The missing CDS: The untimely demise of the first chief of defence staff has sent the issue of joint theatres back to the start line - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 5 May 2022

The missing CDS: The untimely demise of the first chief of defence staff has sent the issue of joint theatres back to the start line

The infighting needs to be resolved by the PM, who must ensure the three chiefs take ownership of the CDS project

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 6th May 22


Five months have elapsed since a helicopter crash claimed the life of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, but the Indian military continues to remain headless and directionless with no successor to Rawat. While each of the three services – the army, navy and air force – has their own chief, Rawat’s elevation as the tri-service chief on January 1, 2020, had been expected to improve inter-service coordination, cooperation and operational integration. As CDS, Rawat was also responsible for creating the structures of the geographical integrated theatre commands, with each one containing elements of all three services, enabling cohesive and effective operations. All this now hangs in the balance.


The apex structures of tri-service command were first proposed by the Kargil Review Committee in 1999 and echoed in a Group of Ministers report two years later. However, neither the first full-term BJP government (1999-2004), nor the two Congress-led governments (2004-2014) that followed, took any concrete action to bell the cat. The creation of a CDS was eventually left to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, a year into its second term, after the first term saw significant groundwork that underpinned the tri-service structures. Rawat’s appointment, first as army chief, superseding two other army commanders, and then as CDS, was the consequence of his close personal rapport with National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval. Now, with Rawat gone and nobody named to replace him as CDS, it is evident that no other top military officer enjoys that relationship with Mr Doval.


The NSAarguesthat there is no hurry in appointing a CDS since it is not an operational appointment. The army chief’s post is an operational one that cannot be kept empty and so, with the retirement of army chief General MM Naravane, General Manoj Pande, the senior-most officer after him has been duly appointed army chief. However Doval knows that the appointment of a CDS and the implementation of tri-service theatre commands would almost certainly dilute the NSA’s power. The NSA has no defined charter, whereas a CDS would have one. A strong CDS would assert himself within that charter.


Initially, none of the key stakeholders -- the NSA, service chiefs, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) bureaucracy – were keen on a CDS. However Mr Modi, who is convinced of the utility of a tri-service commander, went beyond the Naresh Chandra Committee’s recommendations of a “permanent chairman, chiefs of staff” and appointed not just a CDS but also created a Department of Military Affairs (DMA), which was anathema to the Indian Administration Service (IAS) lobby, especially within the MoD. 


A whisper campaign in the corridors of power also cites a political rationale for not announcing a new CDS. The system is not ready for a navy or air force CDS, and the two army candidates, Generals Pande and Naravane, are both Maharashtrians with rumoured linkages to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Nitin Gadkari – who are both regarded by Mr Modi and Amit Shah as rival power centres. In the circumstances, neither Pande nor Naravane can be regarded as suitable candidates for the CDS post. While Mr Doval will have a major role in shortlisting candidates for top military posts, the final decision, with veto power, will lie with Messers Modi and Shah. 


Meanwhile, Mr Modi has invested time and effort into getting to know his top generals, admirals and air marshals – one of whom he must elevate to the CDS. Just four months after his election in May 2014, he attended his first annual combined commanders’ conference (CCC) in Delhi, where he received briefings from the three service chiefs. An unimpressed PM told confidants that his service chiefs were lacking in imagination. That CCC saw no substantive discussion about creating a CDS.


Always one for a spectacle, Mr Modi ordered that the next CCC, scheduled for December 2015, be held on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, off Visakhapatnam. However, the briefings he received from the service chiefs were again unimaginative and hackneyed, causing him to give the combined commanders a sharp rap on their collective knuckles. He acidly stated that, instead of insignificant inanities, he wanted the service chiefs to spell out their vision for jointness. He wanted to be briefed on where each service had stood 20 years ago, where they were today and what their targets were for the next 20 years.


Rattling the commanders-in-chief with his penchant for details, the PM demanded to know when and how the services had last modified their training standards? He asked how services were selecting their Defence Advisors (DAs) for our embassies abroad. He ordered the selection of ambassadors and DAs five years before they reached their duty stations so that they had time for preparation. However, there was no substantive discussion on jointness.


This changed dramatically in 2017, when the PMO stepped in to impose a clear theme for the CCC. Riding roughshod over the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), which traditionally organised the CCC, the PMO testily ordered that discussion be centred around tri-service jointness and theaterisation.


The discussion started in the morning and continued till 4 pm. Mr Modi sat with rapt attention, allowing each commander-in-chief to speak without interruption. A key participant described it thus: “The discussion between 22 theatre commanders, all pulling in opposite directions, was utterly pedestrian. It must have been absolutely clear to the PM that the commanders had not met and had a proper discussion earlier.”


Another participant conveyed his personal impression in these words: “Modi had come with the clear intention of announcing the CDS. But the pathetic level of debate indicated that the services were not ready.” At the end of the day Modi gave directions: “The three service chiefs will stay here and talk amongst yourselves and within one month, give me six actionable points towards jointness.”


The commander-in-chief of the Integrated Defence Staff (the only existing tri-service structure) put his job on the line by telling Mr Modi: “The three chiefs seldom send up contentious issues to you. Only the lowest common denominator points come to you.” The PM was reportedly shocked.


