Six months after General Bipin Rawat’s demise, India still awaits its new CDS

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Nearly six months after the tragic death of General Bipin Rawat, then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), in a helicopter crash in the Nilgiris, the government issued a notification on 6 June amending the Service rules of the Army, Navy and Air Force. According to new gazette notifications for the three armed forces, any Lieutenant General or General equivalent officer (retired or serving) below the age of 62 can now be appointed as the CDS, which technically makes scores of officers eligible for the top post.

The CDS was viewed as a long outstanding requirement and its implementation was rightly considered one of the biggest reforms by the present government in the higher defence management. Ironically, after the unfortunate demise of Gen Rawat, who had been appointed as India’s first CDS on 1 January 2020, the government seemed to be in no hurry to appoint his successor. As a result, the foot seems to have been lifted off the accelerator as far as the reforms in the pipeline were concerned including theaterisation.

The CDS is responsible for the coordination of equipment and arms procurement, training and staffing among the three Services. The CDS acts as the principal military advisor to the Defence Minister on all matters related to the tri-Services and military advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority. General Rawat wore three hats — Chairman of Chief of Staff Committee; Secretary, Department Military Affairs (DMA); and CDS.

The DMA is responsible for joint planning, determining procurements and almost all military matters, reducing the importance of the bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The mandate of the DMA includes, among other things, facilitation of restructuring of military commands for optimal resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands.

As the permanent chairman of the existing Chiefs of Staff Committee and a member of the Defence Acquisition Council and the Defence Planning Committee, the CDS has responsibility for coordination among the three Services in equipment and arms procurement, training and staffing.

The CDS acts as the principal military advisor to the Defence Minister on all matters related to the tri-Services and military advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority. He also assigns inter-Services prioritisation to capital acquisition proposals based on the anticipated budget and is also charged with bringing about reforms in the functioning of the three Services with the aim to augment combat capabilities.

He is also responsible for integrating the resources of the three armed forces to meet operational and administrative ends, and in modernising their equipment needs, through inter-se prioritisation for capital procurement, in times of shrinking budgets and burgeoning revenue expenditure.

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In an era of decreasing capital budgets and increasing revenue expenditures, a crucial function of the CDS is “prioritising” the capital acquisition proposals of individual Services. He has to ensure that the “defence budget” is spent judiciously on capabilities considered vital for national military power, while balancing the projections and ‘wish lists’ of individual Services.

The bureaucracy no doubt felt it was losing its hold over the forces. Hence there are some who feel that this delay is at its behest. There is no doubt that the Services cannot continue to function in independent silos where major powers of decision-making rested with the MoD.

There is no doubt that the appointment of the CDS is imperative. The country is faced with accumulating strategic issues on its borders. National security threats are on the rise. The government needs a single-point military advisor as the Ladakh standoff continues on India’s northern borders with China; the issues with Pakistan are well known, including the ongoing proxy war. Further, the increased collusivity between China and Pakistan is a reality. Diplomacy to handle the Chinese has failed. This is the time when the forces need to act as one but will not unless there is a CDS to push.

There needs to be synergy between the Services when the armed forces project their capability requirements. Joint planning and determining procurements to build joint capabilities are unlikely to happen without a CDS heading the DMA. Studies to create Theatre Commands, which gained prominence, need to be given due impetus. Studies of previous conflicts have revealed the gaps in jointness and integration, and the appointment of the CDS was based on the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee. The ongoing Ukrainian war has also highlighted the necessity of jointness and integration.

The post of the CDS, or its equivalent, has been in existence in most modern militaries of the world. The post of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States has been in existence since 1949, and the CDS in the United Kingdom since 1959. China, Russia, France, Germany and even Pakistan have their equivalent posts, though their roles vary, depending on a number of factors, including the political structure of the country.

However, even though the present notification has cast the net wide, the Services remain hierarchical in their functioning. Thus expecting a serving Army Commander or equivalent of a three-star rank to be suddenly placed above the three Service Chiefs is almost impossible. The options remain of either one of the Chiefs being elevated to this post or a retired Army Commander and equivalent below 62 years being appointed. The latter seems more likely. The good thing is the assured tenure of three years and more that the incumbent will bring to the chair. This stability is necessary if the reforms need to be implemented and course corrections carried out.

There has been an inordinate delay in appointing the country’s CDS; hopefully, with the issue of the amendment to the Service rules, a new CDS will be appointed soon. Gen Rawat was mandated to push the boldest reforms for the armed forces which included the creation of Theatre Commands and other issues which are necessary in order to enable the Services to be equipped to handle the future challenges. What is more important is the implementation of the required reforms.

The most notable reform overseen by the CDS is the ongoing process of creating Integrated Theatre Commands. The overall rationale is the “optimal utilisation of resources” by reorganising 17 disparate single service commands into five integrated commands in order to enhance operational effectiveness. This continues to remain a work in progress and its momentum has slowed post the demise of Gen Rawat. Another significant achievement was the thrust given to indigenisation or ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’. This initiative was driven jointly by the CDS led by Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff, the three Services, and other verticals of the Ministry of Defence, including DRDO, Public Sector Undertakings and Ordnance Factories.

The importance of having a CDS as the country’s highest-ranking military officer lies in the crucial role he is required to play as the formal ‘one point’ source of advice to the government on operational and administrative matters pertaining to the military. The delay in appointing the CDS is impacting national security, and not benefiting the system.

The author is an Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.

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Six months after General Bipin Rawat’s demise, India still awaits its new CDS
Six months after General Bipin Rawat’s demise, India still awaits its new CDS
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