In his first detailed interview after taking over as Chief of Defence Staff on January 1, General Bipin Rawat tells Executive Editor Sandeep Unnithan about what his Department of Military Affairs (DMA) has achieved, the border standoff with China, his plans to transform the armed forces, the road ahead and the resistance to change

Q. Looking back at the past year, what has been your biggest achievement as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)?

We’ve been able to get all the services on board on the issue of integration. It has dawned on everyone that, to be combat-effective unless we operate together, we won’t be able to apply our combat power the way we should. It’s good to have individually strong services, but it shouldn’t lead to lopsided development of one service. Finally, we have to realise that each service has to operate in a synergistic, coordinated manner with the other services. Wars are fought for ensuring territorial integrity, hence the army is supported by other services to ensure victory on land.

Q. Within four months of taking charge, you faced a crisis on the border with China. How did the office of the CDS help in this situation?

Earlier, there was hesitation on sharing information between the services or it was unduly delayed. With the CDS coming into the picture, the three services always kept everyone abreast of what was happening from the start.

Q. Did the fact that the Indian Air Force (IAF) was in theatre almost immediately have something to do with this information-sharing?

Yes. Not just that, even the navy was raring to go and ready for any task. We were able to coordinate the action and make sure everybody knew what the other service is doing. To that extent, we were able to bring about unity in effort.

Q. And this would not have been possible without the office of the CDS?

The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) that existed earlier wasn’t really empowered. If the army was doing something, whether they should even share that with, say, the navy was left entirely to them. If the air force was doing something, whether the army or the navy should be informed was completely left to them. That’s not the case now. The office of the CDS has brought coordination amongst the three services.

Q. How hopeful are you of a resolution to the Ladakh standoff?

There is hope of a resolution, but at the same time we must prepare for the worst case scenario. Everybody wants a resolution, but we must not lower our guard and must be prepared for things not working out the way we want them to. It has been spelt out very clearly that there will be no compromise. So if we are not looking at a compromise, then there’s going to be a hardening (of positions). Everybody has been saying that both sides should return to April 2020 positions, status quo ante. That’s the bottom line we’ve spelt out.

Q. Is there a deadline? How long are you prepared to wait?

Both sides are preparing and consolidating. Finally, we don’t want a permanently defensive line to be drawn. Of course, negotiations will happen at the political level, it is already happening at the military and diplomatic levels. Some resolution will be found because you don’t remain in eyeball to eyeball confrontation for years to come. Everybody talks of Sumdorong Chu (an Indian Army-PLA standoff in Arunachal Pradesh in 1987) lasting seven years. That’s not the way we want to go. The climatic conditions in Sumdorong Chu and Ladakh are very different. One has to look at these issues.

Q. Nine months into the standoff, have you been able to figure out why the Chinese did what they did?

Many theories are going around. I don’t think it’s worth guessing. This (Chinese incursion) has been going on over the years. Only that [in this case], the number of face-off points increased. Yes, they must have come with some intention, which we have analysed, but it would be incorrect to come to a specific conclusion as to why this was done.

Q. Do you believe the topmost Chinese leadership was aware of this?

The Chinese would not have done anything of this nature and magnitude without their leadership’s knowledge.

Q. 2020 is perhaps the first year the army has lost lives on both fronts, LoC and LAC. Is the two-front war you have spoken of finally a reality?

We were always tasked for defending our borders. And when you have unsettled borders on your north and west, you don’t know which side the battle will commence and where it will end. So you should be prepared on both fronts. How you want to deal with the fronts is [something] the leadership will have to decide, but to say you will not be prepared, we shouldn’t look at this (two-front war) as something new.

Q. Are you looking at greater collusive action between both fronts?

We worked out our methods to say how collusive [action] could happen and not happen, how much and how far one nation can go against another. How they would support we’ve worked out our contingencies, but yes, some kind of collusive [action] should be anticipated.

Q. Would it be greater than in the past? Has Xi Jinping altered the situation greatly?

I don’t think so. It’s the same.

Q. The economy has been severely impacted in 2020. As CDS, would you ask for a hike in the defence budget?

We have sought additional funds, especially for emergency purchases that the services are making now. The government has said funds will be made available. The emergency purchases are not happening overnight. The funds flow is spread over years.

Q. How much additional funds have you asked for?

We’ve given them (government) a ballpark figure, but I won’t like to comment on it. We’ve been promised [that funds] are coming. They are being released based on our expenditure.

Q. What has been the most significant achievement of the DMA?

The most important part is looking at integrating procedures of the three services. We are trying to see commonality of purpose. Communication systems and a large part of our training are being streamlined. Gradually, we are moving to joint training, not only at the officer level but the level of men (soldiers). We’ve integrated in certain places. In Delhi, systems are talking to each other. When the Network for Spectrum (NFS) comes through, each service will have a common system. We have, as a test bed, created three joint logistic nodes in Chennai, Mumbai and Guwahati, where common logistics are being done. Each service has its own promotion boards and HR policies. We are in the process of bringing about commonality amongst the services.

Q. What about synergy of the three services?

Getting the three services to agree on integration has been the biggest achievement. Synergising activities, whether it’s training, logistics or maintenance, and even foreign cooperation, are being looked at in an integrated manner. We are developing an Integrated Capability Development Plan (ICDP) to equip the armed forces and manage procurements. The ICDP will be unveiled soon. We are working on a Defence Capital Acquisition Plan (DCAP). ICDP is going to be the process on how we do capability development. The DCAP will look at acquisitions over the next five years.

Q. Are you on course to establishing theatre commands by 2022?

By 2022, we will have the structures in place and the rollout will start. I expect air defence to roll out faster. The maritime command will follow next, by 2021, and by 2022, we will at least start the rollout of land-based theatre commands. It will take time to stabilise, but we are confident the process will begin.

Q. You don’t see any difficulty in carrying out reforms while the army is guarding unsettled borders?

If we don’t integrate, there will be a problem. Today, you are looking at a northern theatre and a western theatre. The northern theatre commander has to be very sure as to what is available to him, and how he is going to be resourced, and how he’s going to fight if war is thrust upon us. The western theatre commander must be very clear on how he is going to fight the war. He must know how the army, air force and navy will support him. For example, navy assets are now also being using on land, which we never did earlier.

Q. There’s been a lot of controversy around your proposals to reduce pensions and increase terms of service. Are those still on the table?

We are not looking at reducing pensions; we are looking at age extension. The proposal will go to the government soon and will have to be approved by the CCS. We hope to get it by the next financial year. This is only to extend the service for officers. There is some other scheme coming in for the men, referred to as Tour of Duty. The army chief has been talking about it, to allow citizens to serve in the army; then they will be facilitated to find jobs elsewhere.

Q. What are the savings through all these measures?

If we extend the retirement age, the government will have funds to support the defence services, to help us move faster with the creation of infrastructure.

Q. When we met in February, you had objections regarding the navy’s proposal for a third aircraft carrier. Do those objections still stand given the altered threat perception?

Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep, these are unsinkable aircraft carriers. Today, there is so much visibility on the battlefield, there is absolute transparency, whether you use satellites or drones or UAVs or any system. Anything which moves on the surface, even on land, is dead. Anything at sea will get picked up. You’ve got fairly accurate systems to bring down anything on land or at sea. So aircraft carriers are going to be vulnerable. One might say they keep moving, but so does the chap have the capability to keep you under observation. Adversaries have systems that will target you based on where you are next. We need an in-depth assessment of requirement of aircraft carriers, grey hull ships, submarines and, above all, our ability to maintain all-round surveillance and to target the adversary’s sea-going vessels and aircraft.