India’s next Chief of Defence Staff and his remit

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By Bharat Karnad

Soon after the death in a helicopter crash of General Bipin Rawat, the first Chief of the Defence Staff and Secretary, Department of Military Affairs (DMA), the army began canvassing for its chief, General MM Naravane, to fill the CDS post on the basis of seniority. Whom seniority favours at any given time is happenstance, not a qualification. Had this accident occurred, say, a week or so before the navy chief retired November-end, Admiral Karambir Singh would have been a shoo-in.
As a naval pilot, moreover, he had the experience to deal professionally with the air force and army aviation and hence the army the sort of background few chiefs of staff possess, and Rawat lacked (whence his dismissal of the Indian Air Force as a “supporting arm”). Seniority is a bonus not a prerequisite and, in any case, was ignored by the government when appointing Rawat as army chief in 2016 superseding two officers.
Rawat’s appointment was no bad thing because CDS is a quintessentially political post. To prompt the military to get on with integration required both the political will of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to drive the process and a CDS, au fait with his vision, to thrust jointness down sometimes resisting throats of the military services too bureaucratically entrenched to fall in readily with the restructuring demands made of them.
The PM’s confidence in Rawat was due to the latter’s native Pauri-Garhwal connection with Ajit Doval, his National Security Adviser, whom Modi trusts. Having made the political decision to re-order the armed services, Modi needed someone he could rely on to not botch things up. The Modi-Doval thinking on the subject of CDS and military integration can be outlined thus: First establish the CDS post, next install a person of choice in it, and then hope he carries out their remit within the constrained bureaucratic ambit he is placed in, but help him out by backing him in the inevitable bureaucratic tussles.
It helped that Rawat was the senior most service chief when he was made CDS. It pre-empted the carping that follows any military promotion not based on seniority. Even so, Rawat faced covert defiance because the government avoided doing the one thing in a hierarchy-minded military that would have eased his dealings with the serving chiefs of staff raised CDS to Field Marshal or equivalent 5-star rank to establish a clear line of authority and obviate foot dragging.
But that would have raked up the politically sensitive matter of installing a military supremo, which has been anathema to the country’s political leadership and government. The Modi regime instead vested “the first among equals”-notion with bureaucratic heft the nascent CDS system cannot carry, unless future CDSs are guaranteed the same access to the PM and NSA that Rawat was, which’s unlikely.
Scanning the senior serving ranks, including the chiefs of staff, no name jumps off the page in terms of visioning capacity, broad-based professional competence or, importantly, proximity to Modi (or Doval). A former Defence Secretary G. Mohan Kumar has suggested sifting through retired four and three star-rank officers of note. By this reckoning Admiral Karambir Singh is a frontrunner, as is the former Deputy Chief of the Army Staff (Plans), retired Lieutenant General Subrata Saha responsible for pushing indigenous procurement by the senior service.
There is a democratic precedent for such decision. President John F. Kennedy appointed retired army General Maxwell Taylor as Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Alternatively, Kumar mentions “deep selection” preferably of an officer with tenure on the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). But hoisting a CDS junior to the services’ chiefs is recipe for ruction. His solutions to unburden the CDS of “paper work” by reverting “statutory matters relating to appeals, representations” to the Defence Secretary, and appointing a Special Secretary reporting to the CDS to handle the “drab administrative work” of the DMA, however, are worth considering.
Still, the military integration process has, in a manner of speaking, been initiated. There is a plan, albeit army-friendly, that Rawat and the IDS worked on. Consider the schema Rawat publicly sketched out on 15 September. It envisions four theatre commands for the Pakistan front, the China front, national maritime security in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and the Andaman and Nicobar Integrated Command tasked with the defence of island territories. Further, while cyber warfare and Space/air defence have merited separate commands, not so logistics, intelligence, and Special Forces as was talked about earlier, which are the necessary adjuncts, along with cyber and Space/air defence, to the theatre commands.
This design has faced tremendous resistance from the armed services and not just because it involves collapsing 17 military commands into just six Commands four theatre commands plus the two commands for support functions, and the concurrent loss of administrative and operational control by the services’ chiefs. But because it, prima facie, seems slapdash and insufficiently thought through.
There are some obvious deficiencies in the Rawat plan. Are Space and landbased and airborne surveillance and air defence systems banded together just because, as Rawat said, some artillery shells reach 15 kms into space, this when anti-satellite weapons for offense and retaliation will be in vogue in future conflicts? Where’s the sense, moreover, in splitting the navy’s focus between the open seas and “island defence”, or in the Coast Guard being relegated, implicitly, to a naval auxiliary?
And why in the maritime security domain are the coastal/brown water roles not the Coast Guard’s bailiwick, true blue water missions not the preserve of the navy, and the Andaman Command not tasked expansively to consolidate Indian military presence on either side of the Malacca, Sunda and Lumbock Straits? In the event, wouldn’t the integration goal be better served with a capability and missions based integration?
It would entail, for example, the aviation assets in all the Services being concentrated with the exception of aircraft carriers in distinct national commands for helicopter and fighter aircraft-based Ground Support, Air Defence, Strike and Transport. Military integration is too important an issue for the Modi government to make a hash of by implementing a bad plan. Hopefully, the next CDS will present to the government for approval a more balanced and coherent jointness scheme featuring capability-cum-mission based integrated Commands.

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