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Joining forces

India needs a chief of defence staff and a system of theatre commands

The Indian politician,in spite of his strident emphasis on the principle of civil control over the armed forces,tends to shy away from providing strategic guidance to them. The management of security has been delegated to a bureaucracy unfamiliar with the nuances. This neglect of a vital political function could stem from the belief that it wins no votes. Presumably,a politician has little time to spare for arcane matters such as national security or the management of armed forces and veterans.

But things are changing. The intense media coverage of 26/11,and of every terrorist act or security lapse thereafter,has brought about a change in public perceptions. The Indian voter,preoccupied with roti-kapda-makaan for so long,has now begun to question why our cities are not safe,in spite of a huge defence budget,a vast army and multiple police forces. At a time when the UPA government is trying to redeem its public image by moving on economic reforms,it could also consider pulling national security out of limbo and initiate long-overdue reforms there.

Electoral considerations apart,the matter requires urgent attention because our archaic and ineffectual higher defence organisation may not be able stand the test of a 21st century conflict. Beset by economic woes,social tensions,insurgencies and political instability,India has never been so vulnerable. With China flexing its military muscle and a security vacuum in the northwest,following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan,the Indian state could face existential challenges.

Recently,there has been much discussion on the “leaked” portions of the report by the task force on national security,headed by Naresh Chandra,a former bureaucrat. Much of this discussion is centred on the need for a chief of defence staff (CDS) as well as switching to a system of “theatre commands” for the conduct of military operations. The drift of this discussion has been: if we cannot have a CDS,nothing else is worth having.

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Given the prevailing political apathy to security matters,such suggestions could create confusion and even frighten the government into inaction. But a brief outline of the scheme followed by the United States — the main practitioner of the suggested system — might bring some clarity. US legislators have ensured that the roles,missions,duties and organisation of the armed forces are unambiguously laid out in the Code of Federal Regulations. According to schedule 10 of this code,the department of defence is to be headed by a cabinet minister,designated as secretary of defence. He is to be assisted by three junior ministers,one for each service,and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (CJCS) — the equivalent of a CDS. The CJCS is the principal military advisor to the president and the secretary of defence.

Theatre commands,known in the US as unified combatant commands,are organised either on a geographical or on a functional basis and headed by a general or admiral,whose operational chain of command runs through the CJCS and the secretary of defence to the president. The chief of staff of a service,however,is an administrative position. It is held by the senior-most uniformed officer in the service and he bears no operational responsibility.

In India,each of the three service chiefs have worn two hats since Independence: the “staff hat” as the chief of staff and the “operational hat” as the commander-in-chief of his force. They also function,on a rotational basis,as chairmen of the chiefs of staff committee (COSC). Such anachronisms do not exist in any other modern military.


The US system covers the whole world with just nine unified theatre commands,each with a joint staff and integral components of the army,navy and air force at the disposal of the commander. In contrast,the Indian ministry of defence has mindlessly created 19 commands. Fourteen of these are geographic commands,three functional and only two joint. The difficulty that Indian armed forces will face in fighting jointly can be gauged from the astonishing fact that of the 17 single service commands,no two are headquartered in the same location.

A CDS and theatre commands are vital to the enforcement of a joint set-up and the effective operational deployment of India’s armed forces. Switching to such a system,however,will require nothing less than a dramatic transformation,and a rapid integration,of the three services. The most difficult and complex transition will be divesting the service chiefs of their combat functions and passing the operational control of joint forces on to the theatre commanders.

A practical option would be to institute an empowered,permanent COSC who would prepare a 5-10 year roadmap for such a change. For this to succeed,it must be accompanied by the creation of joint-service staff at every level and a more professional MoD with a larger number armed personnel in it.


The writer is a retired chief of naval staff,

First published on: 09-10-2012 at 02:49:38 am
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