Bharat Karnard: What kind of CDS system does the PM have in mind?

POLITICS / Saturday, August 17th, 2019

From: Bharat Karnad

(Armed services chiefs meeting Modi at the Red Fort — Aug 15, 2019)

Sometimes Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes up with pleasant surprises. There was the announcement in his address from the Red Fort ramparts about the chief of defence Staff (CDS). And the other was an exhortation to trust in locally-made products village-level up. Presumably, this applies to the Indian armed services as well who have, over the years, loudly voiced the indigenization mantra but, in practice, reluctantly supported home-grown defence R&D projects and outright rejected the hardware (Tejas light combat aircraft, Arjuna main battle tank) that resulted from them in order to protect their import options.

A CDS system has been in the works for the better part of forty years with every passing flag rank officer in the three armed services expressing a need for it, but those from the Indian Air Force in particular also offering caveats and urging a go-slow. Why so? No great secret this, because IAF has always feared that as the senior service and the one most directly involved in border clashes and counter-insurgency operations and, therefore, more in the public eye than either of the other two Services, the Indian Army would end up monopolizing the CDS post. The IAF is a large enough force for its opposition to CDS to not be ignored by any government. The Indian Navy, on the other hand, is too small to matter and other than extolling the virtues of a CDS, tactfully, kept itself out of the fray. So the CDS issue got strung out over the differences between the army and air force.

Post- Kargil border conflict, a high-powered Committee chaired by the late K. Subrahmanyam stated in the clearest terms that the absence of a CDS led to the slow and sketchy reaction and build-up to action of the Indian military to the capture in Spring 1999 of the Kargil heights by the Pakistan Army’s Northern Light Infantry. Some years later, during the Vajpayee interregnum a committee with Subrahmanyam in it and chaired by former defence minister KC Pant was constituted to look at the Higher Defence Organization. It too recommended establishment of a CDS structure for singular military advice to the government of the day. Too often, Prime Ministers and Defence Ministers, seeking the military’s counsel in a crisis, usually got advice favouring the Service the current Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, was affiliated with. But because the Chairman was a rotational post and did not outrank his fellow chiefs, his advice to the government was as often disputed by the other Services chiefs, leaving the government in its normal state of confusion. In this system, naturally, not only was an optimized military solution or decision difficult to obtain, and if made it was by happenstance, but the spurned chief ensured his Service’s role in coordinating military actions was half-hearted, and left something to chance.

Deposing before the Pant Committee I referred to how military “unification” was achieved in the US chiefly by President Harry S. Truman imposing the integration plan drawn up inside of three weeks by, no not a committee, but by one man — a chap called Ferdinand, adviser to Truman’s confidante, friend and Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson. As a consequence, the Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff-system came into being.

There is an anecdote worth retailing here to emphasize just how a strong political leader can cow down an equally strong military leadership opposing his moves. This is important: Truman took ownership of the Ferdinand Plan and hearing murmurings of dissent against it in the senior Service, the US Navy, called a meeting of frontline admirals — Chester Nimitz, Arleigh Burke, et al, who at one end successfully prosecuted massive fleet actions in the Pacific theatre against the Imperial Japanese Navy, and at the other end fought off German submarine wolf-packs and mounted the famous Atlantic and Murmansk convoys conveying American war materiel to European Allies and to Soviet Russia. Striding into the big hall where the beribboned admirals were seated, Truman simply said that he had heard that his unification initiative had attracted opposition and, in the event, he said, those who were against it should step up and resign right there and then! Stunned naval brass headed by Nimitz said nothing, and Truman signed the unification order for implementation soon thereafter.

I suggested to the Pant Committee that the PM impose a CDS on the military because such radical structural change in the higher defence organization could not be realized by consensus, and that under no circumstances should the government ask the Services’ chiefs for their views. Alas, an over-cautious Pant and his Committee recommended just this, eventuating in a dissenting note from the then Chief of the Air Staff, whence the matter was once again consigned to the cellar.

It is a very good thing that the Prime Minister publicly announced his CDS decision — so there’s no chance of back-pedaling. As Modi spoke the TV camera panned to show the relief on the face of the CAS, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, because now the decision to veto the CDS decision was taken abruptly out of his hands. The IAF will have to lump it and Dhanoa will be spared incoming fire from his air force colleagues and predecessors who had derailed such moves in the past.

