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November 8, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

CDS - An idea before its time

As a result of the Kargil episode, the government appointed a three-man committee under the chairmanship of Shri K Subrahmanyam. After this committee submitted its report, four task forces to suggest improvements in internal security, border management, intelligence and defence management were set up. The task force to propose improvements in defence management, headed by Shri Arun Singh, has now submitted its report. Although the detailed report is not available, certain important suggestions have been published in the media.

The task force is believed to have suggested the establishment of a chief of defence staff. This person will be a four star general or equivalent who will be selected "on merit" from amongst the existing chiefs or any other officer who is an army commander and equivalent. Although of the same rank as the chiefs, he will be the 'first among equals.' The CDS will have a staff and will be in charge of the 'strategic forces'.

There is no doubt that the task force has carried out its task with great seriousness and sincerity. They interviewed a large number of military officers, bureaucrats and other civilians. Unfortunately, their recommendation, if ever implemented, is unlikely to make the existing higher defence organisation more efficient or even workable.

There are many reasons why a CDS type concept is unlikely to work within the Indian ethos and environment. These could form the basis of another column in due course. What we are concerned here is about the very first step, the selection of a CDS and his acceptability by those he is likely to command. In concept, the Arun Singh recommendation is lifted from the existing organisation in the United States.

As a result of the lessons learnt from the Second World War the US brought into being the joints chiefs of staff organisation. The JCSO is headed by a specially selected chairman who is personally selected by the US president. He may be advised by the US defence secretary but there have been instances when his advice has been disregarded. The JCSO deals with all military operations. The chiefs of services have a dual role in the US. As the head of his service, the chief is responsible for recruiting, training and administering his forces. Some of them are then placed under joint or theatre commanders who operate them under instructions from the JCSO. The chief of each service is also a member of the JCSO and thus in effect wears two hats.

In practice this system has worked well, although there have been instances of backbiting from the individual chiefs about their diminished role. In selecting the chairman, the US president is given full rein. He can select or promote anyone he likes. Of course, the person selected has to be approved by the US senate, but there have been no known instances of the senate rejecting a JCSO chairman proposed by the president. The president, on his part, has not been known to propose someone who does not have an outstanding record.

In 1962 President Kennedy, overlooked the existing ranks of serving officers, brought back from retirement General Maxwell D Taylor, and made him the chairman, JCSO. Taylor's reputation was so high, (he was the first general to parachute into Normandy in World War II) that he was accepted willingly by the chiefs.

In 1979, General Vassey, was serving as the head of US forces in Korea and was strongly tipped to become the next chief of army staff. At a congressional hearing Vassey strongly defended the continuance of US forces in Korea, a position which was not the official line of President Carter. Carter was so annoyed that not only did he not make Vassey the chief, but humiliated him by appointing him as vice chief under an officer who at one time was junior to him. Vassey did not rave or rant, did not put in his papers nor got a stay order from the court. Vassey served the new chief loyally.

When President Reagan assumed the presidency, he corrected the injustice by picking Vassey, over the heads of many, to be the chairman, JCSO!

In the west there have been many instances of persons being picked up from below, who are catapulted to higher rank and responsibility over the heads of their seniors. It is all part of the game and tradition, and is accepted by those who are superseded. Consider for example the following:

  • In 1916, Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, picked an obscure but charismatic young officer called David Beatty and gave him the command of the Battle Cruiser Fleet, a coveted appointment. Beatty thus became the second in command to John Jellicoe, the C-in-C of the Home Fleet. Beatty made a mess of things at the Battle of Jutland, but so high was his reputation, that it did not stop him from following Jellicoe in command of the Home Fleet.
  • In 1941, the same Churchill, now the prime minister, picked up a 41-year old naval captain, Louis Mountbatten, gave him the rank of vice admiral and made him chief of combined operations, where he sat along with the chiefs of staff, all of them years senior to him. Mountbatten was accepted because of his charisma and because his backer, Churchill, was all powerful. Even the disaster of the raid on Dieppe, failed to tar Mountbatten's reputation. He went on to greater things, to head the south-east Asia command where he became the boss of such great soldiers as Bill Slim (later Field Marshal Slim). Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy of India when he was 47. The rest is history.

Can such deep selections and promotions happen in India? Naah. Will they be acceptable to the military? Not a chance.

We have 5000 years of feudalistic tradition behind us. Wisdom and ability, we believe, comes with age and seniority. Or else it passes through the genes from father to son. We believe firmly that the king's son possesses all the qualities of the father. Sometimes this may work, sometimes not.

  • When the first peshwa of the Maratha kingdom died, Shahu Maharaj, picked his 21-year-old son to succeed him as prime minister. It was a fortuitous choice. Bajirao I proved to be an outstanding leader and next to Shivaji, is the most revered amongst Maratha rulers. On the other hand Shivaji's son Sambhaji, although brave, did not have the same ability as his father. Bajirao's own grandson, Bajirao II, was utterly incompetent and presided over the liquidation of the Maratha empire.
  • In present times, a prime minister's son becomes the next prime minister and minister's son the next minister.

Except for heredity, the concept that young, able and outstanding people should leapfrog over others is totally repugnant and unacceptable to Indian ethos, certainly to the military. In the sixties and the seventies both the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force tried to introduce a system of deep selection of officers for promotion. The schemes caused such dissension in these services that they had to be scrapped within a short time.

Today although a provision exists for accelerated promotion of very bright officers in all the three services it is more or less defunct. Bloated egos do not accept anyone else being better. Remember the controversy when General Vaidya was made chief over the head of General Sinha?

And pray, who is going to be the judge of 'merit?' Will it be based on over inflated reports of the officers? Or will merit mean sycophancy as it quite often happens. Remember 1961? If the CDS concept had been introduced in those days it is certain that Krishna Menon would have made General B M Kaul the CDS. And what a catastrophe that would have been.

No, the Indian military is not yet ready for 'selection on merit' nor for the 'first among equals.' Jointmanship is certainly necessary in India's armed forces. But instead of introducing it from top down we require to start from bottom up. Introduction of a CDS and making him the first among equals is sure to dissipate even the modicum of co-operation that exists between the forces today.

Let us first start with three joint operational commands, the north, the west and the east. The northern should always be commanded by an army officer, the western always by a naval officer and the eastern always by an air force officer. The forces of the other services should be placed under the joint commander who should be responsible to the chiefs of staff committee.

When such joint commands are established and functioning for about ten years possibly, we could go a step further and introduce the CDS.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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