May 24, 2001


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

CDS -- A needless controversy

Opponents of the CDS set-up got a last-minute reprieve recently when the government postponed the appointment of the first chief of defence staff. Although the Cabinet is supposed to have approved all the recommendations of the Arun Singh Committee, they balked at taking the final step in implementing the proposals. Apparently some belated caution appears to have resulted in the decision.

If newspaper reports are to be believed, all is not well behind the scenes. As predicted by a few, inter-services jealousies and intrigues are beginning to surface. The facade of bonhomie and cooperation is showing signs of cracks even before the new CDS takes over.

In rushing headlong into reorganising the country's defence set-up, the government made three major blunders. First, it tried to attempt to do too much too soon. Second, there was utter lack of transparency and debate prior to the overhaul. Finally, and importantly, the timing in bringing about the changes was wrong.

India's higher defence control organisation as well as the set-up of the defence ministry has hardly changed since Independence. Over the years many lacunae have been found in the way our defence and the armed forces have been organised, but little attempt was made to find out alternatives.

The Kargil war once more highlighted the need to reorganise the armed forces, especially their intelligence network and methods of jointmanship. India's entry into the nuclear world will bring in its wake, sooner rather than later, tactical and strategic nuclear forces and thought must be given to their control and deployment.

In the wake of the Kargil war, the government had set up a committee under Arun Singh to recommend changes to the existing defence organisation. Its report has been with the authorities for over eight months. The report has not been published, but it is well known that the committee proposed far-reaching changes to the existing set-up, including the establishment of a chief of defence staff.

The CDS is expected to be of the same rank as other chiefs, but a "first among equals". He will have the strategic [read nuclear] forces under his command and will be responsible for all operations. There is also talk of integration of all armed forces, but the method by which this is going to be achieved is not known.

These are far-reaching changes and it would be foolhardy to attempt such a major overhaul of the fifty-year-old defence organisation all at once. It would also have been wiser to attempt a bottoms-up approach to the changes rather than the top-down approach that is now planned. Incremental changes are far easier to digest than a monumental overhaul, which can easily throw the entire set-up into chaos for years.

The government is also belatedly talking of a national debate on the report. A country's security organisations should be of concern to every citizen as well as their representatives in Parliament.

The government has been talking of greater transparency for years in matters of defence. Yet it is attempting to overhaul the entire apparatus behind closed doors.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the defence organisation has seen major changes over the past many years. Yet, each time a review committee is appointed, a detailed report is published and made public, a white paper is published, and the report is discussed in detail in Parliament before changes finally take place. None of these things have happened here.

It would have been the correct thing for the government to have published the Arun Singh Committee report and its recommendations and given Parliament a chance to debate the changes. Of course, recent events in Parliament make it difficult to imagine an erudite or enlightened debate on the affair. Even so, such major changes as are envisioned in the report cannot be brought about without the public knowing something about them.

Unfortunately, the patronising attitude, even disdain, with which every Government of India has treated the people makes it difficult to know anything about far-reaching changes before they are implemented.

Finally, it is obvious that the government and the committee totally underestimated both the deep-seated feelings about and the strength of the opposition to the CDS proposal. The clamour for a CDS is not new. The army has been asking for the super senapati for years and both the air force and the navy have opposed the proposal in the past. Both these services have genuine fears of being made ineffectual in the new set-up.

To understand the opposition of these services to the proposal, one has to understand the psychology of a service chief. When he assumes office, each navy or air force chief also assumes the title of defender of the turf. For the past 50 years the underlying battle in New Delhi among the two services has always been how to prevent being swallowed by India's overwhelming army.

In the past three decades the Indian Air Force has seen itself being divested of some of its prized possessions. In 1978, they lost the maritime air recce responsibilities and a large chunk of hardware to the Indian Navy after a fifteen-year battle. A few years ago, the army got its own air wing over their opposition. Quite rightly, the air force feels that it is being reduced to a supplementary service.

After India went nuclear, it was the obvious dream of the air force to control the strategic nuclear delivery forces. With the CDS set-up they are once again close to losing that prize too.

Although such a force may come under the air force administratively, its operations will be controlled by the CDS under the new dispensation. This is the last straw as far as the IAF is concerned.

India's armed forces have a long way to go before our chiefs can accept the American system where the job of a chief is only to recruit, train and hold forces and hand them over to another body for operations.

Unfortunately, the timing of introducing the CDS is all wrong. We have a chief who opposes the proposal, who has about six months to go. There is nothing a service loves more than a chief who stands up for his service. After the Bhagwat episode and the Tehelka scandal, the last thing the present government would want is another service controversy and to give a chief, especially one who has hardly any time left before retirement, an opportunity to be a martyr by resigning on "a matter of principle". It will be best for all concerned if the proposal is 'debated' for the next seven months and implemented in the New Year when we will have new navy and air force chiefs.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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