by Major General Suresh Chandra Mohanty, AVSM

The delay in nomination of a successor to General Bipin Rawat as the Chief of the Defence Staff has not only precipitated palpable speculations but has supposedly retarded the pace of the much delayed defence reforms. The creation of the post was a fallout of Kargil Review Committee recommendations for a comprehensive review of National Security Framework and subsequent recommendations of the Group of Ministers in 2001. This was followed by numerous other studies and committees notably the Naresh Chandra Committee report of 2012 and Committee of Experts for enhancing combat capability and rebalancing defence expenditure, led by Lt Gen DB Shekarkar in 2019 which reiterated the creation of the post of CDS. Finally, consequent to announcement by the Prime Minister on 15 August 2019, Gen Bipin Rawat assumed the appointment of the first CDS with effect from 01 Jan 2020 consequent to his superannuation from the post of COAS on 31 Dec 2019. The Kargil Review Committee had been scathing in its observation regarding substantive inter service doctrinal, planning, policy and operational coordination between various wings of the Armed forces, intelligence organisations and between the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence. While many recommendations of the Group of Ministers were progressively implemented including the creation of the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff, Office of the Director General of Defence Intelligence Agency, NTRO and Multi Agency Centre etc, the post of CDS continued to be marred by lack of consensus amongst the service chiefs, political leadership and the bureaucracy. Much of it was with respect to functional jurisdiction of the CDS and its potential to dilute the authority of the service chiefs on one end of the spectrum and intrude into the domain of the civilian bureaucracy including protocol issues on the other.

With the announcement of the post of CDS, the process of institutionalizing the appointment commenced. Gen Bipin Rawat hit the ground running and wear the multiple hats of Principal Military Advisor to the Defence Minister, permanent Chairman of the Chief of Staff Committee and head the Department of Military Affairs culled out from the Ministry of Defence.

The Legacy of Gen Bipin Rawat

Just when the metamorphosis of the defence architecture was reaching an inflection point, the tragic and unfortunate helicopter accident on 08 Dec 2021, led to the untimely demise of Gen Rawat and 13 others leaving a huge void and dealing a severe blow to the pace at which the transformation of the Indian defence establishment and supporting structures were being pursued with missionary zeal and a goal oriented approach. While many analysts would argue that no individual in an organization, especially one that has a well-defined succession process, can be considered as indispensable, arguably any successor of Gen Rawat will have very big shoes to fill for a multitude of reasons. Gen Rawat was not only deeply involved in conceptualization, institutionalizing and consolidating the appointment of the CDS, but was also intrinsically associated with the role and task, the structure and the basic framework of the office and evolving a futuristic roadmap for substantive defence reforms in close coordination with the DRDO, ISRO and even the industry against some intense reservations. Having been the COAS for 3 years, Gen Rawat could seamlessly ease into the appointment of CDS and was most ideally suited to carry forward the unprecedented approach towards transformation of the higher defence organization in India. As the senior most chief amongst the three services, he was heading the Chief of Staff Committee, prepared the ground work for the creation of the Department of Military Affairs and was able to harmonise the interplay between the political leadership, bureaucratic hierarchy and the military, to minimize the turbulence which is inherent in any tinkering with an age old system. The recommendations of Lt Gen DB Shekatkar report on rebalancing of defence expenditure, ensuring optimum utilisation of resources in operational logistics, training, transport and support services, and establishment of joint / theatre commands was already being vigorously discussed while Gen Rawat was the COAS and despite obvious and intense opposition from many quarters, some irreversible and explicit forward movement was evident. Momentum was also imparted to multiple domains of Cyber, Space and Special Forces to bring about synergy and jointness amongst the three services which was further accelerated by the first CDS.

The formulation of Integrated Battle Groups to conduct future operations in an integrated all arms paradigm was war gamed both along the Western and Eastern front, keeping in view future challenges and bring about integration of various components of the Army (combat, combat support and services elements). Numerous other initiatives to include Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured (IDDM), Government Owned and Contractor Operated (GOCO Model) are some of the conceptual framework to bring about Atmanirbharta in defence manufacturing and rebalancing defence expenditure as also corporatization of Ordnance Factories had their genesis before the formal appointment of the CDS.

Who Next? While at the face of it, speculation was rife about the obvious choice of Gen MM Naravane, the present COAS taking over the role of CDS, having been the COAS for over two years, the delay in formal announcement of a CDS has intensified the debate over who would be the most suitable person to tenet the appointment. While common military appreciation suggests that one of the Chiefs of the three services would most ideally fit the bill; there are others who opine that by deeper selection, any at the Commander’s in Chief could assume the appointment, given the prerogative of the Government to ignore seniority in favour of what it thinks about the capability to deliver. Since there is no precedence to follow, yet some analysts feel that even a retired Chief of Services or a Commander in Chief could be nominated. It is axiomatic that a serving chief of the three services will be better equipped; depending upon the length of service as the Chief, in terms of exposure to various deliberations towards bringing about jointness, evolution of theatre commands and integration within the services, notwithstanding their personal or service specific reservations.

While a serving chief temporarily tenanting the appointment of Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee (which was the practice before the CDS came into being and indeed in practice till the new CDS is nominated) will invariably suffer from service centric biases as he is still hardwired to his parent service, once elevated to the rank of CDS he ought to focus on a much wider domain of tri-service integration and overall optimization of combat potential. A retired Chief or Commander in Chief even when abreast of contemporary security dynamics, will be handicapped by strategic orientation and far removed from the internal deliberations of multiple ministries and will need time to integrate into the existing structures. There is yet another debate whether the appointment of CDS should be rotated amongst the three services to bring about equilibrium. It is in this context that it is absolutely imperative to formulate a national security strategy to evolve a whole of government coherent and coordinated approach to the national security objectives. Though multiple attempts in this regard have been made in the past and invariably multiple ministries work in unison during a crisis, the approach to capability development as a Nation will be invariably flawed in the absence of a formal document that mandates common approach by multiple ministries. Whether we need a fifth generation fighter aircraft, a third aircraft carrier or capability development along the LAC/LOC in terms of intelligence, surveillance and modern equipment, and in what timeframe, would be a manifestation of objective evaluation of threats that we are likely to be confronted with in varying time frame and undertake inter service prioritization for capital procurements. We have two unresolved borders which will continue to remain volatile and necessitate a robust response mechanism in the escalatory spectrum of conflict. The LOCisation of the LAC will not only incur recurring revenue expenditure but will require calibration of a multi front strategic response. Capability development in the non-kinetic domains of cyber, space, EW and psychological warfare through technology infusion is increasingly important to develop a credible deterrent capability in the non-contact warfare domain.

Amongst the key tasks of the CDS, besides being the principal military advisor to the Government and integration of the three services in theatre commands is also to assign inter service prioritization of capital expenditure in the age of diminishing budgetary allocation further accentuated by impact of Covid 19. This is a function of evaluation of threats in multiple domains and an effective long term capability building strategy.

The incoming CDS will thus have to do pick up the threads and dispassionately engage with all relevant functionaries to carry forward the transformation process in an acutely compressed timeframe and ensure that capability development is synonymous with the perceived threats in varying timelines.