After a long wait, we finally have a chief of defence staff (CDS). Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan, a former colleague, a thoroughbred soldier with strong personal and operational convictions, has been appointed to the pivotal post in our national security system.
The creation of the position was a seminal event in India’s national security trajectory. In design and practice, the Indian CDS-department of military affairs (DMA) architecture is more powerful than the framework laid down by the 1987 Goldwater Nichols Act, which restructured the American military. It signals a desire by the government to give the defence services their legitimate voice in matters of defence and national security, move defence out of the shadows of foreign policy and enable CDS to drive change through the system. The edifice of such change was being laid by the late General Bipin Rawat but was interrupted abruptly by his tragic demise; so, while a lot of good work was initiated, the new CDS will need to renew focus, switch gears and accelerate.
First, he will need to usher in an institution-wide realisation that the modern strategic-military landscape is one of such complexity, sophistication and change that lazy thinking, incremental tinkering or worse, status quoism, will simply not do. We need to step up our ideation by an order of magnitude — think long, think big, think imaginatively, and execute with surgical precision. If we do so, we will see, for example, that a suite of small and emerging technologies (switchblades, loiter, electronic warfare) are challenging the traditional prima donnas of the battlefield (tanks and gun platforms). Long-range precision regimes are increasingly determining the outcomes of conflicts, while drone capacities are powering not only militaries but also the strategic calculus of nations. (Look at Turkey’s emergence as a drone superpower, due in large measure to the operational successes of the Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicles). Equally, space, cyber and electronic warfare proficiencies are being aggregated aggressively by nations. We may like to probe why in recent conflicts, unmanned systems have outstripped traditional airpower in impact and utility. This, in turn, is driving smart militaries to invest in hybrid (manned and unmanned) air and sea fleets and introduce unmanned ground and robotic systems into land-force inventories. The combat pot is concurrently being stirred with semiconductors and strategic microelectronics emerging as a mainstay. The inferences for our joint force design and architecture in the near- to medium-term should be pretty obvious. It should also lead us to formulate a new budgetary framework — one that clearly prioritises critical and emerging technologies over traditional brick and mortar structures and legacy platforms.
Second, it may also be worth reflecting that jointness of forces is not a one-trick pony. Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) are an important structural correction and must be taken to their logical conclusion, but parallel pathways need to be pursued with equal vigour. The modern paradigm in jointness has moved to digital integration, tri-service clouds, Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled combat frameworks; military autonomy may deliver far superior operational outcomes in combat theatres than mere industrial-era ITCs.
Third, structural reform is only one card in the transformation pack. Cultural transitions and accompanying human resources (HR) reform are just as salient. New talent pipelines, innovative pathways for career mobility, cross-pollination in defence or military organisations with civil-military fusion as the overarching theme are worth considering. The principal driver for such reforms should be to enable the asymmetric addressal of adversaries (such as China) within existing budgets. We must introspect why, with near similar relative asymmetries in defence budgets, China is causing anxiety in the Pentagon but we are not causing similar discomfiture in Beijing.
General Chauhan will also have to wrestle with yet another strategic conundrum — the challenge of making an immediate, accelerated and ambitious turn to the seas, even as we fortify our combat posture along the Line of Actual Control, if we are to ward off an oncoming Chinese strategic squeeze.
This is a moment when service, civil, technological and administrative bureaucracies will need to display statesmanship of a rare order and rise above narrow turf considerations in the interest of the larger national security good. For far too long, have we got away with blaming a lack of political will? Today, while that “will” perhaps leads, the leadership in apex bureaucracies seems to lag. Is this not true? And if yes, is it wise, or even fair?
In sum, the new CDS carries the burden of moulding our current standalone, siloed, single service structures into an integrated combat enterprise — one that is joint, technologically enabled, calibrated and ready – though this may take decades to actualise. India’s national security enterprise today stands at a critical crossroads — between mediocrity and talent, between status quoism and change. We must metamorphose from an instrument of force that is transfixed narrowly on India’s defence, to one that could enable and sustain India’s rise. The task of a leader, in the words of Henry Kissinger, is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been. What lies before us, is undoubtedly a staggering national security makeover, but not one that can’t be accomplished. Good luck to Gen Chauhan in this challenging endeavour.
Lt General Raj Shukla retired recently as army commander, Army Training Command (ARTRAC), and is currently member, UPSC
The views expressed are personal