiliating subjugations in less than war situations. A few of the relevant examples from specific wars have been discussed in the subsequent paragraphs.
9. The Indian Army holds the unique distinction of being one of the world’s best in defending its country’s borders. However, the Indo-China war of 1962 goes down in our history books as a blot on the reputation of our forces and the country. The reason for defeat wasn’t the lack of courage of our soldiers but was the lack of coordination between the political and military leadership and to an extent also the missing cohesion between our armed forces. Some of the aspects that merit attention are enumerated in succeeding paragraphs.
10. Uncertain Leadership. Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in ‘The Discovery of India’, “It seems clear that India became a prey to foreign conquest because of the inadequacy of her own people and because, like the British, the invaders represented a higher and advancing social order. The contrast between the leaders on both sides is marked, the Indians for all their ability, functioned in a narrow, limited sphere of thought and action, unaware of what was happening elsewhere… .” The political leadership of the country was erratic in the military decisions. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru depended too much on the discretion and advice of his Defence Minister, Shri Krishna Menon. The outcome was evident as India had to bite dust and lose numerous soldiers for the sole reason of lack leadership at the strategic level. The Defence Minister’s shortcomings were many, not only was he egoistic, he was also a micro-manager. Starting from the prosecution of war and setting of goals, there was no link between the reality of what could be done and the lofty desires of the political leadership. This was the link that needed to be pushed through by someone at the apex of military hierarchy.
11. It can be said that the myopic policies of our political leaders in the absence of sound and assertive military advice cost us dearly. The strategic folly of engaging in a ‘forward policy’ by creating military posts in a disputed zone, that could not be supplied properly with food, equipment, arms and ammunition lacked deliberation and judgment. Commencing 1957, after unilaterally deciding where its borders lay with China, India began establishing posts in areas that China considered its own territory. This further inflamed what was a delicate situation. Right up to the point when China attacked Indian positions, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister believed that China would take no action and the consequences of this policy were not appreciated by them. The obvious threat and foreseeable Chinese aggression, though clear to the Army, could not be conveyed to the politicians. India lost the 1962 war due to political oversight and the lack of sound military advice to our leadership. A CDS could have asserted the point directly to the Prime Minister in a situation where the Defence minister was passive.
12. Warnings by Army. The Chinese aggression was expected by the army and a report to that effect was submitted to the Home Ministry in advance. Lt Gen SPP Thorat, one of the chief architects of the Army of Independent India, an experienced Army General, was ignored in totality and his valuable counsel, even in writing, was disregarded. On 08 October 1959, Lt Gen Thorat had produced a paper on the defence of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). This was forwarded to the Ministry of Defence but Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister, did not show it to the Prime Minister. Lt Gen Thorat was accused of being an alarmist and a warmonger. Subsequently, an exercise code named LAL QUILA, was held in Lucknow, in March 1960. It was clearly brought out that with the available troops, weapons and equipment, a Chinese attack could not be contained or repulsed, and the ‘forward policy’, being advocated was not practicable. Lt Gen Thorat also gave out a time table, showing how the defences would fall each day in case the Chinese attacked. The role of a CDS at this stage, with direct access to the Prime Minister may have averted this failure. The warnings had to be pursued harder and had they been given due cognisance in time, a large number of casualties and a massive defeat could have been avoided.
13. Unprepared Army. In the absence of proper strategy and advanced weapons, the defeat was on the cards. This affected the morale of our troops and also led to dejection of millions of countrymen who had never dreamt of such a humiliating defeat. This tactical military blunder was not out of thin air. No politician is trained in military methods. Only the officers on the ground can appreciate the details of what needs to be done. In 1962, this cardinal rule was neglected. It required an exceptionally inept link between the political leadership and the military hierarchy for this debacle to go through, which we had nurtured. A CDS could have probably linked the military means with political goals which could not be done in 1962.
