Alas! A Chief of Defence Staff Can’t Save the Defence Ministry

Appointing a Chief of Defence Staff won’t get solve the defence ministry’s bureaucratic ills, writes Ravi Dastane

5 min read
Hindi Female

In the wake of the appointment of Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as the next Army Chief, there have been a few panelists on national television who have been actively suggesting that the next thing the government should do is appoint Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi as our first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as though this is going to be the panacea for all the shortfalls currently plaguing our Higher Defence Structures.

I am confident that, sooner or later, the government will find the wisdom to appoint the much-needed CDS with the requisite authority to lead the three services. But concurrent to that landmark step, it would also be absolutely necessary to put in place certain other path-breaking reforms related to the manner in which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should be planning to fight and win the next war.

Also Read: Gen Rawat as Army Chief: Leaders Must Have Vision And Experience


Revamping the Defence Structure

It has been more than 15 years after the Kargil war and just as about many years have passed after the submission of the reports of the Kargil Review Committee as well as the Group of Ministers (GoM) tasked to review the ‘National Security Apparatus’. Yet we have just not been able to introduce the far-sighted, bold changes that are called for in such a major review.

There has been no real change in the way our MoD conducts its business, despite clear recommendations in the GoM report – which is in the public domain – to the effect that ‘the MoD needed to be suitably restructured and strengthened’ and that ‘the functioning of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) has revealed serious weaknesses in its ability to provide single point military advice’ and that ‘far-reaching changes in the structures, processes and procedures would be required’.

The crux of the reform, therefore, has to be focused on the structure and functioning of the MoD (most importantly the COSC and the Department of Defence within the MoD). The need of the hour is to have a healthy mix of Armed Forces and IAS/ other civil service officers serving shoulder to shoulder under the ambit of an ‘Integrated Defence Staff ’ in the Department of Defence of the ministry.

Appointing a Chief of Defence Staff won’t get solve the defence ministry’s bureaucratic ills, writes Ravi Dastane
General Bipin Rawat is the new Army Chief. (Photo Courtesy: Press Information Bureau)

Need for Structural Reforms

  • Despite the GoM report in the aftermath of Kargil war, nothing has been done to restructure the Ministry of Defence
  • Need of the hour is the have a healthy mix of army personnel and civil service officers under the ambit of an ‘Integrated Defence Staff’
  • Defence Secretary should be included as a member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee to ensure greater coordination
  • Organisational reforms in the MoD should result in well-defined roles with respect to responsibility and accountability

Strengthening the IDS

If we are to truly catch the bull by the horns, the existing HQ Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) – created after the Kargil war and manned practically only by Armed Forces Officers – has to step up from being just a Secretariat for the COSC and a mere tool for achieving synergy and jointness among the Services to assuming a far bigger role in the Department of Defence by actually merging with it.

This revamped and functionally reorganised ‘Integrated Department of Defence’ (consequent to the merger of the HQ IDS with it) would be just one side of the coin whose ability to ‘deliver the goods’ will hinge entirely on the attendant reform in strengthening of the COSC.

The COSC, headed by the CDS will have to be expanded to include the defence secretary as a full-fledged member of the committee. This should be done without any dilution in his primary responsibility for advising the defence minister on policy matters and other related issues including financial accounting.

The inclusion of the defence secretary in the COSC is a matter of functional necessity as the advice that flows out of the COSC to the defence minister cannot be in isolation.

It has to be a synthesis of all the inputs available, particularly as related to the defence finance as well as the other departments of defence production and research and development. These are some key domains which are directly coordinated by the defence secretary where he ranks primus inter pares among the secretaries of these departments.

Appointing a Chief of Defence Staff won’t get solve the defence ministry’s bureaucratic ills, writes Ravi Dastane
The organisational reforms intended for the Department of Defence in the MoD must lead to establishing very clear lines of responsibility and accountability. (Photo: ANI)

Redefining Hierarchical Ranks

My view here is that we could borrow a leaf from the British model of their ‘higher direction of defence’ in our efforts to refine our system further. Once the CDS is appointed and the system of this newly created ‘Integrated Staff’ settles down satisfactorily, the next step could be the elevation of the defence secretary on the lines of the Permanent Under Secretary in the UK followed by the adoption of similar structures/councils/boards in their case.

What needs to be emphasised is that the organisational reforms intended for the Department of Defence in the MoD must lead to establishing very clear lines of responsibility and accountability as any ambiguities are simply unacceptable.

Today the merger of the HQ IDS with the Department of Defence or the expansion of the COSC in the manner suggested may be areas of reform not yet contemplated or addressed but I feel they are the only way forward if we are to have a sound structure for our higher direction of defence.


Chalking Out Reform Plan

Here, I must also point out that path-breaking reforms always have to be ‘top down’ and if that push is missing, all reforms are scuttled due to the delay in their implementation. Quite often, the original thought gets diluted over a period of time and a reform may be adapted that is not in the nation’s best interest.

The danger I see in the years ahead is that if we compromise on what is needed to be done now, it could well happen that the CDS and HQ IDS get relegated to being just another Service HQ in the Department of Defence of the ministry. That will indeed be a real sad day for the nation seeking to reform its National Security Apparatus at the highest levels.


(The writer is a veteran Lieutenant General who commanded the strategic High Altitude 14 Corps at Leh. He retired as the Deputy Chief, HQ IDS. He has recently authored a book titled 'India's Armed Forces: Tempering the Steel'. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also Read: Lt Gen Rawat as Army Chief: Why Choosing Him Over Seniors is Wrong

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