The announcement by prime minister Narendra Modi that the country would have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is a long due and welcome step. This had been the need of defence forces since long and is in keeping with the requirements of modern warfare.
Most other democracies, including the United States, already have this system for better coordination among various wings of defence forces and for having a single-point link between the elected government and the defence services.
Currently the country has a coordination committee comprising the three chiefs of army, air force and navy. The chairman is the senior most among the three service chiefs. However since these officer are of equal rank, there had been problems in taking decisions. Also the chief of the committee was reporting to the Defence Secretary who would report to the Defence Minister and who, in turn, would report to the prime minister.
The proposed chief of defence staff would now directly report to the Defence Minister. He would be a rank higher than the three chiefs and would be in a position to take a stand or prioritise requirements and needs of the three services. With his seniority he would be also able to have a final say on all matters concerning the defence services.
The need for such a post was acutely felt in 1971 during war with Pakistan which led to the bifurcation of that country and the birth of Bangladesh. The then army chief Gen Manekshaw (in pic)
was made the temporary head of defence forces for the duration of the war.
The need was again felt in 1999 and a committee formed after the Kargil war had also recommended appointment of a chief of defence services. There had been opposition from some quarters, including the Air Force, for having such a post but apparently prime minister Modi has now taken a call after due deliberations.
Defence experts point out that the old conventional ways of warfare with armoured vehicles, tanks, fighter aircraft and warships are over. It is the time of nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, satellite warfare and electronic surveillance. All these require close coordination and quick decision taking ability.
There had also been a growing feeling among the defence services that the status of officers was getting diluted as compared to that of civilian officers and that decisions were taken by civil officers who were not sensitive to the needs of defence. The post of chief of defence services would bypass the bureaucracy. However it is important that the civil and defence officers coordinate on equal footing for the greater good of the nation.
This is also the ideal time to integrate the services headquarters with the Ministry of Defence. This would enable services officers and bureaucrats to sit side by side as partners. This would also help in removing a lot of overlapping leading to efficiency and accountability.
Much would depend on the way the proposal is implemented. It has great potential to transform the defence services through formulation of long term policy, integrated planning and prioritisation or it can end up as another decorative post.
The vital question now is : who would be the first person to hold the prestigious post of chief of defence staff? There is ambiguity about the point whether he would be a serving officer or someone who had recently retired. Speculations are that it could be the current air chief marshal BS Dhanoa, who flew fighter jets in Kargil, or the army chief Gen Bipin Rawat. There are also speculations that he could be a recently retired and experienced senior officer like Lt General DS Hooda or recently retired and efficient former Navy chief Sunil Lanba.
Whoever is appointed finally to the vital and prestigious post must be an outstanding officer who should be able to command not just the defence forces but also respect and regard of all the three service chiefs with his competence and experience. With the region staring at an uncertain future, India can’t take chances with its defence chief.