Chief of Defence Staff: Unsettled questions - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.
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Thursday, 9 June 2022

Chief of Defence Staff: Unsettled questions

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh addresses the Naval Commanders' Conference

By Ajai Shukla

Unsigned editorial in Business Standard 

10th June 22


Since the unfortunate death of the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, in a helicopter crash last December, India’s strategic community has waited expectantly for the appointment, or at least naming, of his successor. While that wait continues, the government announced this week the eligibility conditions it would expect its tri-service chief to meet. Few have failed to perceive the noticeable difference between the CDS the government wanted in 2019 and what it seems to want today. It is disconcerting that the government has modified the eligibility criteria for appointment as CDS so early in the life of the institution. This raises the question: Was the structure of the CDS, as conceived by the government’s top decision-makers, fundamentally flawed?

 

The most obvious difference between the 2019 eligibility conditions and the ones the government has promulgated now is that a lieutenant general, vice admiral or air marshal (referred to collectively as lieutenant generals hereafter) who has retired up to two years ago can now be recalled to serve as a CDS for up to three years, until he reaches the age of sixty-five. It is unclear why the defence ministry is opening the post for retired officers. Do the three serving chiefs and 17-odd serving army commanders, all of them senior lieutenant generals, not provide the government with adequate options. Why would the government keep open the option of recalling to service a lieutenant general who has retired as far back as two years ago and is rusty in his knowledge of current developments, and have him supersede three serving service chiefs to take over as CDS. In these circumstances, appointing a retired lieutenant general as CDS would only give rise to suspicion that the eligibility criteria were framed in order to elevate that particular individual. Experience has shown that allowing retired officers to return to service in elevated positions usually does not turn out well.

 

Nor would recalling to service a retired lieutenant general, to tenant the post of CDS, provide an answer to the contentious questions relating to the CDS’s precedence and seniority. Currently, the three service chiefs, all the equivalent of full generals, are senior to the defence secretary. Army commanders (who hold the rank of lieutenant generals) are the equivalent of secretaries. The 2019 order creating a CDS appointed him a “secretary” and the head of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). That created a conundrum: If the service chiefs are senior to the defence secretary, how can the CDS – by virtue of being a secretary heading the DMA – be the equivalent of the defence secretary and, therefore, junior to the three army chiefs? There would be rough edges to the policy even within the three services since, technically, an army commander, who is junior to the service chiefs, could supersede them to become CDS. The new CDS policy must address these nettlesome issues.

 

That said, there is an inescapable need to appoint a CDS to take forward the military’s agenda of equipment modernisation, manpower rationalisation and, perhaps most urgently, the creation of integrated, tri-service theatre commands. Other CDS responsibilities that brook no delay are his role as advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority and implementation of the Five-Year Defence Capital Acquisition Plan and the Two-Year Roll-On Annual Acquisition Plans (AAP).


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