August 30, 2001


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

The CDS controversy deepens

The controversy over the chief of defence staff is evergreen, mainly because of the strong reservations of the Indian Air Force. Recently the chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal A Y Tipnis, did one unusual and one not-so-unusual thing.

He reneged on an agreement reached in the presence of Special Adviser (defence) Arun Singh and his army and navy counterparts on the composition and inter-service pro rata distribution of posts in the reformed higher defence management structures that were reviewed by the Cabinet secretary on August 8.

Before that, the expenditure secretary had spoken to the defence secretary assuring him that the proposals forwarded by the defence ministry would be expeditiously screened and approved.

The change of heart, which Tipnis called 'a rethink', was contained in his letter of July 18, addressed to the defence secretary, copies of which were endorsed to the two other service chiefs. A missive by a service chief over in-house agreements thrashed out over several rounds of chiefs of staff committee meetings in concert with the implementation cell of the defence ministry being sent to the defence secretary is unusual and not the done thing.

Having bombed the proposed appointment of the CDS, no one is surprised at this last-ditch stand by the IAF to stall, if not stop, the execution of the defence restructuring agenda. The ghost of integration and tri-servicing the armed forces has haunted the fliers for decades, as once integration moves to the theatre command level, they fear it will negate their single-service identity.

It is this internecine squabbling between the IAF and the other two services that has caught the fancy of politicians and the press. But a CDS is required for this very reason -- to stop the wrangling -- besides the joint management of the tactical and strategic war-fighting and deterrent capabilities of the country.

From day one of the defence reforms debate, Tipnis has made plain his reservations to the CDS and, to his credit, has stuck to his guns. He was ably assisted by a galaxy of retired air force chiefs who wrote to the President, prime minister and defence minister voicing their conscientious objections to the CDS system. Two of them carried their pique to the press.

It is their collective effort -- though never in the national interest -- which is being seen as the main reason why the government decided to consult the Opposition on the crucial appointment of the CDS. Rather than act decisively, the government buckled to extraneous pressures.

But all is not lost. The BJP-led government has defence reforms as the centrepiece of its national security agenda and will appoint a CDS before the end of the year.

It is useful to recall the 18-month-long chronology of events that led to the establishment of an implementation cell to put in place the long-expected first tranche of defence reforms. These include the creation of a CDS, its associated planning structures and institutions, establishing a defence procurement agency, defence intelligence agency, strategic forces command, the first-ever tri-service Andaman and Nicobar operational command and, instead of the widely expected merger of the service headquarters and the defence ministry, only their selective integration. These reform measures do not go far enough in integration, yet they make a useful start.

The creation of the CDS and integrated defence structures was seen as imperative for greater jointmanship and optimisation of resources among the three services, both by the task force on higher defence management and the Kargil Review Committee. The two bodies went into the issue of structural reforms that were to be effected in the armed forces if Kargil was not to be repeated. Of the 24 recommendations made by the Group of Ministers, the government accepted 23. Only the appointment of the CDS was deferred. The implementation of the structures was on hand and the CDS file under the defence minister's signature with a big sticker, 'no additional costs to government', was sent on July 8.

It was on July 18 that Tipnis, in letters to the defence secretary and the defence minister (with copies to his other colleagues, General S Padmanabhan and Admiral Sushil Kumar), said he had had a 'rethink' on the proportions in which the three services should be represented in the new establishment. The air force, as indeed the army and the navy, had previously agreed to the proportions at a meeting convened by Arun Singh. Meanwhile, the IAF, probably to register its dissent, did not represent itself adequately in the tri-service implementation cell.

These moves were seen as the last bid to stall the restructuring and address the greatest fear of the air force, that it will be marginalised once the restructured tri-service organisation is in place.

This unfounded threat is a legacy of history and dates back to a unique closed-door civil-military conference in Pune in 1986 attended by their top leaders. It was here that the IAF chief made a passionate 'over-my-dead-body' rejection of the CDS and integration.

The controversy over proportionate representation in the new structures is explained by the huge disparity in the strength and size of the three services. The initial formula worked out earlier this year after many contentious meetings was 7:1:2 for the army, navy and air force.

Later, the army chief agreed to scaling down his share and brought in the 5:3:2 formula. The air force agreed to this, but then had a rethink.

Tipnis's objections were conveyed to Defence Minister Jaswant Singh at a meeting on August 3. Their thrust was that the air force should have a share in the new structures that would give it one-to-one parity with the army. But the rethink, it seems, is a bit late, as the IAF's objections are merely academic now.

The new defence structures in place without the CDS would be like a world cricket XI without a captain. Home Minister L K Advani, who chaired the GoM, announced at the time of putting the CDS on hold that one would be appointed before the monsoon session of Parliament. That has not happened even after ceremonial rehearsals.

Admiral Sushil Kumar, at present chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, was widely tipped for the job and is still in the race. Once the new structures are established -- the CDS joint staff is expected to begin arriving in their Kashmir House office by mid-September -- operationalising these will become his task, not as the CDS or even acting CDS but as chairman, COSC.

The CDS hoodoo has plagued India from early times despite Lord Louis Mountbatten's efforts to get one appointed in the early 1950s. A second attempt made in 1969, which included service headquarters becoming part of the government, also fell through because of vested interests. A CDS has been on the cards for a very long time and is not a recent measure.

The government has done a great deal of spadework in introducing reforms. But their architecture not being spelt out led to wild speculation in the press and on the cocktail circuit about the shape and role of the new institutions, especially the CDS. The one organisation, which is still being fleshed out by Arun Singh himself, is the strategic forces command, repository of India's strategic nuclear assets. The CDS will be the government's military adviser on their deployment and use.

The new set of reforms has been challenged even before they were tested. Defence reforms are designed to further harmonise inter-service cohesion on the one hand and improve civil-military relations, giving the latter greater say in decision-making.

After globalisation, the new mantra in the armed forces is tri-servicisation: making it mandatory for service officers to hold office in a tri-service organisation for promotion beyond one-star rank. Once institutionalised, this rule will mirror the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the US that has governed higher promotions in their armed forces for three decades. Not only does a brigadier and equivalent-rank officer have to serve in a tri-service organisation, he also has to qualify at a Capstone course thereafter to retain his rank.

Merit, not seniority alone, will determine the calibre of the new generation of military leadership.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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