Government’s rethink on role of Chief of Defence Staff is a step in the right direction

While it is welcome that the government is relooking the entire CDS episode, the question remains: is it asking the right questions? 

May 16, 2022 / 03:31 PM IST

Indian Army soldiers display their way of long-range patrolling along the LoC during a media trip to their area in Balakot in Poonch. (Image: AP Photo/Channi Anand)

It’s now official. The Government of India has all but admitted it bungled the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This follows a pattern of ill-considered decisions, with poor preparation and planning, and no understanding of second- or third-order effects. Unlike its normal mistakes which it doubles down on however, it’s seeming rethink on the CDS and the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) is a step that should be encouraged.

Clearly the inter-departmental and inter-service rivalry have gone beyond ‘collegiality’ to absolute toxicity, and a refusal to comply or share. Case in point the division of responsibility between the DMA and the Department of Defence, and the complete stalling of the theatre commands, which was meant to be the showpiece of these ‘reforms’. We’re hearing that this along with several other measures are things that will take time to sort out. The issue isn’t one of time. It is one of executive decision-making, and severe differences in thinking.

Much of this is to do with the technology quotient, and how each service approaches a war. But it is also how much the political leadership understands these differences, and comes down decisively in favour of one interpretation. Let’s compare NATO and Russia — particularly germane given their different technological development trajectories, and different emphasis.

NATO initially adopted tactical nuclear weapons, but in the 1980s switched to technology to overcome its material and manpower shortages vis-à-vis the Warsaw Pact. It had seen in the 1940s how the then USSR had used superior numbers to crush superior German technology. Yet the digital revolution of the 1980s and 1990s gave such an unassailable lead to the West that the quantity-versus-quality equilibrium changed. The proof of concept was how the application of air power and precision ammunitions alone could change regimes, and bring about desirable political outcomes in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. That bad political decisions bogged down the peacekeeping doesn’t take away from the rapidity of the conventional military success.

Now the West, thanks to this technology and the tech industry that developed, evolved a mindset that was technology-driven. It was the easiest to implement in the air. Then in ships, and finally on land. So it was that the air force took the lead, the navy followed close behind, and the army lagged way behind. You see this reflected in commercial technology as well — airplanes pioneer technology like auto pilot, GPS mapping, and heads-up displays, ships adopt it next, and your cars and trucks are the last to adopt it, if ever at all. Autonomous movement is already a reality in the air and sea, but on land the effort still lags way behind.

Consequently Western leaders, already heavily capitalist, went where industry was going, and saw that in the cost calculation air and sea power were quicker and more effective ways of achieving political objectives. They, therefore, decisively prioritised air power.

Russia followed a different trajectory. The collapse of the USSR, and the subsequent prioritisation of services over manufacturing, destroyed the natural progression Russian technology should’ve had into the digital and information age. Consequently two decades of industrial development were lost, and manufacturing techniques ossified into what was left over from the 1980s. You see this distinctly with the relative crudeness of Russian aircraft even today, where shoddy quality and obsolescence of the Su-57 led to an outright Indian rejection of the aircraft.

Consequently Russian thinking remained overwhelmingly based on the 1970s and ’80s technology, and decisively ground centric with the air force merely acting as a support arm. If we look at the horrific casualties Russia is sustaining in its war in Ukraine, we see their frontline fighters and helicopters being shot down at rates unimaginable in the West; they lack even basic electronic or infrared countermeasures. Clearly, technology has meant that the army leads, and the Russian leadership accepted this and went with what was feasible.

India is a different ballgame altogether, predominantly because we suffer from severely-corroded information loops. The air force is convinced it is a first-world air force, despite its intelligence complex, interoperability, human intake, and logistics being nowhere near the West. Meanwhile, the army is convinced it is full of Guderians, which it very well may be, except they’re not up against a Zhukov, they’re up against a fighter that can take you out from 15-20 kilometres away, if not more. Clearly the political executive still doesn’t understand technology or its complex interactions with society and industry, and nurses delusions of being the next Germany despite not having produced a single competent basic propulsion system — air, land, or sea.

Russian and US’ decision-making is based on reality — India’s is mostly not. While it is welcome that the government is relooking the entire CDS episode, the question remains: is it asking the right questions? Will it find the right answer? Or, will it jerry-rig a flawed structure, and settle for a mere papering over? We’ll have to wait and see.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @iyervval. Views are personal.

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Abhijit Iyer-Mitra