Government must follow transparent process
Lt General K J Singh
There has been intense debate on the proposed chief of defence staff (CDS) and its essential corollary, theatre commands. It is well known that Air Force has been vehemently opposed to the very ideas of CDS and unified theatre commands. Their apprehension is driven by fear of getting subsumed. Status-quo is justified on specious grounds of merit in centralization of meagre air power. Consequently, none of standalone regional commands are co-located and turf battles continue unabated. Navy, however, has remained supportive of nascent
Current discussion remains superficial and centred primarily on who and when. In fact, personality-centric approach has been the very bane of evolution of CDS as well as prime cause for its stalling, often at behest of politico-bureaucratic lobbies. The process has been hijacked by personalities rather than real substantive issues of structure and charter. South Block has witnessed unfortunate and even comical turnarounds in stand of individual services based on optimistic calculations of people at the helm. It is indeed heartening that after two decades, government has resorted to ‘top down’ approach followed by most countries in instituting CDS system, most notably by USA through Goldwater-Nichols act of 1986. It is hoped that establishment will remain focussed on defined intent of single point contact and synergy among individual services. It should eventually transform from current bureaucratic to genuine political control.
As an inescapable step, the government should put in place transparent and institutionalized system for selection of CDS. The choice is very stark — should we promote culture of status-quo oriented ‘yes man’ dwarfs or discover Manekshaws, ready to take calculated risks, empowered with operational autonomy to safeguard supreme national interests? Career progression in higher leadership has to be based on very rigorous filters, with additional criterion of joint-man ship. Grooming of future commanders should be driven by deep selection and steered through designated unified appointments. British armed forces has highly efficient model, in complete variance with our current model of manning joint organisations, with left overs from the kitty. CDS will have to be given an over riding say in selection and placement at flag ranks, specially for combined services appointments.
The next relevant issue relates to designation of CDS with four- or five-star billing and access to political leadership. CDS will naturally function better with five-star status specially in hierarchical structure. Albeit, it can also work with ‘primus inter pares’ (first amongst equals), provided the incumbent is given adequate control over two coveted disciplines associated with military operations (MO) and military secretary (MS), latter related to career management (selection and placement functions) of senior leadership. Contrarians advocate souped up version of ad-hoc arrangement of chief of integrated staff (CISC) with focus on planning, capability building and acquisitions with remit limited to joint commands and agencies. Like most armed forces, current realities and crisis management drive the future and it is best exemplified in all pervasive control of MO and MS branches in Army. Further proof is evident in the impending subsuming of perspective planning directorate of Army dealing with future within MO. Armed forces like ours are driven by defensive responses, embroiled in hybrid war along with frequent disaster management operations. Focus in foreseeable future will remain on these domains and CDS, if kept out of operational loop, will essentially be sub-optimal compromise. In our immediate neighbourhood, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have ceremonial CDS/JCS. On a personal note, it is difficult to forget the laconic smile and wink of Sri Lankan incumbent, in response to my direct query on his charter. Why have a toothless and nominal CDS, specially without control over operational synergy?
Another concern is: which model to follow? Why ignore potential disaster of blindly aping any system? Ideally, we should evolve an indigenous model customized to strategic vision and challenges. It is high time that available drafts on national security strategy are analysed and refined to formulate clear cut directives. Otherwise, it will be like putting proverbial cart before the horse.
According to available inputs, Chinese model of mega theatres and transition to just four or five regional commands is being advocated citing example of western theatre command, responsible for entire Sino-Indian border. It will be pragmatic to factor our terrain and need to man 4,057 km of disputed border along with boundaries with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Compared with Chinese palm radiating power outwards to fingers (Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Arunachal), we have two distinct theatres with differing terrains, connected with tenuous link of Siliguri Corridor. Recommended model could be, northern theatre with responsibility of Ladakh, Himachal, UP borders and eastern theatre with current geographical boundaries, thereby, reducing present complexity of manning of northern border by four Army and three Air Force commands to two integrated theatres.
Pakistan border can similarly be apportioned between north western and south western theatres considering two distinct types of topographies. Even proposed maritime theatre should be organized into two separate western and eastern maritime theatres with eastern one amalgamating Andamans & Nicobar. Theatre commands can best work in an autonomous regime and that remains the biggest challenge. Proposed model has potential to become spring board for integrated logistics dovetailing civilian infrastructure optimising logistics.
Bottom line is: foster genuine integration of silo based bureaucracies by cross manning, utilizing talent pool of services and treating national security as specialized and niche discipline backed by adequate funding.
The writer is former Army Commander, Western Command
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.