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CDS: A Pragmatic Blueprint Required for Implementation

Mr Amit Cowshish is a former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence and former Distinguished Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for Detailed Profile
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  • August 30, 2019

    The decision to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), or Permanent Chief of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, satisfies a long-standing demand of the strategic community in India. Elation over the decision is understandable, but the blueprint for its operationalisation would require intensive deliberation to make sure that no aspect of its implementation is left unaddressed.

    Be that as it may, post the announcement of the decision, a high-powered panel has been set up by the government under the National Security Advisor (NSA) to draw up the charter of duties of the CDS and to implement the decision.1

    The panel has its work cut out, not least because the expectations from the CDS are daunting. The strategic community expects him to be entrusted with the responsibility for defence planning, resource allocation, bringing about jointness, prioritisation of acquisition programmes, intelligence gathering, training, logistics, research and development, defence manufacturing, and indigenisation, with varying degree of involvement.

    The three service chiefs are expected to retain the operational role, but they would be answerable to the CDS, who is most likely to have direct control over the tri-services strategic, space, cyber and special forces commands. He is also expected to spearhead military diplomacy. In a nutshell, he would be responsible for overall defence preparedness and function as the single-point military advisor to the government.

    For him to be able to discharge all, or even some of, these functions, several structural and functional changes will have to be made. To begin with, he will need an organisational set up. This may not pose much of a problem as this need can be served by Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS), which already exists since 2001. Some organisational changes will have to be made in its present set up. This should not lead to excessive expansion of HQ IDS. A lean and thin organisation, with officer-oriented work culture, will be less prone to bureaucratic lethargy. 

    Second, the functions to be carried out by the CDS will need to be specified unambiguously. It will be a challenge to strike the right balance between empowering the CDS sufficiently enough to discharge the functions assigned to him and overloading him with an unmanageable charter. Depending on what roles are finally assigned, a number of functions presently being performed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will have to be transferred to his jurisdiction. The modality of their transfer will need to be worked out to prevent disruption in work.

    Third, the question whether the manpower handling such functions in the MoD should also be transferred to HQ IDS will need careful consideration. It may not be desirable to transfer en masse the civilian staff and officers – some of them on deputation from various civil services – who for long have been accused of lack of professional knowledge, expertise and empathy required for carrying out the functions assigned to them. This is not going to change merely by bringing them under the administrative control of the CDS. They could, of course, be ‘re-educated’, but no crash courses are available for such re-education which, in any case, may not produce the desired results.

    All transferred functions should ideally be carried out by the service officers/personnel but considering that it would be contrary to the ongoing restructuring of the Services Headquarters, transfer of a section of MoD’s civilian complement to the CDS set up, seems inescapable. However, to pre-empt any consequential dysfunctionality, it would be desirable to restrict migration of the civilian staff to the secretarial level, leaving the decision-making posts to be manned by the service personnel.

    Fourth, again depending on what functions are finally assigned to the CDS, he would require to interact not only with MoD – which presumably will continue to exist in some truncated form – but also with several other ministries, including External Affairs and Finance, and also with functionaries like the Cabinet Secretary, Defence Secretary, and the National Security Advisor.

    The CDS may also need to interact with other organisations such as the Cabinet Committee on Security, Standing Committee on Defence, various other Parliamentary Committees, Comptroller & Auditor General, National Security Council Secretariat, Niti Ayog, and Defence Planning Committee (assuming that it will continue to function), just to mention a few.

    It would be desirable to lay down protocols and standard operating procedures for such interactions to ensure smooth functioning of the new dispensation under a non-obtrusive system of checks and balances, and to pre-empt contretemps over status, authority and responsibility of various functionaries and organisations.

    Fifth, since one of the most important functions of the CDS would be to build up the capability of the armed forces, the existing capital procurement system will need to be re-engineered. Among other things, this will entail redefining the role of the Capital Acquisition Wing, categorisation committees presently embedded in HQ IDS, Defence Procurement Board, and the Defence Acquisition Council.

    While defining the role of CDS in regard to capital acquisitions, MoD will do well to dig out the report submitted by the committee, it had constituted in 2016, which had recommended setting up of a Defence Acquisition Organisation at an arm’s length from the ministry. If such an organisation is to be set up, it would make little sense to entrust the entire responsibility for capital acquisition to the CDS at this stage.

    Sixth, irrespective of whether or not the CDS is entrusted with the responsibility for capital acquisitions, he would undoubtedly require financial powers for carrying out whatever other functions are assigned to him. The present system of stratified delegation of financial powers under the revenue segment to the armed forces down the line, while retaining some powers in the MoD, is flawed. Full financial powers must be delegated to the CDS and other functionaries in the armed forces. Each competent financial authority must have full financial powers to spend the allocated money for authorised activities.

    The present system also requires the concurrence of the Integrated Financial Advisors (IFAs) for exercise of delegated financial powers above a certain threshold. The IFA system is continuously pilloried, often unjustifiably, for being a hindrance in utilisation of the allocated funds. An objective view must be taken concerning the IFA system before the new scheme of delegation of financial powers is put in place, particularly for the CDS set up.

    Lastly, the CDS is likely to face severe constraints in resource allocation as the need for funds projected by the armed forces has routinely been far higher than the budgetary allocations. The CDS is unlikely to be able to ensure higher allocations for defence to overcome this perennial problem, which lies at the heart of the problem besetting modernisation and preparedness of the armed forces.

    The scheme for implementation must, therefore, require the Ministry of Finance to indicate long-term availability of funds and the CDS to draw up defence plans within the indicated financial parameters. This could well be the biggest challenge for the CDS as he will have to withstand the pressure from the Service Chiefs, as operational commanders, for higher allocation to meet their service-specific requirement.

    Much will depend on how well the blueprint for implementation of the CDS scheme is worked out by the panel. Even so, it will be good for everyone to recognise that the CDS cannot be a panacea for all problems faced by the defence establishment.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.