It has been more than three months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the decision to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in his Independence Day address. The delay in appointing the first CDS and assigning its precise role and responsibility is indicative of the complexities involved in implementing what could arguably be the biggest defence reform of the Modi Government. Coming just after the creation of the National Security Advisor-led Defence Planning Committee (DPC) in April 2018, it heralds a radical departure from the past in so far as India’s higher defence management is conducted. Since the prime minister’s announcement, numerous recommendations have been made by different quarters, often repeating what the Group of Ministers (GoM) and other expert bodies had suggested in the past. Few have examined other pressing areas pertaining to planning, procurement, joint-service institutions, military diplomacy and quality assurance where an institution like CDS could make a big difference.
India has so far prepared 13 defence five-year plans (FYPs), beginning with the first plan post the war with China in 1962. These FYPs are in addition to numerous other procurement plans articulated in the aftermath of the Kargil conflict in 1999. These plans and in particular the processes involved in formulating them have, however, hardly been satisfactory. The major deficiency of the planning process has been the lack of inter- and intra-service prioritisation, leading to duplication of efforts, haphazard capability development and sub-optimal utilisation of resources. The reason for such a lacklustre planning process has been the glaring absence of an overarching institution with the requisite authority to translate India’s overall defence requirements into a holistic capability development plan while keeping in view the scarcity of resources, technological advancements, self-reliance goals and politico-diplomatic engagements with other countries. The absence of an overarching agency has led to individual service headquarters (SHQ) to plan and project requirements that are not necessarily in harmony with those of other services. This is not how major countries in the world undertake defence planning.
With the creation of the post of CDS, India has an opportunity to rectify this historical deficiency in its defence planning process. The CDS could be entrusted with the task of defence planning, subject to overall guidance and directions from the DPC. It could be mandated to prepare and own a holistic 15-year plan from which would follow the five-year capital acquisition plan and the two-year procurement plan. While preparing the plan documents, the CDS would require to weigh the cost and benefit of different options to achieve the larger security goals, while remaining well within a pre-defined fiscal roadmap and constantly furthering the Make in India initiative in defence production. In essence, the CDS, through the planning mechanism, would need to determine the most cost effective and self-reliant force structure and its distribution among the services. It may entail right-sizing manpower to fund capital assets.
Contrary to popular perceptions, the armed forces play a vital role in arms procurement. In fact, two critical stages of procurement – formulation of qualitative requirements (QRs) or technical specifications and conduct of trials – that have the maximum bearing on subsequent decision making and speed of procurement are undertaken at the SHQ level. These two stages of procurement are, however, most susceptible to delays and controversies because of a variety of reasons, prominent of them being lack of expertise and professionalism. In the past, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, government-appointed committees, study groups and think tanks all have voiced their concerns and emphasised on greater professionalism and transparency in these two critical aspects. The CDS could be the overall in-charge of these two aspects. Dedicated and professional teams could be set up under the CDS to undertake these two tasks, which would go a long way in expediting the procurement process.
Along with the tasks of QR formulation and conduct of trials, the government may also like to review the existing powers exercised for the purpose of according Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) and sanctioning of capital acquisition proposals (see table below). Being the head of the tri-service agency, the CDS would be ideally suited to have larger delegated financial powers, over and above those exercised at the SHQ level, to expedite the procurement process. Suffice it to say that the existing financial powers which were substantially enhanced in the recent past have led to full utilisation of the procurement budget.
Capital Acquisition: Competent Authority for According AoN and Financial Sanction
|Financial Limit (Rs Crore)||Authority for According AoN||Competent Financial Authority (CFA)|
|≤ 300||Services Capital Acquisition Plan Categorisation Higher Committee (SCAPCHC)||Vice Chiefs of Army and Navy, Deputy Chief of the Air Force, Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC) and Director General, Coast Guard|
|>300 – ≤ 500||Defence Procurement Board (DPB)||Defence Secretary|
|>500 – ≤2000||Defence Acquisition Council (DAC)||Defence Minister|
|>2000 – ≤3000||DAC||Finance Minister|
|>3000||DAC||Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS)|
Source: Extrapolated from “Defence Procurement Procedure 2016,” Ministry of Defence, Government of India, March 2016.
With the appointment of a CDS, it is only natural that all existing joint-service organisations such as training establishments, Defence Space Agency, Special Operations Division, Defence Cyber Agency and integrated commands come under its administrative control. While bringing them under the control of the CDS, it is imperative to address some of the critical deficiencies facing the joint agencies. For instance, though the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) is an integrated theatre command, it lacks teeth due to differing perceptions and priorities of the contributing services. The Commander-in-Chief of the ANC (CINCAN) is constrained in requisitioning critical assets from the services to perform its assigned task. Addressing such deficiencies would be vital in making the CDS effective.
With the rise of India’s economic and military profile, defence diplomacy has assumed a great deal of importance. Presently, this crucial aspect is being conducted in an ad-hoc manner without an overarching policy direction from or the effective control of the Ministry of Defence. It would be ideal if the CDS is made responsible for all aspects of defence diplomacy, subject to clear policy guidelines from the government. All initial vetting of bilateral/multilateral exercises and visits of higher military authorities – to name just a few aspects of defence diplomacy – need to be centrally processed at the CDS level before it is finally approved at higher levels.
The Department of Defence Production (DDP) is often accused of conflict of interest because of its dual responsibility of being the administrative department for both production and quality assurance, the latter function being provided largely through the Directorate General Quality Assurance (DGQA). Though there is no hard evidence to suggest DDP’s interference in QA matters, it would be far more important for the DDP to focus on production, leaving the QA function to be dealt with by a neutral agency. The CDS, given its tri-service nature, would be ideally suited to take up this responsibility. However, any handover of QA functions to the CDS must not come in the way of reforms of DGQA and other such agencies. Self-certification, a global best practice, must be encouraged to the extent possible to encourage arms producers to own responsibility for their products and be accountable for quality.
Prime Minister Modi’s August 15 announcement to appoint a CDS is undoubtedly a bold and decisive step in reforming India’s higher defence management. The next logical step for the government is to quickly define the contours of the CDS’s charter of duties and responsibilities to allow him to function in a well-defined territory. While articulating the roles and functions, the government needs to examine not just the CDS’s role as a single-point military advisor, but also his role in other matters that are equally important in driving critical reforms. By assigning the CDS a key role in planning, procurement, tri-service institutions, defence diplomacy and quality assurance, the government would simultaneously unleash a host of critical reforms that have been unheard of until now.
The writer is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi