New Delhi, 19 April 2001

The Annual Commanders’ Conference of the three Services was held in Delhi from Monday 16 April. The hot issue on all military lips was the likely formation of the CDS and how it might affect the Indian Armed Forces.

IDC has assiduously kept up the debate on this very crucial issue of national security interest and is pleased that the Government has finally agreed to introduce the system. Of course we hope that the modalities have been thought through from all aspects and the outcome would be what is most logical, workable and effective. Some teeth ought to be given to this post, which in reality should over-ride both the present Defence Secretary and the Service Chiefs, without in anyway diluting their intrinsic roles in the higher defence organization of the country. Thus the incumbent must have some of the hitherto bureaucratic power over the budget and the executive decision making of inter-services co-operation/co-ordination.

IDC has pleasure to put up a piece on another format of the CDS post/system by Air Marshal Vir Narain He had brought to our notice that our earlier report on his paper at USI was not completely reported. He recommends a new post of Secretary General of the MOD, to be held in rotation by a retiring Service Chief, for a period of two years each.

Calling the retired Service Chief a Secretary General would neither automatically make him a super bureaucrat nor less likely to come in the way of respective Service Chiefs. The crux of the matter is how much of the defacto and dejure powers the incumbents of the present system are made to shed and the extent to which the MOD is integrated with the Services’ Headquarters. The key to the success of any new system lies in the vision and will of the political leadership which alone should arbitrate on all matters of crucial interest to national security.

IDC learn that from 1 Jun there will be a CDS and a Chief of Strategic Forces in place and look forward to analysing the changes and how they affect the  Indian Defence system.  


By Air Marshal Vir Narain

While the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff can be expected to create a number of problems between the Services, it will not solve the most outstanding flaw in the existing higher defence organisation in India, namely: the subordination of the Service headquarters to the Ministry of Defence headed by the Defence Secretary. The unexceptionable principle of control of the military by the political leadership has been misapplied, creating the supremacy of the bureaucracy over the military.   The key figure in this set-up is the Defence Secretary. As Lt Gen Sinha has observed: "In India, the Defence Secretary acts as a link between the Minister and the Service Chiefs, and being the principal co-ordinator virtually functions like a Chief of Defence Staff. He also functions like the Chief of Staff of each Service because the Ministry and the Service Headquarters are two separate units. Thus in our setting the authority of CDS and Chief of Staff of the three Services is virtually concentrated in an individual, who is totally non-professional." (Emphasis added). The long-standing proposal to merge the three Service Headquarters with the Ministry of Defence (somewhat on the lines of the Central Organisation for Defence in the UK) needs to be implemented; but it will not necessarily change the situation described by Lt Gen Sinha. One step, however, which involves the minimum organisational change but is bound to bring about immense improvement in decision making in defence is a variation on the CDS concept.

As Lt Gen Sinha has observed, the position of the Defence Secretary is such that the "authority of CDS and Chief of Staff of the three Services is virtually concentrated in one individual, who is totally non-professional.” The obvious solution is to replace him with an individual who has the requisite professional background. Therefore the post of a Secretary General in the Ministry of Defence should be established, to be filled for a tenure of two years by rotation by a Service chief on retirement. The misgivings regarding creating a top military position would be allayed, and the Chiefs of Staff would retain their pre-eminent status as the senior most serving officers in their respective services. The Secretary General, now a civilian, would provide the vital bridge or interface between the political leadership and the military.  Adjusting the tenures of the Secretary General with the tenures of the three Chiefs of Staff need not present insuperable difficulties.        

The CDS concept suffers from a number of serious defects.  One of these, which is actually being presented as its main virtue, is the availability to the government of single-point expert military advice. As Air Chief Marshal PC Lal, widely acknowledged as one of our brightest and wisest Service Chiefs, observes: "Single point contact of this kind would amount to the separation of advice from action, which would cut at the very roots of what I have called responsible planning.  It will be argued that the Chief of Defence Staff would only put forward to Government such views and plans that had been discussed and agreed with the three Chiefs, and to them he would simply transmit the policy directions of Government.  What is likely to happen, of course, that he will evaluate military problems on the basis of his own experience and specialised knowledge, possibly influencing and almost certainly colouring the views of the Chiefs to some extent.  His interpretation of Government policies is likely to be transmuted in the same manner, according to his own understanding of them. General Maxwell Taylor has recorded in his book "The Uncertain Trumpet" how this has happened in the United States. It could also happen here.    

As permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and principal military adviser, the Chief of Defence Staff may be expected to carry the Government with him on the one hand and, on the other, to have the last word in dealing with the Services. Whether or not he is vested with powers of command, he would, in effect, exercise a high degree of control over the armed forces while bearing no direct responsibility for them. If the Service Chiefs give in to this they would virtually cease to be effective commanders; if they resist then internal conflicts are inevitable. Either way, the system of higher command is bound to be weakened. A number of countries, including the UK and USA, who now have Chiefs of Defence Staff, have given no proof of the appointment of a veritable supremo being an improvement on the former arrangement. If the conflicts of Suez, Korea and Viet Nam are any indication the change has been for the worse. We should beware of it."

There are other aspects that any realistic examination of the proposal must take into account. One - being the flip side of single-point advice - is that one tail is easier to twist than three. This must not be misconstrued as a facetious observation. There have been, and undoubtedly will be, occasions when honest professional advice will run counter to the designs of the government (often a euphemism for the party in power). On these occasions this point is bound to come into play. Secondly: not only is it not desirable to have a top military man in the shape of the CDS, it is also important that the appointment of the Secretary General for a fixed (non-extendable) tenure is strictly by seniority and rotation, and not at the discretion of the Government. It is of the utmost importance that professional advice in matters of national security is tendered totally without fear or favour. All possible institutional arrangements must be made to ensure this.

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