It was heartening to read the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, recently say: “all three services will have to adopt a coherent approach to effectively deal will all possible security threats facing the country”.

Dhanoa said this in an interview with the Press Trust of India (PTI) that it was “imperative that the three services promote joint planning and exploit the strengths of the three services to help India win a war in the shortest possible time”.

Way back in the early 1980’s at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, I took a survey course called “Current Issues in US Foreign Policy” which was taught by two top specialists in international security issues, Joseph Nye and Al Carnesale.

In those days with the Cold War blowing hot the US and former Soviet Union together had over fifty thousand nuclear warheads, each one of them on hair trigger readiness to render each other and a good part of the rest of the world “into a smoking radiating ruin.”

On the very first day they said the course would really be about the relationship between three super-powers, the US Air Force(USAF), US Navy(USN) and the Soviet Union! Because rivalries of the USAF and USN, the nuclear arms race got bigger, far more than they actually needed to be. It is only after the demise of the Soviet Union and the deep cutbacks in the nuclear arsenals that the US Air Force and Navy nuclear arsenals were integrated into a single inter-service command.

When the BJP first came came to power in 1998, one of its two main promises was to enhance national security by integrating the three services into the Ministry of Defence and also to integrate defence planning and operations.

This was meant to pave the way for a new system that would have given the military a greater role in making policies pertaining to national security as well as in managing itself. It is generally agreed that India needs a Combined Defence Staff to integrate defence planning and operations. If this has not happened, much of the blame must fall on the services themselves.

The Indian Army has its own notions about who should get primacy, exspecially since it has a tradition that goes back to 1778 when it began as the Army of Bengal in the East India Company days. But its pitch is queered by the IAF that often marches to the beat of a different drummer.

The consequence of this reluctance to plan and work together showed up in Kargil. The IAF did not have the tactics and even the appropriate weapons when called to assist the Indian Army. The Indian Army didn’t seem to know what kind of support can be called for. It wanted attack helicopters but didn’t seem to know that they couldn’t operated at high elevations. It wanted drones, when the IAF didn’t have any.

So intent are the three services on fighting its own wars that they even maintain command systems that is out of sync with each other.

The IAF has a Western Air Command headquartered in Delhi to ostensibly work with the Indian Army’s Northern and Western Commands that are headquartered near Chandigarh and Udhampur. Similarly the IAF’s commands in Ahmedabad and Shillong are out of alignment with Army commands in Pune, Jaipur, Calcutta; and Naval commands in Bombay and Vizag. I make special mention of the IAF because in any modern war, the airforce is the all powerful queen on the geo-political chess board.

The IAF has a record of waging obdurate turf wars. It fought a long battle to keep all military helicopters under its control till good sense finally prevailed and the Army was given command of Chetak helicopters used for artillery spotting, anti-tank operations, tactical supply and medical evacuation.

The Indian Army won yet another bureaucratic war when it prevailed over the legendary indecisiveness of AK Anthony to grant it control of the new Boeing Apache 64E attack helicopters, so vital in anti-tank warfare. The IAF’s single mindedness is best evidenced by the fact that it took it more than a decade to optimize a squadron of Jaguars for maritime operations with Ferranti radars and Sea Eagle missiles.

We have a joint chiefs system, but it is a rotational system with the senior-most chief as the Chairman. They do even one better in Pakistan where they have a separate Chief of Defence Staff, four stars, house, flag and all, except that the job does not matter at all because it is the Chief of Army Staff who calls all the shots – quite often literally.

This is what seems to be in the cards for us as the Chiefs want to hang on to their turf and all they seem to be looking forward to at best is another four-star job for one of their own. What they seem to have in mind is a really last among equals, when even a first among equals may not do.

What we need is a Commander-in- Chief who can whip the three services into a united, efficient and cost effective fighting machine. This person must be chosen on the basis of ability and not date of birth or entry into service. If we need to pin a fifth star on someone’s lapels to get this, we must not hesitate to do so. In matters relating to the military it is better to have one chief rather than three or four.

The mere creation of a CDS will not do the job unless it is followed by the integration of operational or theatre commands. The military organization needs to be restructured not only by allowing it to take part in the framing of policy, but also to make it more capable of implementing policy.

We need just three theatre commands, the Northwestern Theatre Command incorporating the Indian Army’s Northern, Western and the bit of the Southern command that covers Gujarat; and the IAF’s Western and Southwestern Commands. The Eastern Theatre Command should integrate the Indian Army’s and IAF’s Central and Eastern Commands.

The third theatre command should be the Peninsular Command which includes the Indian Navy’s Eastern and Western Commands, the Indian Army and the IAF Southern Commands. It also makes sense to bring the BSF and Coast Guard units under the operational command of the theatre commanders.

The three Service Chiefs should be tasked with keeping their forces trained, provisioned and equiped to be made available to the theatre commands, as when when the political and military situations demand it.

In the US military, theatre commands are more paper commands with a contingency planning staff till operationalised. They are constantly preparing for eventualities with intergrated planning and exercises. It is the same with the PLA now with the Chinese military now organised into five commands, including one headquartered at Chengdu just for us.

The need for integrated defence planning and operations need not be elaborated upon. It would suffice to say that every major military power in the world has a combined defence organization. It’s only in countries where the services have a strong political tradition that separateness still prevails. In some countries these rivalries extend to ridiculous extents. In Argentina the Navy is equipped with tanks, as it needs them to ward off possible Army assaults on its bases. Things are not so bad in India, but the rivalry between the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force has about the same keenness as the IAS-IPS rivalry.

Somebody is bound to distort this to suggest that a CDS/Commander-in-Chief will undercut the authority of the President who is the Supreme Commander of all armed forces. This is sheer nonsense but has to be dealt with as the argument has been made before to prevent the creation of a CDS.

The President will be as presidential as ever before and all acts of the government including the waging of war will be done in his name. He will continue to be greeted by the Chiefs personally on his birthday, except that instead of three of them there would be four calling on him or better still just one!