Will the CCS bite the bullet?

More than a year after the Naresh Chandra Task Force on National Security submitted its report to the Prime Minister, one is hearing of a forward movement towards implementation of some of its recommendations. Although the report has not been made public–contrary to the earlier promise–the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC), comprising the 3 Service Chiefs, has worked out a blueprint for a new higher defence management structure for the armed forces and sent it to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) last month. 

Even the Technical Coordination Group (TCG), headed by the National Security Adviser and comprising top secretaries to the Government of India (GoI) has reportedly cleared the proposal for presentation to the Cabinet Committee on Security(CCS), the country’s highest decision making body on matters of defence and security. It is anybody’s guess however if–not when–the CoSC proposals would be put up for the consideration of CCS! For, ultimately, this new structure would be a major step in breaking the status quo in the country’s higher defence management and the ‘deep establishment’ in New Delhi is loathe to change. The question is: can the CCS overcome resistance from the well-entrenched bureaucracy and bite the bullet? 

Even as we await that decision, this is what has the CoSC proposed. According to sources in the know, the plan mainly is to:

  • Appoint a 4-star permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff for a fixed tenure of two years
  • Create three more tri-service commands–Special Operations, Cyber and Aerospace.
  • Revert the Andaman Nicobar Command to the Navy
Creation of the three commands may take some time but is doable in short term. According to available details, the proposed cyber command will be headed by officers from the three services by rotation but special operations command will be led by the army but assisted by the air force and the navy while the aerospace command would be headed by an air force officer to be assisted by officers from the other two services. The ANC is proposed to be the Navy’s 4th Command. The status of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC)–custodian of India’s nuclear arsenal–will however remain unaltered. 

The biggest sticking point apparently is appointment of the Chairman Chiefs of Staff since it would involve shifting one of the three current service chiefs to that post at the very least. However, given that the political leadership is preoccupied and weakened, it is unlikely that the proposal will get to the CCS in the current government’s tenure. Which is a pity since many of the other recommendations of the Naresh Chandra Task Force–when implemented–would bring in the much needed vigour in management of India’s defence forces. From what we know, it had also asked for integration of Service HQ and Ministry of Defence by allowing more cross-postings, had suggested shifting focus of India’s national security strategy from Pakistan to China, recommended better Intelligence Coordination between all agencies and creation of dedicated financial Institution for access to energy, rare earths and raw materials from across the world.

From some of the occasional interaction that this author has had with a few members of the Task Force, before and after the submission of the report, one aspect is very clear: There was no consensus on the creation of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), leading to recommendation to appoint another four-star officer as permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC).

The Permanent Chairmam according to the recommendation of the Naresh Chandra Task Force, will have a fixed tenure of two years and will be rotated among the three services. This officer will be assisted by the existing Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), headed by a three star officer from any of the three services.

Over the past decade, the IDS has evolved in a barely workable tri-services structure with over 300 officers drawn from the three services trying to function as a cohesive unit tasked with evolving “jointness.” On ground however, jointness or inter-operability has remained at best patchy.

The new post, the Task Force is hoping, will also bring in synergy in major acquisitions for all the three forces. Often, the three services have worked independently in procuring same set of equipment, duplicating work and creating separate infrastructure when synergy would have saved hundreds of crores of rupees.

However, critics of the new system say the recommendation to appoint Chairman CoSC is nothing but old wine in new bottle. It is a ‘no go’ because the Chairman will remain ever dependent on each of the services Army, Navy & IAF for its personnel requirements. Personnel of each service will be ‘lobbyists’ of respective Chiefs. Yet another opportunity, they say, to reform has been lost. National Security System does not have to depend on seeking Least Common Multiple (LCM)-solutions. It does not have to seek to appease lobbies and turfs.

The solution, some in service officers say, lies in divesting the three Chiefs of operational command of forces. Let them be Chiefs of respective Staff – ‘resource providers to joint operational/ strategic commands’ – content with recruiting, training of personnel; holding and maintaining equipment; and executing related administrative functions.

Appointment of CDS is however the prerogative of the apex political authority, namely the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). It can choose from panel of names forwarded by the three Services. There should be no rotation to appease services. Choice of apex political authority has to be final.

In absence of a common meeting ground on deciding to appoint a CDS, the Naresh Chandra Task Force recommendation can however be utilised in the interim in creating more cohesion among the services. For instance, the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, who will have a fixed two year tenure can be made in charge of making net assessment about the strengths and weaknesses of India’s adversaries—China and Pakistan—in a holistic manner, taking into consideration inputs from all the three services and cross-referencing those inputs with other agencies like the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and RAW. Currently, the three services send their individual assessments just to complete formalities to the IDS where it remains buried in files that never see the light of the day.

Over a decade after a CDS was recommended by the Group of Ministers (GoM) in the wake of the Kargil conflict, there is no unanimity on that issue yet. Given the strong differences within the services as well as in the political class, could this be the best arrangement for now? Or is it too impractical?

To find the right answers the government should have made the Naresh Chandra Task Force report public and let a healthy debate ensue.