The question arises: What kind of CDS system does the PM have in mind? The CDS secretariat in-being has been in existence for over two decades now in the form of the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff. That’s a functioning body and not a problem. But how far will the process of integration go? Will the separate and purposely not co-located theatre commands of the three Services numbering some 19 Commands in all be pared drastically to a more manageable, say, ten military Commands, including the already (if inefficiently) integrated Andaman Command? These Commands could be Northern, Western, Central, Peninsular, Eastern, Space, Cyber, Special Forces, Transport and Logistics/Maintenance, with Northern, Western, Peninsular and Eastern being comprehensively-capable Theatre Commands and Space, Special Forces, Transport and Logistics supportive Commands. Common sense suggests that in such a scheme Peninsular, Cyber and Andaman Commands be headed by the navy, Space, Northern, Transport and Eastern Commands by the air force, and Western, Special Forces and Central Commands (the last also a reserve holding and hence numerically the largest Command able to deploy/switch its forces as required between theatres) by the army, and the Logistics/Maintenance Command with its chieftancy held in rotation. (Why such a distribution of Service responsibility will be discussed in another post, another time.)

The stickiest issue for Modi will be who to appoint the first five star Chief of Defence Staff in the rank of Field Marshal and equivalent — Marshal of the Air Force and Admiral of the Fleet (because the CDS will necessarily have to outrank the services chiefs of staff if the whole exercise is not to be reduced to an impractical mess). In this context, the selected CDS will have to be an officer who has shown foresight, displayed vision (which two attributes presume a certain level of intellect), and exhibited tact. US Chief of Army Staff General George C. Marshall when confronted with choosing the Supreme Commander Allied Forces, Europe, to lead the war effort against Nazi Germany advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt to appoint Dwight D. Eisenhower and not a “fighting General” like George Patton or Omar Bradley, because of his proven organizational skills — something Modi should keep in mind when nominating the CDS.

So, the trick question — who among the extant service chiefs or among all the three star-rank officers below them in the three Services has a professional record manifesting the skills to get the most out of diverse oganizations and will make the best CDS?


Modi in his Red Fort address to the nation spoke about trusting in locally made products. Does he really believe this? If so, why hasn’t it been evident in his government’s major military procurement decisions all of which without exception have settled on or are inclined towards imported armaments and foreign military-use systems? The score card on this count is irrefutable: the French Rafale combat aircraft (and Swedish Gripen and American F-16 in the wings), the US Apache attack helicopter, Russian T-90 MBT, prospective Spanish, French, Russian, or German involvement in the Project 75i diesel submarine programme, etc.

To claim, as the armed Services do in their own defence, that no indigenously designed and developed weapon system meets their operational standards, is a lot of bull. Arjuna MBT has beaten the T-90 hollow in all test trials in different terrains and weather conditions. Tejas is a beautiful 4.5 generation fighting platform given short shrift by IAF when it could fill the IAF fleet and be the basis for future derivative combat aircraft of all kinds and meet the Service’s light, medium and heavy fighter-bomber requirements. Arihant-class “boomers” — nuclear powered longrange ballistic and cruise missile-firing submarines (SSBNs) are of indigenous design, developed and manufactured at home, and yet, if navy is to be believed, we need foreign design and technology for the technologically simpler and less demanding conventional submarine — when all that is needed are specific technologies, such as electro-optic masts, AIPS (Air Independent Propulsion System), and cavitation and other noise reduction. And why Apache when there’s the HAL’s attack helicopter and Kamov 226 utility helos when there’s Dhruv?

Once the armed services know they cannot opt for foreign hardware, they’ll perforce commit heart, mind, and resources to indigenous armament projects with enormous export potential to Africa, the immediate neighbourhood, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Latin America. These are military products with a ready market. From having the shameful tag as the world’s largest arms importer, India could become a very consequential exporter of arms.

Modi is supreme leader with no rival on the horizon within his party or elsewhere in the Indian polity and can do anything he wishes. He made the decision for CDS. Following on his reference to indigenization he should now declare that his government will not anymore permit armament imports, that’s it, khalas, no foreign military goods. This decision will unleash precisely the “änimal spirits” he says he wants to see driving the Indian economy, generating new technologies, and jobs by the millions in Medium and Small Scale Enterprises — India’s mittelstand — at the cutting edge of this national effort.

And, oh, yes, he will also need to get HAL, Mazgaon Dockyard Ltd and other “white elephant” defense public sector units, who have dragged the Indian defence industry into the mud, out of the frontline of defence industry and get the more productive and efficient Larsen & Toubro, Godrej Aerospace, Mahindra Aviation, Bharat Forge, and even Reliance Defence centrally into the game. Private sector companies driven by the profit motive are the future and answer to India’s defence problems.

As a Gujrati with “business in my blood” as Modi put it, the Prime Minister should see clear to doing these above things. He has wasted five years on his romance with the bureaucracy and the public sector. Time to wake up, Mr Modi, and do what’s right for India because you politically can and because no matter how much time you think you will have in power, it could all change in a trice!

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