14. Trust on China. “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” was the standard diplomatic line that enjoyed blind faith of the state machinery in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It could only be described as mere irrationality on the part of India. This over affectionate stance of India towards China spelled doom for the former. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched an attack on all fronts simultaneously, encircling India in its trap when our leadership was sitting in Delhi discussing policies. The attack caught us unaware and surprised to react on time. It was an attack on all fronts when it was not expected at all. The military leadership, in the absence of a common face at the appropriate level, was to a great extent accused of playing down and disregarding the situation for a long time.
15. Minimal Operational Role of IAF. It needs a full capability comprehension of all available services to respond effectively to any attack on the nation. It was surprising that the Indian Air Force (IAF) was not allowed to carry out an attack on the enemy. Their function was only limited to dropping food supplies to the Indian Army. However, had IAF been employed for a more operational role, the situation could have been vastly different, considering the fact that our Air Force was superior to China’s at the time and CIA later revealed that at that time the Chinese had neither the fuel nor runways long enough for using their Air Force effectively in Tibet. A complete Joint Service understanding by a single military head would have beyond doubt seen this opportunity and planned for a united front against the enemy.
16. Lumbering Intelligence. The Kargil dispute was the outcome of intelligence slip-ups. The army was caught off guard, as we did not know about the presence of the invaders in Kargil, till May 1999. Regardless of India’s well-organised intelligence set-up, Pakistan shocked us in the 1999 Himalayan violation. It was an absolute intelligence failure. We did not know of their identity, dispositions and actual numbers inside the Indian Territory. The Indian situation is characteristic of a highly politicised external control of the intelligence agencies. There are instances of intelligence failures of such magnitude in the developed nations also. However, they have all been thoroughly enquired into, responsibilities fixed and remedial measures taken. This has affected the armed forces too in a number of ways. An unpleasant rivalry between the Research and Analysis Wing and Military Intelligence has cost the Indian Army many lives.
17. The coordination of military intelligence has also been insufficient in terms of producing effective and timely output. For example, during Kargil, the aircraft which was meant to remain stationed and gather information, was deputed on a separate tasking. It was the ‘Bakerwals’ who gave the information that armed men were sitting on the top. Indian officials and security experts are of the opinion that if a structural change, ensuring the correct representation of the armed forces at the apex level existed, the weakness of the security apparatus could have been overcome. Further, attitudinal changes in the Indian polity, especially military, are also required to avoid future surprises like Kargil.
18. The terrorist attack on Mumbai once again brought the issue of weak decision-making of Indian political and military leadership to fore. Nearly 200 people lost their lives and the nation was humiliated. The mistakes were all similar and again only a repetition of what we failed to learn from the past.
19. Disregard to Intelligence Warning. In the months leading up to the terrorist attacks that struck Mumbai, the signs of looming catastrophe were unmistakable. The Mumbai police had learned of warnings of planned attacks on the city’s major landmarks, including its high-end hotels and passed the information to Indian intelligence. The CIA was a primary source of these tip-offs and had a source inside Lashkar-e-Taiba. According to intelligence provided, Mumbai’s attackers were likely to arrive by sea. Yet when the DPC was approached for a relevant port security strengthening, it was indicated that funding was lacking. The Mumbai Police Commissioner also wrote to the Commandant Coast Guard, identifying obvious vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, despite all intelligence, a few months later, ten Lashkar terrorists sailed the Arabian Sea from Karachi to Mumbai. They strolled ashore armed with AK-47s, pistols, ammunition, grenades, and explosives. Their ensuing three-day chaos is one of the worst terrorist attacks in India’s history. A coordinated and deliberate debate regarding the threat, ordered by an appropriate service head may have prevented the attack at a preliminary stage. Even a repeated notice by the IHQ to the Home Ministry may have resulted in actions to avert the attack.
