Appointment of Chief of Defence Staff: A transformational moment?

January 19, 2020 3:48 PM

The Prime Minister, who had announced the Government’s decision to appoint a CDS from the ramparts of the Red Fort in his Independence Day address to the nation on 15 August 2019, called it a transformational event.

General Bipin Rawat, the outgoing Chief of the Army Staff assumed office as Independent India’s first Chief of Defence Staff on 31 December 2019. (File image)General Bipin Rawat, the outgoing Chief of the Army Staff assumed office as Independent India’s first Chief of Defence Staff on 31 December 2019. (File image)

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Retd)

India finally appointed a Chief of Defence Staff, almost two decades after it was recommended by the Kargil Committee in 2000 which was constituted following the Kargil conflict in 1999 to recommend the restructuring of the Indian military towards greater ‘jointness’. This was subsequently endorsed by the Group of Ministers in 2001 but didn’t fructify for a host of reasons, including, reportedly, the resistance from within. General Bipin Rawat, the outgoing Chief of the Army Staff assumed office as Independent India’s first Chief of Defence Staff on 31 December 2019. The Prime Minister, who had announced the Government’s decision to appoint a CDS from the ramparts of the Red Fort in his Independence Day address to the nation on 15 August 2019, called it a transformational event.

The Indian Armed Forces are largely structured in a single service operational and functional format with a few joint services organisations which include two operational commands (the Andaman and Nicobar Command and the Strategic Forces Command), the newly created Cyber, Space and Special Operations organisations and a few training institutions. That there is a need for restructuring has been apparent. The contemporary security scenario and the widening spectrum of security challenges require the Armed Forces to have synergy and optimisation in the utilisation of resources and delivering effect through agile structures and well-coordinated actions. In a technology-intensive combat scenario, this becomes even more critical. As India progresses its external power projection capability while tackling the more immediate short-term threats, it is an effective military that will make the difference.

This transformational shift in the existing paradigm will depend on two fundamental factors. The first will be the ability of the Armed Forces to transform from within. While there may be a hesitation in some quarters in the beginning as the internal restructuring will disturb the existing status quo, the nature of the military will ensure that this will happen. It is the second factor that is of greater concern. If the last 72 years are any indication, it is the existing political-bureaucratic shibboleths that could delay and dilute the effort because of the distinct propensity of successive governments to not allow the Armed Forces into the national security decision-making structure.

The CDS has been mandated to effect a transformation within the next three years. This would include the complete restructuring of the Armed Forces into theatre commands, joint organisations, joint training, joint doctrines, joint logistics, joint intelligence, networked technology etc. Now that the Gazette of India notification has been issued, there is some clarity on his roles and responsibilities. Broadly speaking, the following are his principal functions:-

(a) He will be the permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, which was a rotational appointment till now with the senior-most Chief becoming the Chairman. However, he will not be the operational head of the Indian Armed Forces. As the ‘primus inter pares’ or first among equals with the other Service Chiefs he will have the same salary and protocol in the Table of Precedence but it is hoped that he will be able to ensure more effective decision making in the services particularly on issues of jointness and inter-service prioritisation.

(b) He will head the Integrated Defence Staff which was created because the need was felt for more jointness in the functioning of the Armed Forces. It was headed by the CISC, a three-star officer in rotation from the three services who has been re-designated as the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (VCDS). The CDS will, therefore, be the head all the joint organisations and structures of the Armed Forces including the two operational commands. The CISC was equivalent in rank and status to the Vice Chiefs and Commanders-in-Chief of the Commands of the three services and the Secretaries to the Government of India. He was also the Secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and headed the SCAPCHC which recommended the necessity and categorisation of all capital equipment for the three services to the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by the Defence Minister and attended by the three Service Chiefs. The DAC took the final decision on the necessity, category and prioritisation of capital acquisitions. Presumably, the CDS will also be a part of the DAC. If that be so, the VCDS will be under pressure to recommend his boss’s view which could then reduce the negotiating space of the three Chiefs in the DAC. How this will be addressed remains to be seen.

(c) He will be the single point military advisor to the Defence Minister. However, without being the operational head, he could be severely constrained in the advice he is able to provide and this also risks undermining the authority of the three service chiefs who remain responsible to the country for the preparedness and performance of their forces in a war.

