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Missing in action: General No 1


Sep 13, 2009
Reforms have a way of coming in late. No wonder then that a decade after the Kargil conflict exposed deep fissures within the military top brass,
some critical lessons, especially on the need for a single-point advice structure, and by extension a General Number 1, are yet to be learnt. It doesn't help that the Army, Navy and IAF do not see eye-to-eye on this. Compounding matters is the smugness of a bureaucracy happy with the status quo even as it exercises a vice-like grip on the armed forces in the name of "civilian control''. The political leadership, in turn, remains apathetic about genuine reforms in the country's higher defense management.

Gen No 1 is missing. Strategic experts, who feel it is time India had a chief of defense staff (CDS), say it's a crying shame. The CDS, they say, can pitch in not only with a much-needed single line of advice to the government but manage the country's nuclear arsenal and resolve inter-service doctrinal, policy and operational issues as it brings about "jointness'' and synergy among the three services.

Both the previous NDA regime and the present UPA government have used the pretext of "evolving a political consensus'' to keep the CDS post in cold storage. The 1999 Kargil war could have been a turning point for the country to settle the CDS debate, but that went by too. It's no secret that the then Army chief, Gen V P Malik, and IAF chief air chief marshal A Y Tipnis squabbled bitterly over the conduct of operations to evict Pakistani intruders from Kargil's peaks.

If Malik accused Tipnis of being reluctant to use airpower during the early days of the conflict, the latter claimed that an "embarrassed" Army was initially reluctant "to reveal the full gravity" of the situation to the government. Not surprisingly, the subsequent Kargil Review Committee, headed by strategic-affairs analyst K Subrahmanyam, and the high-powered Group of Ministers (GoM) led by L K Advani recommended sweeping systemic changes in the entire defense establishment.

The GoM report — Reforming the National Security System — underlined the need to have a CDS because it felt the functioning of the existing chiefs of staff committee, comprising the three service heads, "revealed serious weakness in its ability to provide single-point military advice to the government''.

The "dichotomy of command'' remains a glaring problem to this day. This when modern-day warfare demands integrated all-arms operations under a single structure to achieve swift decisive victories. Many of the GoM recommendations — like the creation of integrated defense staff, tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command, Defense Intelligence Agency and Strategic Forces Command — have indeed taken shape. But successive governments have steadfastly ignored the all-important CDS post.

When defense minister A K Antony told Parliament in August this year that he had initiated moves to consult various national-level political parties way back in March 2006 and that "so far, six parties have responded'', he was merely stating the obvious and going down the beaten track.

A senior officer smirked, "This has been the standard answer for several years now. In the absence of a CDS, the unified structures established after the Kargil war are like headless chickens, running here and there without achieving much. Even the operational command in A&N Islands is floundering.''

Another officer added, "As national security advisors, first Brajesh Mishra and now M K Narayanan have virtually usurped the role to become a super-CDS. Don't forget, their post comes with the responsibility of heading the executive council of the two-tier Nuclear Command Authority. With the CDS lynchpin missing, defense reforms since Kargil have been half-baked at best.''

While all this is certainly true, inter-service rivalry, with each keen to guard its own turf, has been a major stumbling block. No chief wants to lose command of his own service, that too at crunch hour. The Navy, under the leadership of chiefs like admiral Arun Prakash, has however, intermittently pushed for a CDS post. Not the Army and IAF though.

IAF, for instance, has long thought of itself as the only natural custodian of nuclear weapons. Moreover, it would not like a general or admiral as CDS to wield control over what it holds to be a highly technical force. "Army and Navy lack air-mindedness,'' said a senior IAF officer rather summarily. The Army, the largest service with over one million troops, nurses its own ambition to monopolise the CDS position.

The good part, though, is that consensus seems to be building, slowly but surely, even as the services continue to squabble among themselves over things like acquisition of helicopters and air defense weapons. "There should be a CDS to crack the whip, to reconcile and prioritise equipment and budgetary demands of the three services,'' said a serving vice-admiral. "In fact, the CDS should be a five-star general with clear-cut authority over the four-star chiefs, not just a first among equals. And he should have direct access to the PM.''

Around 70 countries, including France, Germany, UK and US, have a CDS-like structure. It's time, many say, India had one.

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