It’s been eight weeks since General Bipin Rawat was appointed as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). I must compliment the CDS for his zeal and commitment for reforms for the integration of the three services. However, the manner in which he is going about it raises disturbing questions about the process he is following.
The starting point for such far-reaching reforms involves a strategic review and evolving or reviewing the national security strategy. There is no point in imposing visionary reforms on armed forces that are structured and organised for the wars of a bygone era. On this fundamental question, Gen Rawat has been conspicuously silent. It is his responsibility to get the strategic review and the national security strategy approved by the Defence Planning Committee, which is chaired by the National Security Advisor. Gen Rawat, as the permanent chairperson of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, is a member of the Defence Planning Committee and the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff operating under him, is the member secretary and provides the secretariat.
General Rawat has specifically aired his views on creation of tri-service theatre commands and other joint commands; management of defence budget by prioritisation and staggering of procurement; reduction of the pension bill by increasing retirement age of soldiers and monetisation of defence land; putting on hold the planning for Vishal — Indian Navy’s proposed third aircraft career; and the manner in which new aircraft be inducted in the Indian Air Force (IAF).
How can you decide the priorities for major defence procurement if you are not clear about the basis of prioritisation? A case in point is Rawat’s proposal to shelve the proposed third aircraft carrier and instead exploit the long-range of shore/island-based aircraft. His approach disregards India’s extended sphere of oceanic influence from the Cape of Good Hope to Australia and the Indo-Pacific region.
A strategic blue-water navy is not built in a day. Ship building requires 15-20 years of gestation period. Moreover, if two aircraft carriers are deployed, only one would be in operation, while the other one would always be in the docks for repair and service. This was instantly noted and commented upon by international defence media. Even a layman knows that future wars/conflicts will be driven by high technology and limited in time and space, and in which the Navy and the Air Force will play a predominant role.
The Indian Navy has reiterated that the third aircraft carrier is an operational necessity and, despite the scepticism of the CDS, it will approach the Narendra Modi government for permission to initiate formal design consultancy.
Need for consultation
Rawat’s position is only first among equals vis-à-vis the service chiefs and he has no command authority. This mandates a consultative process with the service chiefs, before which various issues have to be examined by the staff in detail. By his own admission, he has not formally done that so far. No wonder Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Mukund Naravane said, “Theatre Commands is (sic) in the ideation stage. We need a road map and there must be timelines to implement it.” He elaborated that the idea is still at a “very preliminary” stage and at the moment it is “just very loud thinking”.
Rawat will have to recognise that huge differences exist as far as setting up tri-service theatre commands is concerned. The Indian Air Force, which vehemently opposed tri-service theatre commands, may have even had its protest registered in Parliament. Consequently, consultations with the service chiefs are extremely important before airing the proposals in public.
Burden of expectations
The tearing hurry being shown by the CDS Rawat is also driven by the expectations of the Modi government. In an interview to CNN News18, he said, “What I did not anticipate is the pace at which we will have to move forward. I think the government is very concerned that things must move on fast track. I am sure the government presumed that if defence services were asking for a CDS, they would have done their basic homework. Therefore, all that the CDS would have to do is move on in what has been done already. But that is not the case, so we have had to start afresh and look at what lies ahead.”
I am surprised that the CDS said this, considering that at the macro level, most issues have already been examined by Kargil Review Committee, Naresh Chandra Committee, and the Shekatkar Committee. At the micro level there is a plethora of in-house studies carried out by the three services and the Integrated Defence Staff. We also have the experience of the US, NATO countries, Russia and China. It goes without saying that the Indian model would be unique, but there is no need to reinvent the wheel. If more time is required, CDS Rawat must tell the government accordingly.
What Rawat should do
It would be prudent for the CDS to constitute an Implementation Committee chaired by him with Vice Chiefs of the three services and Chief of Integrated Defence Staff as members. Need-based tri-service sub committees staffed by domain experts can be formed for detailed examination. This would ensure that the three service chiefs remain in the loop during preparation of the blueprint and are adequately prepared for the parleys in the Chiefs of Staff Committee to take tough decisions.
Last but not the least, the CDS must not share his “loud thinking” with the media using it as a sounding board without preparing the detailed tri-service consensus-based blueprint for reforms. Not only it is a security risk forearming our adversaries, but it also leads to gaffes to the amusement of the international strategic community.
I leave it to the judgement of the readers how to interpret his statement: “As far as the defence budget is concerned, if it is not sufficient, how is every service chief saying that they are ready?”
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.