Air Chief Marshal(Retd) Satish Kumar Sareen, more3, Indian Airforce

The three service chiefs should be free to function as equals

April 2001: Air Chief Marshal (Rtd) S.K. Sareen argues that the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff will weaken the quality of decision making at key planning and operational levels and reduce the effectiveness of our defence forces.

We were lucky that the limited Kargil war, which was thrust upon the country, did not cascade into an all-out war. Yes, we won this limited war, but at what cost — by losing invaluable young and gallant officers and soldiers, whose casualties perhaps would not have exceeded one-third the actual number had we deployed air power earlier and in greater strength.

Responding to pressure from the public and the media, the Government set up a committee to go into the various lapses and shortcomings leading to the intrusions and their aftermath. This was followed by a task force headed by Arun Singh, whose mandate was to review the management of defence forces. Surely the objective of both committees was to ascertain what was currently ailing the armed forces, and thereafter make recommendations to improve the system. Such a study could have only got to the depth of the problems if it had analysed the shortfalls in the present state of preparedness in all the three wings of the armed forces.

I am sorry to say that neither the Subrahmanyam Report nor the Arun Singh Report has commented at any length on this vital set of issues. Or maybe, for reasons of ‘national security’, they were shackled from disclosing the bare truth. Instead, to give the impression of Action Taken, some cosmetic changes are being proposed that fail to address the reality of the problems faced by the forces. While doing so, the powers-that be have overdone the ‘make-up’, and have recommended the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This recommendation, if implemented, would in fact weaken the quality of decision-making at key planning and operational levels, and reduce the effectiveness of our defence forces.

To improve the effectiveness of higher defence management, we will have to first honestly identify the nature of the problems, and then have the courage to tackle them head-on. I say this because the genesis of our dormant state of affairs, a la Kumbhakarna, lies in the workings of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Over the years we have surrendered to this all-inclusive monstrous system, accepting it as a fait accompli. As instituted today, the bureaucrats of the MoD, while exercising considerable power and authority over the armed forces, lack accountability and responsibility for the state-of-affairs. Needless to say, they often have scant knowledge or experience of matters military and sometimes even less interest.

By chanting the mantra of ‘civilian supremacy’, the ideal of democratic control has been subverted by them. By inserting itself between the professional armed forces and the democratically elected government, the unelected and unaccountable (in Parliament or the battlefield) bureaucracy has proven itself to be singularly adept at mismanaging the MoD and the higher defence management of the Nation. This is a harsh truth, and unless and until we recognise this openly, we will be looking for and identifying non-solutions (CDS) to non-problems (inter-service workings) and thereby create serious new problems in the bargain.

The reform that is most urgently required is the integration of the service headquarters with the MoD. Our non-uniformed counterparts in the MoD need to work alongside suitably qualified service officers, and the Raksha Mantri ought to receive more direct advice from the Service Chiefs, without having to rely on the distorting and contorting filter of the bureaucracy. This would allow the Government to better understand the needs of the armed forces and the underlying rationale of each case, thus enabling it to take correct and timely decisions.

The perverse practice of a separate MoD file for each case, to which the relevant service HQ does not enjoy access, must be discontinued immediately. What possible justification can there be for not sharing the government’s rationale and thinking with the armed forces on matters that affect them directly? To ensure timely decision-making on key procurement and project implementation issues, progress reports should be reviewed regularly (e.g. once every two months) by the Cabinet Committee of Security, attended by the service chiefs, the PSO’s concerned and the defence secretary. Delays and hold-ups will then have to be justified in front of a panel of the knowledgeable and the powerful. Timely and transparent decision-making in this manner would also take care of corruption to a large extent. The suggested reforms described above do not reqire a CDS.

The oft-repeated argument for the CDS is that it would resolve inter-service differences. Placing people under one roof in a newly set up HQ cannot resolve differences if they have not already been resolved by the existing Joint Committees where a three star officer (Lt. Gen., Vice Adm., Air Marshal) from each service is a member. During my three-year tenure as the Air Chief, I cannot recollect any major issue that was not resolved by the relevant Joint Committee, or subsequently at the COSC level. The only cases that remained unresolved or hibernating were those forwarded jointly by the COSC to MoD.

Interestingly, neither the Subrahmanyam Report nor (I believe) the Arun Singh Report have stated that the shortfalls in the Kargil war were due to inter-service differences. It is not a must to prescribe a strong medicine even though you are unable to correctly diagnose the ailment. This approach is, more often than not, likely to damage the patient’s health even further or worse.

Another proposed argument for the CS is that the CDS system would improve Joint Planning and thus enable to prioritise the allocation of defence spending. The ground reality is that the meagre capital funds allocated to the three services (for modernisation and upgradation) during the last ten years have never been fully spent. These funds are often surrendered due to poor or even absence of decision-making at the MoD, not withstanding the fact that we have a Five Year Plan, a Ten Year Plan and a Roll-on Plan. But unfortunately there is inadquate grease in the Rollers.

Yet another argument which is generally put forward is that if a CDS-like system can work in nations such as the USA and the UK, which has only recently adopted it, then why not in India. This is not a positive argument for what could potentially be a very discruptive event in the management of our armed forces. Aping the actions of another nation without fully understanding the reasons for their actions is surely a recipe for disaster. In the case of the UK, we must remember that the CDS system was introduced after the end of the Cold War, in which the UK was on the winning side. In its long and glorious military history, the UK armed forces did not require a CDS to manage its affairs. Deprived of an enemy, the UK armed forces have been cut back drastically during the last decade. The CDS system in the UK is part of a process of force reduction and simplification for a less challenging era, where their main duties will be low intesity peacekeeping in foreign states. In fact, the RAC chiefs expressed their reservation about the new system, which divorces responsibility for training and operations and affects the morale of the service negatively.

If the three services have to grow effectively, partly in unison and partly on their own, it is important that they are not made to bear on each other. This can ony happen if the three service chiefs are free to function as equals. Imposing a super chief — the CDS as the single point adviser on military affairs to the Government — is unlikely to produce results because a chief who is over-ruled may not implement the CDS’ decisions in the most effective manner. After all, he is at Ground Zero and with the ever-increasing complexity of modern weapon systems and war fighting strategies, the service chief would be loath to be over-ruled by a super-chief with less experience and understanding of his own theatre of war. Furthermore, for the effectiveness and morale of the services to be maintained, it is absolutely essential that the elected Government has one-to-one contact with each chief who will be most knowledgeable about the state of his service, its needs, capabilities and requirements.

Replacing the hegemony of the bureaucracy with the hegemony of a CDS will not benefit the armed forces.