Features | Security | South Asia

India Needs a Joint Chief

India is investing billions in arms. But without a coherent organizational structure, it will never become an effective war fighting machine.

By Brig. (Retd.) Xerxes Adrianwalla for
India Needs a Joint Chief
Credit: U.S. Air Force

India is an aspiring super power, and one of the largest arms importers in the world. But this month, following the defense procurement corruption exposé by Army Chief Gen. V.K. Singhand the hullabaloo over supposed troop movements near Delhi, it seems that India isn’t ready either to effectively absorb the battle-ready equipment being imported, or even command it properly.

At the center of the debate has been a heated discussion over whether India should have a unified command system under which the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, could operate coherently and to mutual benefit. But the debate should be even louder than it is now.

Our strategic and super power ambitions are manifest in all three armed forces: the Air Force, which is in the process of one of the largest arms deals ever in the acquisition of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA); the Navywhich has developed so-called blue water capabilities far beyond coastal defense; and the Army, which is raising two strike corps capable of offensive operations into Tibet and for possible use against China. Yet we still don’t have the necessary organizational structure to wield such massive fire power as a coherent force, one that can either repel external aggressors or project India’s power overseas.

The reasons are many, but the most problematic one is the archaic World War II defense institutions around which our armed forces are organized. They were adapted from the needs of a colonial power, whose main concern was the subjugation of the indigenous population, and not designed to repel external aggressors. There has been little or no change since then. Post-Kargil conflict in 1999 to 2000, the Kargil Review committee headed by noted strategist R.K. Subrahmanyam also recommended a unified command. This organization needs to be restructured and updated, and the quickest way to start is to have a Joint Chiefs of Defense Staff to co-ordinate and synergize operations and equipment.

In war, the application of maximum combat power at decisive periods influences the outcome of battle. Maximum combat power, however, isn’t simply the sum of the forces used – it’s the product of synergies generated by using arms and services coherently. Today, the three services are autonomous, and any synergy that does exist is pure chance. Examples are the lack of, or minimal use of, the Air Force in 1962 against the Chinese and in 1999 during the Kargil incursion by Pakistan. In both instances, the Indian Air Force resisted the use of air power on various grounds, hurting India’s war effort. In 1962, air power wasn’t used at all, while in 1999, the Air Force came in many days too late, perhaps on the orders of the civilian government in New Delhi.

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India doesn’t follow an integrated command system during peace or in times of combat, so each armed force prosecutes war as they see appropriate (and possibly in a manner where they get the most glory). There have been very few instances when the combat power of one force was deployed under a commander of another (the Andaman Command is a notable exception).

Another problem for India has been the inadequate executive power given to the apex body of the armed forces, represented by the Chiefs of Staff Committee, an organization that is just that – a committee. It has limited to no executive power. The current system of command by committee results in a situation where a service chief or a theater commander (usually Army) is “advised” by an Air Force official on whether or not air power will be suitable (or even available) for a particular operation. If aircraft aren’t released by the Air Force, the theater commander has no choice but to soldier on without air support, at huge cost in casualties and outcomes.

This is hardly the first time a unified command system has been recommended. The Group of Ministers (GOM) report, under the Chairmanship of L.K. Advani, including the then-defense minister, external affairs minister and finance minister, recommended such a system in 2001. The Cabinet Committee on Security considered the GOM report on May 11, 2001, and “decided that the recommendation in respect of the institution of the Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) be considered later, after government is able to consult various political parties. It accepted all other recommendations contained in the GOM report.” But the appointment of a Chief of Defense Staff has remained in limbo ever since. Without such a system and a CDS, combat power by individual services remains in the form of fiefdoms, without any ability to use their awesome power as a single, war-fighting machine.

The armed forces will never accept real change from within – such change has always been politically driven from the top. The U.S. is a typical example. The Goldwater-Nichols Actof 1986 was enacted by the U.S. Senate to ensure unified command in the U.S. armed forces, among other things. Under this organization, each combatant command is headed by a four-star general or admiral.

India should take a leaf from the American playbook and urgently revisit the need for a unified command structure if it wants to have any chance of effectively using the enormous combat power the country is developing at such astronomical cost. For example, anti-piracy operations require naval power bolstered by ground and air power. Anti-Maoist operations, meanwhile, need the Army to be supported by air and naval power in coastal areas. Both operations would benefit tremendously from a unified command.

Many models for such a joint command have been proposed, we just need to adopt one that suits our needs. In view of the current infighting between the government and the armed forces, this structure, currently used by most countries around the world, could also be the most beneficial: a chief of defense staff will provide single point advice to the government, allowing for a balanced force restructuring based on operational needs and not individual service turf. Most importantly, making such changes would enable India’s military to project itself as a single, viable, effective war machine.

Xerxes Adrianwalla is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. He is a contributing writer for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.