Yet, months later, there was no progress towards jointness. One of the service chiefs admitted that the PM was completely fed up with the military brass.


Mr Modi, at that stage, had lost interest in CDS and jointness. In April 2018, one of the participants said a disgusted “PMO ne moonh mord liya hai fauj se” (the PMO had turned its face away from the military). With the 2019 elections looming Mr Modi put the CDS issue on the back burner. But with a stronger mandate in those elections, the prime minister felt he could push through the CDS appointment. Rawat was appointed CDS but his untimely demise has sent the issue back to the start line.


Where is theaterisation going? An influential school of thought is arguing for three theatre commands, one with each service: A Pakistan Land Theatre with an air force commander; a China Land Theatre with an army commander; and a Maritime Theatre commanded by the navy. However, the army demands a separate Northern Command, which encompasses the insurgency-roiled areas of Kashmir. General Rawat dangled the carrot of an Air Defence Theatre command for the IAF that covers the entire country’s air space, but the air force rejected that, arguing that it was already in charge of the entire country’s air defence.


This infighting needs to be resolved by the PM, who must ensure the three chiefs take ownership of the CDS project. Mr Modi should tell them: “Take over a theatre each, and we’ll make it a four-star appointment. Vice chiefs will stay back and continue handling the service. Those who oppose the concept may please resign.” Then watch how quickly joint theatres come into being.


  1. A relevant issue, which has unfortunately been trivialised by placing complete reliance on unsubstantiated inferences that personal relationships and alleged political linkages are the sole criterion for selection to the top assignment. Sad that a bright mind who one who once donned uniform and had no complaints about the system for decades while in service, should end up taking recourse to sensationalism for popularity by making such a frivolous argument to buttress his feeble arguments.

  2. Excellent Solution suggested in the last paragraph. Couldn't have imagined a better or more effective way of achieving jointness.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. thank you, broadsword. had posted the same comment twice. apologies!

  4. # could the acronym CDS be cosmetic defence supremo. if indeed there had been a CDS on raisina hill would the soldiers tasked to deny ingress of military from across the border have attended to their patrolling responsibilities rather than observing to the letter the covid19 lock-in executive order from race course road. neither the CDS nor the COAS have operational jurisdiction, this being the preserve of army commanders in the field acting on directions of the government's cabinet committee on security. would the soldiers tasked to patrol the heights of batalik have shown responsibility expected of front-line infantry, for after all bunkers, pill boxes of impregnable concrete and steel cannot be built out of ikea flatpacks overnight. even when the shia bakrewals, gujjars who only have dislike for sunnis of the valley and across the border informed the field security detachments of the goings on they were ignored, probably on the grounds of being muslims, locals and not deshbhakts. for that matter that the incident at the brigade headquarters in uri took place is extraordinary for uri is a gujjar-bakerwal town and the people are inimical to the antics of the valley sunnis, especially against the salafi-wahhabi element, the catalysts. would the leadership from a CDS have engendered some professionalism in place of the lackadaisical approach that is typical of our faujis except when preparing for a ceremonial parade, display for VIPs, and grand parties in the officers mess. would the presence of a CDS have had the worthies at ARTRAC put together protocols and detailed algorithms to ensure that soldiers, their officers and general staff understood the precision engineered sig sauer 716 rifles required a completely fresh approach to their handling, firing than what soldiers were used to with the crude engineering that produces insas, and to leave teething problems to be solved by that silly bazaar punjabi expression jugaad confirms that ARTRAC was merely an exercise in creating more HAG plus positions like the cadre reviews in the civil services where there is DG of police heading the constabulary and an equal worthy as DG homeguards, and a DG of police for the prisons. probably the CDS too is part of this darbari courtier culture of musical chairs with more and more chairs after every pay commission to keep up with the babucracy's posturings. for that matter would the musketry section of infantry school have told MoD that the ball ammunition coming out of khadki was completely unacceptable and was leading to jamming in the chamber, bulging barrels, besides excessive recoil. would the presence of a CDS have ensured that the the worst quality grain that is MSP wheat, rice from the FCI is not dumped on troops but they are indeed provided the best high protein red hard wheat flour from central india for rotis. the so called punjab pharmers cunningly grow high yield hybrids - soft varieties suitable for cakes and biscuits. will soldiers be provided nutritious, belly filling dalia-broken wheat porridge, with full cream rich milk and sweetened with gur-jaggery not granulated sugar after the mornings physical training in place of the ridiculous two pooris and some potato sabji with a mug of chai tea that goes for langar nashta while the offices are champing through corn flakes, eggs, butter, jam, sausages as if they came out of yorkshire, or south delhi rather than rohtak, rewari, sangli, satara.

  5. In India most things are cosmetic and even laws are implemented in a twisted manner . We need to be very careful that the armed forces remain highly skilled and motivated in their profession. Unfortunately, the armed forces are being degraded by internal dynamics for decades now .
    We save situations by sacrificing jawans and officers in the field rather than gaining advantage by strategy , tactics , technology and thinking by senior officers .
    War in Ukraine should set us thinking .


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