(d) He will be the Secretary of the newly created Department of Military Affairs (Sainya Karta Vibhag) and will be responsible for amongst many other things, procurement for the services and jointness in procurement but has no financial powers for capital acquisition which have been retained by the bureaucrats as their exclusive preserve. This department will be exclusively for armed forces matters whereas the Department of Defence which is headed by the Defence Secretary will continue to be responsible for the larger defence issues. In the MoD’s organisational structure the Defence Secretary heads the department of defence and is primus inter pares – first among equals amongst the other Secretaries viz., Defence Production, Defence Finance, the DRDO and Ex-Servicemen Affairs. Will the Department of Military Affairs headed by the CDS be placed organisationally on par with these departments and would the Defence Secretary continues to be primus inter pares. There is nothing to suggest that anything will change. The Defence Secretary is definitely not going to concede any turf to accommodate a CDS. This will give rise to a dichotomy between the status of the CDS and his functional responsibility. At present Secretaries to the Government are equated with the Vice Chiefs of the three services, the CISC and the Commanders-in-Chief of the Commands. Would the CDS becoming a Departmental secretary in the MoD affect their status and consequently the military-civilian equivalence at every level. This would further strain the already tenuous bureaucratic-military relationship in the MoD where the bureaucrat seems to mistakenly believe that civilian control of the military which is indeed the hallmark of a stable democracy translates to bureaucratic control and not political control. Unfortunately, the political leadership, not often given to discuss matters military, does little to correct that notion.

The appointment of the CDS would lead one to believe that the government is sincere in its intention to restructure and reform the country’s external security architecture. However, this transformation is as much about internal restructuring as it is about restructuring the entire Ministry of Defence and integrating the Service Headquarters into the MoD. Presently the Armed Forces headquarters are not a part of the MoD but are attached offices to the MoD which remains the single biggest anomaly in India’s defence structure. Hence they have little or no decision-making powers and are therefore dependent on the MOD’s civilian bureaucracy who let it be known at every rank and on every occasion that they call the shots. That the creation of a CDS has not addressed this is a telling commentary on the prevailing state-of-affairs. The CDS has not been given any powers for capital acquisitions. The bureaucrat will, therefore, continue to decide what the armed forces fight the war with, the presence of a CDS notwithstanding. Effectively, therefore, the MoD has managed to create one more bureaucracy in the defence acquisition process, bedevilled already by an onerous bureaucratic procedure. Restructuring the Armed Forces will require funding, the availability of which will be decided by the bureaucrat and not the CDS but the latter will be expected to deliver results. Any serious attempt at the restructuring of the MoD will become apparent only when the archaic Allocation of Business Rules are suitably amended. There is little evidence so far of that happening. Till then ‘integration’ will merely remain an exercise in semantics

There are various other issues related to this appointment that have not been clearly spelt out (or at least have not been shared in the open domain). The appointment of General Rawat as the CDS on the completion of his tenure as the Chief of the Army Staff and the CDS’ retirement age is extended to 65 clearly shows the intent to have a CDS who is senior in service to the three Service Chiefs even though he holds the same rank. Whether this is because he is the first or whether this will be the norm is not clear at present. The second issue not clearly stated is whether the CDS will be rotational amongst the three services or will it be kept deliberately ambiguous to suit the political establishment of the country which is a dangerous portent for the future and seriously undermines the foundational apolitical ethos of the Armed Forces.

Secondly, the whole purpose of jointness is to have an integrated warfighting structure synergising the operational capabilities of all the three services and the strategic forces towards bringing to bear a well-coordinated war effort on the enemy where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However, until such time we do not have a single point operational authority with an integrated command and control structure (eg, theatre commands), the jointness in the battlespace will not be very much better than it is now.

Perhaps of less consequence but surprising, to say the very least, were the unique shoulder epaulettes, cap badge and belt buckle worn by the CDS. Military badges are always related to rank. One, therefore, wonders whether these new badges which in this case are related to an appointment is a collective decision institutionalised in the regulations or is it one man’s vanity getting the better of an honoured tradition that has stood the test of time. In no other mature military is this done. The CJSC in the US or the CDS in the UK or for that matter in any other country, the CDS/equivalent wears the uniform of the service he belongs to with the appropriate badges of the rank he holds. Perhaps the CDS would also prefer to be called by some other rank since he is not wearing the rank badges of an Indian Army General. Is one therefore also to assume that a Naval or Air Force CDS in future will also wear these new badges on their uniform as are being worn by the new CDS.

The Government has done well to appoint the first CDS, an appointment that was long overdue. It will have a profound impact on the organisational structure within the Armed Forces, the optimisation of the procurement process, the future of civil-military relations and India’s future national security architecture. However, for it to be truly transformational as stated by the Prime Minister, wider defence reform also needs to be simultaneously undertaken.

(The author is a veteran naval officer. The views expressed are personal)

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