It is unclear whether the three service chiefs were involved in any way in the discussions behind the promoting of a retired officer to a position above them in authority

by Rahul Bedi

Chandigarh: The elevation of retired Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan as the country’s second Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), over nine months after the previous incumbent died in a helicopter crash, is extraordinary in several ways.

General Chauhan is the first retired three-star officer ever to return to active duty as a four-star CDS; and as Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC) he will be primus inter pares, or first amongst equals to the three other service chiefs; or in short, their superior, also in a first-ever instance of its kind.

However, there were some similarities between General Chauhan and his predecessor General Bipin Rawat who died in an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu in December 2021.

Both were from Uttarakhand and both were commissioned in the same unit: 11 Gurkhas.

General Chauhan’s elevation, after superannuating 16 months earlier in May 2021 as the Eastern Army Commander, to the country’s topmost military post, was enabled by the government’s June 7 notification. This fiat had rendered all serving and retired three-star officers, aged 62 years or below, from either of the three services, eligible to become the CDS for three years, or possibly even more.

This directive emerged after the government opted against promoting either of the three service chiefs as the CDS.

And though devoid of operational authority, for now, General Chauhan will also be Secretary of the newly created Department of Military Affairs or DMA, tasked with managing and operationally re-orienting India’s armed forces and furthering civil-military ties.

He will also be military advisor to the defence minister and to the tri-service Nuclear Command Authority and member of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) that oversees materiel procurements. Alongside, General Chauhan will be part of the Defence Planning Committee responsible for defining India’s military and security policies, and tasked with vindicating other multi-service responsibilities, including ‘jointness’, prioritising procurements, modernising the forces and effecting fiscal discipline, amongst other associated duties.

He will be assisted in his duties by the Integrated Defence Staff or IDS – a position that came into being in October 2001 as the secretariat of the future CDS who, in the form of General Rawat, assumed office 19 years later. The IDS is headed in rotation by a three-star officer from one of the three services.

Earlier this month The Wire, quoting unnamed military officers had reported that considering the delay in appointing a CDS, the government had ‘quietly’ opted to do away with the position altogether. In light of recent developments this is certainly not the case.

It now emerges that the June 7 order expanding the potential talent resource pool for a possible CDS had General Chauhan, then military advisor to the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCN) in New Delhi, in mind all along. But the nearly three-month-and-a-half delay in confirming his appointment, despite his easy availability, was reportedly due to ‘ hectic internal discussions’ between senior ministers and security officials over General Chauhan’s elevation. Gen Chauhan has worked closely as NSA Ajit Doval’s advisor.

It is unclear whether the three service chiefs were involved in any way in these discussions, much less if they consented to being side-stepped, as promoting a retired officer above them in authority was unique and would be effected for the first time.

A cross-section of service veterans, serving officers and defence analysts said it was ‘likely’ they were ‘in the loop’, as the government, for its part, too, was aware that the prospect of promoting a retired three-star officer as CDS had no precedent. Besides, the latter realised that such an eventuality would be a ‘difficult proposition’ for the hierarchy-conscious top serving military brass, to ‘truly accept’ and that they needed ‘convincing’ of the government’s plans.

The flimsy logic, however, that was reportedly resorted to by the government was that General Chauhan, though retired, was senior in service chiefs and hence eligible to be their superior. But many veterans do not rule out the possibility of such an outcome triggering ‘resentments’ that could manifest themselves in a myriad adversarial ways in the CDS’s day-to-day functioning, after he assumes office.

The timing of General Chauhan’s appointment also raises questions, as the over nine-month gap overlapped with the continuing military standoff with the Chinese along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. It also coincided with growing concerns over the supply of materiel, spares and components for the predominantly Russian defence equipment in service with the Indian armed forces, following sanctions on Moscow for executing war in Ukraine.

Other pressing military issues, necessitating the CDS’s oversight, had also exacerbated – such as propagating Atmanirbharta, or self-sufficiency in indigenising the manufacture of defence equipment to reduce imports, and managing the contentious Agnipath scheme of recruiting Agniveers or personnel below officer rank into the military. This latter policy had provoked countrywide protests and widespread arson in eastern and northern India, in addition to creating a possible political and diplomatic rift with Nepal over the intake of its hardy Gurkha troops with whom General Chauhan had earlier served.

Many officers in the ‘fauji langar’, or military bush telegraph, speculated that the announcement of General Chauhan as CDS had been prompted ahead of the upcoming four-day DefExpo 2022 in Gandhinagar, beginning October 18. One senior veteran-turned-analyst said that since the DefExpo was the first major international military-orientated event in recent years, the government was keen on presenting a ‘comprehensive’ picture of India’s military to numerous foreign delegates, expected to participate in the show. “Not having a CDS presented an ‘embarrassing gap’ in the country’s armed forces, which the government was keen to avoid” surmised the veteran, declining to be named.

General Chauhan will also need to bridge the ‘confidence gap’ in the post of CDS that the nine-month long gap in his appointment had spawned. “This hiatus indicated that the government was not overly eager to have a CDS, as were the services and the bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence (MoD),” said a two-star Indian Navy (IN) officer. General Chauhan will have to work overtime to reinforce his credentials and overcome these handicaps, he added requesting anonymity.

Meanwhile, a critical question among innumerable queries that hovers around the CDS’s responsibilities involves his operational role in matters military. Will General Chauhan eventually be the operational commander too of the four or five joint tri-service theatre commands which his predecessor had planned on constituting, and which he would now progress?

If so, this would consequently reduce the three chiefs responsibilities to those merely of personnel recruitment, training and providing logistics.

Having out-ranked them, will General Chauhan now also operationally de-fang them too?