Bipin Rawat’s Successor: Mystery Again Over CDS Post Ignored by India Since '70s
The four-month delay in appointing the next CDS raises important questions.
The speculation that General MM Naravane would assume charge as India’s second Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) a day after laying down office as the Army Chief on 30 April has been belied. India still does not have a CDS after the tragic death of General Bipin Rawat in a helicopter crash in December last year. The post has remained vacant for over four months, thereby begging the question: what’s the importance of this office in the larger matrix of India’s higher defence management?
When the creation of the post of a CDS was first announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August 2019, it was heralded as a major step. General Rawat took charge on 1 January 2020 after demitting office as the Army Chief in December-end, 2019. However, his three-year tenure was cut short tragically, and many seemingly radical initiatives that were embarked upon remain the equivalent of “work in progress”.
Deliberations Since 1999 Kargil War
The debate on the role of the office of a CDS in improving the efficacy of India’s higher defence management has been part of macro-policy deliberations since the 1999 Kargil war. The creation of such a post was mooted as far back as the early 1970s, when the name of then-Army Chief General (later Field Marshal), Sam Manekshaw, was proposed. However, as the grapevine has it, this was blocked by the two ‘Lals’ – Air Chief Marshal PC Lal and Defence Secretary KB Lal.
Then-Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had prioritised economic reforms and the safeguarding of India’s latent nuclear weapon capability, and the question of appointing a CDS remained on the back-burner on his watch. Post-Kargil, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee provided the political traction for initiating a holistic review of India’s higher defence management, but that, too, remained inconclusive.
To his credit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bit the CDS bullet in his second term, but the fact that this post remains vacant since December 2021 draws attention to the general indifference to higher defence management in India.
Critics have raised seemingly legitimate questions: if the role is so important, why is it still vacant? And if the country’s national security is on an even keel without a CDS, why bother filling the post?
The Importance on 'Jointness'
The mandate of the CDS, when the post was created, reads as follows: “Promoting jointness in procurement, training and staffing for the Services through joint planning and integration of their requirements; facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through the establishment of joint/theatre commands; and promoting the use of indigenous equipment by the Services.”
The emphasis on ‘jointness’ is instructive; India’s biggest weakness has been the lack of a joint approach to the management of military security and the emergence of zealously guarded single-service silos, which have resulted in avoidable setbacks. The Army-Air Dorce dissonance in the Kargil war and the disastrous paralysis in the first few hours of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks are illustrative of this fact. Having an effective CDS in place may have led to a different sequence of events.
Absent a single-point military adviser to the political apex (the Defence Minister), the civil servant in the form of the Defence Secretary was the link, and this was a less-than-satisfactory arrangement, more so after India became a nuclear weapon power in May 1998.
The operational control of strategic capability is with the SFC (Strategic Forces Command) under the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff, but the latter post itself is an additional hat for the senior-most service chief. And given that incumbents retire on attaining the superannuation age of 62, in some cases, the Chairman COSC’s tenure was just a few months.
A Slew of Challenges Await the Next CDS
While the CDS has no operational role, the most onerous responsibility was that of being the military link between the SFC and the political leadership, and this added to the efficacy of the management of India’s strategic capability. Today, that link is non-existent and India is back to Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhry officiating as the CDS. This is not an optimum arrangement and points to the general indifference noted earlier that needs to be redressed.
On current evidence, the CDS – when appointed – will have multiple challenges to address in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Ensuring the combat-worthiness of the Indian military when almost 70 per cent of the inventory is of Soviet or Russian origin (with critical components being sourced from Ukraine) and supply chains have been severely disrupted, is the first issue.
This is compounded by the corrosive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the national economy and the resultant shrinking of the defence budget. In its most recent forecast, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has cut India’s GDP growth for the calendar year 2022 to 3.6 per cent from 4.4 per cent, and if the Ukraine war drags on, the impact on energy prices could exacerbate global growth indicators further.
Add to this the political diktat to enforce ‘atmanirbharta’ (self-reliance) – or sourcing inventory from indigenous vendors – and the challenge for the CDS becomes near intractable.
Some radical policies to reduce manpower, and, thereby, the pension bill, which were set in motion by the first CDS, have not had the desired result; the simmering discontent over delayed pension for some veterans is a case in point.
A Clunky Profile
While appointing the next CDS, a review of tasking and the desirability of dual hats would be appropriate. Currently, the CDS is the first among equals with other service Chiefs as a four-star officer, and concurrently, he is the Secretary, Department of Military Affairs (DMA), in the Ministry of Defence. This is clunky.
In this context, a recent tweet by Admiral KB Singh, the former Naval Chief, is relevant: “Whilst the government makes up its mind on the CDS, time is opportune to appoint CISC as Secretary DMA. This is what should have been done in the first place, rather than CDS playing the secretary's role.” The CISC is a three-star officer who is the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff and reports to the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, a four-star officer.
The need to appoint a CDS is imperative and urgent if the management of India’s higher defence is not to languish further, as it has for decades.
(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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