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Saxena Task Force: Farewell To The Chiefs – Analysis


By Ali Ahmed

News reports have it that one of the last acts of the former Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee prior to retirement was a letter for the prime minister mentioning a longstanding grievance of the service chiefs that they feel left out of the policy curve. This can be remedied by the Saxena Task Force that is to recommend a reorganization of the higher defence structure. However, it would have to contend with the military chiefs wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

The issue that would pose the problem in question is one of command over the respective services. The chiefs currently are on top twice over: as operational commanders and as chiefs of staff. This means that they are currently responsible for all facets of their service ranging from force generation through its sustenance to its employment. While they have the army commanders minding the operational part of their jobs, the service headquarters enable the remainder.


The next steps are on two lines: one is that of jointness or integration of the services, and the second is integration of the service headquarters with the ministry of defence. Both require the service chiefs’ amenability to a redefinition of their roles. This is a hold up, apart from perennial inter-service rivalry and the bureaucrat-brass face-off that Mr Naresh Saxena would have to cope with.

Jasjit Singh provides a conceptual entry point on the issue, writing, “Higher defence organization has two distinct functions: one is creation of capabilities for the future and second of fighting a war or employment of military power. The former involves perspective planning, procurement of weapons and equipment, recruitment training, and employment policies of military manpower. The latter involves operations within existing resources…So the first issue is would the CDS be the commander in chief or chief of staff….”

There are two models. The first model implies an integrated ministry with the CDS ensconced, provisioning the operational forces under respective service chiefs. An alternative model is of the CDS responsible for force employment by joint commands, with the service chiefs and the defence secretary taking on the force planning and management functions in an integrated ministry.

K Subrahmanyam was for a Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee model, since to him, “What this country needs is a full time chairman of the chiefs of staff committee who will have no power to command any troops at all. His role will mostly be in areas of policy, coordination among the three services, training, budget, long terms planning and evolving future war doctrines.” (Subrahmanyam 2006:13). This was favoured by Jasjit Singh too, who writes: “CDS (but with no command functions) would work in coordination with the defence secretary to build tomorrow’s defence forces.”

This is a practicable solution in that it is evolutionary and therefore more suited to the Indian system. The weakness of this model however is in the service chiefs retaining their role as operational heads of respective services. This means that the barriers to jointness in terms of service parochialisms would remain into the future.

The second model has the military supremo taking on a war-fighting role with the HQs IDS overseeing joint commands. The votaries of this model express a preference for joint theatre commands. This has the advantage of bringing to bear the synergy of jointness and enabling focus on operational tasks. The drawback in Subrahmanyam’s words is that, “vesting the combined command over three services is something the Indian political leadership very justifiably rejects.”

It is clear that the difficulty in adjudicating between the two alternatives may lead to Mr Saxena and his team choosing to settle for a half-way house. In this third model, the CDS takes on the responsibility for joint functional commands, for example the SFC and others such as cyber command, air defence command and logistics command etc that may be set up in future. In this case the service chiefs remain in both saddles over respective services, operational and administrative, but in an integrated ministry.

The point emerges that the shedding of the operational role of the service chiefs alone will enable them to concentrate on their equally onerous task of creating, sustaining and training the service. This operational role will then have to be discharged by someone. It can only be a joint commander. This means that facing up to joint theatre commands is inevitable. The Task Force, in order not to inject too much instability into the system, could suggest a step by step process with a time line extending into the next decade.

The grouse of the former COSC that the wise counsel of the service chiefs does not inform policy sufficiently can only be removed if the chiefs are willing to shed some of their workload to enable fuller participation ‘in the loop’. Their plate is additionally loaded with ceremonial and social details, with anachronistic Colonel of the Regiment duties thrown in as an icing. The chiefs would require taking a call on the nature of their role to help ease Mr Saxena’s report.

Ali Ahmed
Research Fellow, IDSA
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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