It was heartening to hear from the Prime Minister (PM) during his Independence Day speech that there is a dire need for a joint culture for the three services and he announced that a CDS will be appointed soon. The PM’s statement is both timely and appropriate, as so far Joint endeavours have remained only a cosmetic exercise, despite their virtues.

Appointment of just a CDS, without a comprehensive plan of making the armed forces truly joint will be meaningless. Hopefully, such plans exist, but if they are non-existent, then immediate action is needed to make/update them.

Modern War cannot be fought with outdated structures, wherein the army, the navy and the air force conduct operations independently, with only coordination being achieved, with organizations as old as nearly seven-eight decades back. In the past, we may have retrieved some facets, by our traditional ingenuity and bravery, but that should hardly be a cause for satisfaction!

Military operations today, as well as in the future would require a great deal of synergy. This is on account of vast technological changes; the changing battlefield milieu; appearance of new threats and challenges; human rights issues; transparency brought in by the media; cyber and hybrid wars; and of course the nuclear factor. Consequently, an integrated approach and a truly joint force, is not just desirable but an imperative.

. The Indian military had realized the importance of joint endeavours soon after our Independence. This vision was translated into reality by the setting up of joint institutions like the National Defence Academy (NDA), the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) and the National Defence College (NDC). These institutions, all joint, covered a wide canvas, from pre-commissioning training to mid-career training and culminating in the highest level of formal training an officer undergoes.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, we lost our focus and drifted into separate compartments. Over a period, this compartmentalization has become institutionalized. The demand for joint approaches was repeated a number of times thereafter, specifically after each war.

A major recommendation of the Kargil Review Committee set up after the Kargil conflict to recommend reforms, including in the higher defence structure, was the need to set up joint structures at the earliest. The Group of Ministers (GoM) had accepted the recommendations and implementation instructions were issued in mid-2001. While an integrated defence headquarters and two joint commands were formed, many key recommendations, like establishment of the post of CDS and fully integrating the MoD and Service Headquarters have remained unimplemented.

Unfortunately, this state of affairs suited the principal actors, viz. the political leadership which continued to be bugged by the non-existent ghost of a military takeover, however preposterous it may sound; the bureaucracy, who see the CDS as threatening their lording over of the service headquarters; and the Air Force (with the backing of the MoD) over the imaginary fear of being overwhelmed by its larger sister service, the army. Service Headquarters were also reluctant to part with their powers, which would dilute their fiefdoms. They conveniently forgot that most professional militaries, having adopted joint structures, have increased their war fighting capabilities. In this respect, the Indian military, unfortunately, continues to be an exception.

However, it were the recommendations of the Kargil Committee and the GoM, headed by the then Deputy Prime Minister in the NDA-I Government in 2001 that it was formally approved.

As the then Vice Chief of Army Staff, I had dealt with these historic changes in great detail and was involved not only in the finalization of the recommendations of the GoM, but also in detailed working out of structures, organizations and systems for implementation, with my counterparts in the Navy, Air Force and others. The need now is to implement the PM’s decision post-haste, as many nay-sayers, both within and outside the Services, will still try to abort it with inane and meaningless arguments!

We must visualize the CDS, not as just another appointment in the higher defence structure, but as the head of an entire eco-system, which should be setup simultaneously or soon after appointing a CDS, so that the PM’s directions for joint systems, as a precursor of change are fully met.

Fortunately, we already have an integrated defence headquarters, albeit not fully operational in the absence of a head! Other actions that should commence simultaneously or even earlier are total integration of the MoD; detailed plans for setting up Theatre Commands, without which the CDS has little meaning; the reduction of tasking and activities of MoD and service headquarters; shifting more and more tasks and manpower from the latter to joint entities.

Merger of Services Headquarters with the MoD and their re-designation as Departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force under their Chiefs of Staff would achieve multiple gains. Aside from creating an integrated approach, politico-military considerations would be objective and comprehensive, through military representation in the decision-making loop.

Since operational command will gradually shift to Theatre Commanders and the CDS, the power and tasks of Service Chiefs will keep getting reduced and will ultimately consist of all aspects of manpower;, procuring/production of arms, ammunition and equipment; pre and post entry-training for all ranks; personnel matters including legal aspects, relief of all ranks/units; and similar administrative and higher logistics matters.

Theatre Commands are the key to transforming the armed forces as joint forces. We have only one Theatre Command at present, viz. Andaman & Nicobar Command and one Specified Command, viz. Strategic Forces Command. In addition, three other much smaller ones are in various stages of being set up; these are Cyber, Space and Special Forces (the latter has unfortunately been downgraded to a Division, although future wars demand more and not less Special Forces).

Based on operational considerations, a time-bound plan must be made, as to number of Theatre and Specified Commands the nation needs. Forming them will thereafter be graduated, in accordance with the broad time frame; infrastructure requirements; availability of funds; manpower availability and their training and equipping; and many other related issues.

While a CDS is being selected and appointed for providing single-point advice to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), a team under the aegis of the Integrated Defence Headquarters should be appointed simultaneously to prepare a blueprint for the manning and functioning of the entire CDS eco-system. This must be implemented ‘at the double’, as we say in the military! It is only then that synergy amongst the services would be achieved, as was visualized by the GoM and later accepted by the Government in mid 2001.

Selection of the first CDS is another important issue. The foremost requirement is professional acumen and reputation as a go-getter whose forte is ‘change’ and not status quo. Already, real and self-appointed analysts are vying with each other to predict as to who will be the first CDS! Unfortunately, they are based less on logic and reasoning and more on gut reactions or ‘langar gups’!

The options of selection are only two. Either select a serving Chief and sidestep him as the CDS, or select one from a panel of C’s-in-C. The second option has all the advantages (being discussed later). Let the current Chiefs superannuate, having honourably commanded and steered their Service. There is also the question of timing. An earlier attempt of 2001, of which I was privy to, had to be aborted at the last minute, as it would have had serious adverse repercussions on the existing hierarchy of that particular service.

The GoM had stated that the CDS would be a four star flag officer from either of the three services, who will be ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) with the other three Chiefs and function as the ‘Principal Military Adviser’ to the Defence Minister/CCS; who will serve till the age of 62 years like the three service chiefs; and who should not revert to his parent service after doing a stint as the CDS.

The above stipulations automatically suggest that the panel must be from the serving C’s-in-C. Some commentators have expressed concerns relating to inter-se seniority, but they are invalid, as at that level such seniority would not create any ripples. In any case, all the four Chiefs would be of four-star rank, and as laid down the CDS would always be the first amongst equals.

Considering our immediate adversaries and their present capabilities, the first incumbent could be from either the Army or the Air Force. Both have major roles to play in the Western and Northern borders.

However, two aspects need to be considered; firstly, the army is deeply involved with counter-insurgency operations in J&K and elsewhere and understands its nuances; secondly, Hybrid Wars are more likely in future, where the army will play a lead role. Hence, the first CDS from the army will be more suitable.

I do not, in any way, want to downgrade the importance of the Navy or the Air Force, who have extremely important roles to play in the security of the nation. They will, in any case, get their turns subsequently.

By happenstance, Chiefs of Army and Air Force would be superannuating shortly, while the Chief of Navy is a recent appointee. Simultaneously with the selection of the successors to the present COAS and CAS, the selection of the first CDS could also be carried out from within the eligible C’s-in-C of the Army and Air Force. This will result in a smooth succession, and at the same time a CDS will be appointed, without disturbing the hierarchical structure of the armed forces.

The government must translate the vision of the PM into reality and upgrade the decision-making structure of security-related issues of the armed forces. It will also be in the national interest.

The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS)