New Delhi: A large number of veterans have weighed in on the merits of appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). A government committee led by a retired lieutenant-general has suggested a CDS-like post headed by the equivalent of a four-star general on level with the army, navy and air force chiefs. The committee disfavours replicating the American system since Indian defence requirements are said to contain little expeditionary imperatives. It is also suggested that this is an interim arrangement in the course of migrating to a structure where the CDS will rank above the service chiefs and be overall responsible for conventional defence.

Debates are good. Some first class ideas have been thrown up in the process. There is criticism of the committee for denying the Indian armed forces an expeditionary role. There is also impatience with the government for not migrating in one giant leap to a fully empowered CDS system. The impatience with the government is well-meant. But it is perilous to move the government at a pace faster than it can handle. The shift to the CDS system is a major transformation. Every aspect of it should be thoroughly studied and evaluated before the final decision. An interim arrangement suggested by the committee is better than nothing. But without a clear concept of India’s strategic requirements and necessities, no system will deliver to the optimum. It is here that the government must exert itself and the veterans focus attention. Details must follow the concept and the plan. It cannot be the other way round.

Concepts and plans for India’s strategic defence must take into account the following factors. India has one primary and one secondary adversary respectively in the north and in the west. There is an operational non-conventional deterrence structure for the western adversary. It does not entirely take into stride the adversary’s vast expansion of tactical nuclear weapons to stop a retaliatory Indian conventional strike on its territory for an unacceptably violent and bloody terrorist attack, say on the scale of the 2008 Bombay carnage. There is a doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation for a tactical nuclear strike on Indian forces in the adversary’s territory. There is an obvious problem with this equation. The retaliation is not proportional to the attack and robs the threat of retaliation of credibility. This conundrum does not directly concern the CDS issue but it critically impinges on India’s security and strategy. It certainly has a bearing on India’s conventional war-fighting capacity in the west.

Nuclear deterrence with respect to the northern adversary has problems of its own. The northern adversary has transferred nuclear weapons and missiles to the western adversary and thus propped up a second nuclear front against India. One of the ways to deal with this is to reach such a level of second-strike deterrence especially at sea with the northern adversary that it is compelled into arms control talks with India, where the nuclear weapons’ total of the western adversary is added to the inventory of the northern. The balance of terror with the northern adversary must also be structured in such a manner that it is held responsible and punishable for strategic nuclear strikes emanating from the west. This would possibly require communication through the device of a white paper.

Armed forces generally dislike nuclear weapons because they are outside their control (except in Pakistan) and are pretty unusable. At the same time, nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented nor deterrence expelled from strategic calculations. They have their place in a nation’s defence and have to be catered for. They eat into defence spending in vast disproportion to their actual utility but there is little anyone can do about it. Again, the CDS issue has no direct correlation with deterrence, but a strategic nuclear command is a necessity, joining all three services, and needs to be funded out of the defence allocation. Altogether, a significant portion of defence funding, declared or concealed, would be consumed by the deterrent with the slimmest possibility of use. It is from what remains that the entire conventional defence force has to be provisioned, this force being the essential bailiwick of any future CDS. The sums available being severely finite, the country would have to make the best use of the money, deploying it for immediate operational preparedness, short- and mid-term transformations, and for future revolutions in warfare. In the circumstances, the need for foresight, forward conceptualization, vision and planning cannot be overstated.

Conventionally, India faces two fronts, with the added potential of a third sea front should the northern and western adversaries join forces. It places India in the rough position of encircled Germany and the Central Powers in the First World War with the important exception (other than the general natures of wars then and now) that India would be the unlikeliest aggressor in any future conflict. Looked schematically, World War I went well enough for Germany till it had the capacity to carry out successful radiating attacks and the Allies were disunited in counteraction. But once the Allies (with America’s entry) got the upper hand and the Royal Navy was able to bottle up the Imperial German Navy, it was a matter of time before Germany threw the towel. Not considering the nuclear option, India would well be able to carry out radiating attacks on the adversaries on multiple fronts but it would reach a point of exhaustion before long. To avoid that and to indeed prevent encirclement in the first place, India would have to open fronts of its own against the adversaries, and this would require investments in an offensive navy of a vaster order than now. It would also speedily insert an expeditionary character into Indian war-fighting doctrine that the government committee mentioned earlier in the piece explicitly rejects. An army-dominated armed force would have to adjust to a greater and more defining role for the navy. Quite simply, no single service would be able to claim pre-eminence in the sort of future war scenarios where India has a chance to succeed. If the Indian Navy becomes a game-changer in the Indo-Pacific, it would indubitably tilt the balance of power in India’s favour. In the meantime, it goes without saying that India would have to stay ahead in the realms of information and cyber warfare to be counted among the serious powers.

The challenge for a country in strategic matters is always to decide where to begin, and how to move ahead. Roadmaps are essential. Planning is a must. So, while the debates and generated ideas about the pluses and minuses of the CDS system are good and appreciable, there is no escape from intense conceptualization and planning. The best minds must get together and prepare a grand strategy. The portions that relate to the CDS will naturally evolve from there. It will also be discovered that the Indian armed forces cannot escape an expeditionary role, which in turn will create its own commands. The resistance to CDS partly comes from making the armed forces’ hierarchy even more steeply pyramidical than now. This would be partly addressed with more theatre commands arising when the armed forces become less land-centric and expand seaward and India gains allies. To get there, however, India needs a plan. The entire energies of the government must be directed to that end.