20. Uncordinated Assets. Even after the Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) had managed to intercept the phone conversations between the fidayeen and their handlers, the apprehending of the terrorists, was hampered by poor organisation, mismanagement, and a general lack of preparedness. It took twelve hours for the National Security Guard, whose members are trained in rescuing hostages, to get to the Taj Mahal hotel. Firstly, they didn’t receive the official green light to mobilise from Delhi for several precious hours. Further, they were impeded by transport blunders and faulty, outdated equipment and protective gear. The decision to send the MARCOS was being debated fearing that they were ‘the wrong dog for the fight’. Eventually, it was only by the next day that fewer than twenty MARCOS were deployed. A singular apex authority to decide and further direct the available forces, including issues of transportation etc, would have ensured a better response.
PRESENT STATE OF AFFAIRS
21. Higher Defence Organisation Reforms in India have been recommended by various groups, committees and eminent strategists from time to time. The perceived average performance of our defence and security machinery can be invariably attributed to lack of these reforms. In 2001, the Kargil Review Committee while examining the pitfalls, was of the view that the “political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishments appear to have developed a vested interest in the status quo.” It recommended the creation of the appointment of a Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). The CDS concept is understood to have worked well in most modern armed forces. Given India’s need to overcome lack of inter-service coherence, have single point advice, coordinate joint planning, carry out joint training and streamline the procurement process, there is obviously a strong case for a CDS. However, there is need but a greater reluctance as well, maybe that is the reason why even after a decade of deliberation we have not executed the obvious ‘YES’. The ignorance of the recommendations of these committees has become a norm.
22. Secrecy in defence related issues and the limited freedom of speech to a soldier are the alibis for skirting professional concerns and keeping them under the wrap at the cost of the national interests. The Daulat Beg Oldie incident exposed the dilemma of the Ministry of Defence. MoD panicked and handed over the situation to the China Study Group (CSG), when 30 Chinese soldiers came into our territory, pitched up tents and decided to stay on. The reluctance is partially from the military’s side as well, based upon the confusion regarding the nature of the role of the CDS. It is uncertain what role the three Services themselves wish to assign to a future CDS. India hopefully is nearing the end of this dilemma. Imminent defence reforms ushered in by the government initiatives, appear to be heading towards a clear and goal oriented direction.
23. Till now having three equally ranked Service Chiefs and each service having its own set of commands, which are not even co-located, may have been a compulsion considering the geography/ terrain, peculiarities of borders, conventional and sub conventional challenges. In the future with extension of domain of warfare, there is a need to objectively look at reorganisation of top military hierarchy.
24. It is somehow clear that coordination is not our strength. One way or the other we have to be marshaled towards a common good rather than having the individual shortsightedness. We have to possess synergised planning and have a seamless coordination amongst our services. A CDS beyond doubt will streamline not only our existing resources but also the planning in terms of future acquisitions would be unbiased and fair. Armed forces do not fight wars every day and neither are they involved in crises so frequently, it is the preparation for crisis that is as critical. For that there is a need to go beyond the single service needs of ego and one-upmanship. Even if we adopt meaningful reforms today, it will take at least five years for the idea to sink in, in the minds of junior leaders, commanders and the troops, thus it is in our best interest that we take that step sooner rather than later.
“Act as if it is impossible to fail.”
– Carl Jung
25. Structural reform of our armed forces is a necessity. Our basic structure, with the exception of a few tepid changes, remains what we inherited from the British close to 70 years ago. Turf protection and sharing or reduction of power is alien to any military force and the Indian Armed Forces are no exception. At the same time, major changes largely occur due to political acceptance of the necessity for reform for improved performance in the national security requirements. The Goldwater Nichols Department of Defence Reorganization Act of 1986 was enacted primarily to improve the ability of U.S. armed forces to conduct joint and combined operations in the field, and secondarily to improve the DoD budget process. The Navy and Marine Corps had vehemently objected to this reform but the act was deemed necessary for cohesion and was thus passed.
26. On the same lines, it is strongly recommended that the present political dispensation takes a decision to reform the military without the so called ‘political consensus’. The demonitisation decision demonstrated the political will to take a decision without resorting to political consensus, so for national security, a similar decision is justified. The CDS will bring greater synergy, coordination and integration to the forces, provide valuable advice to the political leadership and develop jointmanship to deliver better outputs.