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Stop celebrating CDS. Gen Rawat will barely be able to command forces thanks to bureaucracy

The bureaucratic sleight of hand has put Gen Bipin Rawat at a disadvantage even as his tenure as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff has just begun.

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The Narendra Modi government has created a new tip of the military pyramid, the Chief of Defence Staff, and has given its first appointee General Bipin Rawat three years to construct the base on which the future of India’s armed forces is to stand. This tall order has already been undermined by the infamous bureaucracy and its sleight of hand.

The task has been made more difficult for Gen Rawat with some deft bureaucratic rewriting of the rules of business that accompanied the announcement. This has gone largely unnoticed in the cacophony around the new military office, the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). But it makes for a worrisome long-term picture, especially since the new goals become that much more difficult to achieve.

Why do we need a CDS at all

Among professional militaries worldwide, there are essentially two drivers for creating a CDS, or its equivalent. The first is to have a senior and experienced military officer functioning as a point-person between the entire armed forces structure and the political leadership. This officer is supposed to have the gravitas to fulfil all challenging tasks, so the onus is on Gen Bipin Rawat to live up to the demands. Except that the bureaucratic sleight of hand has put him at a disadvantage even as his tenure has just begun.

The second driver for creating a CDS is that the three armed forces – Army, Navy, and Air Force – have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, jointness in command and conduct of operations. Since jointness is already in the air, the CDS is simply the icing on the cake, so to say. It is the military base, functioning in healthy jointness, upon which sits the peak of the pyramid, a CDS. Except that in India’s case, it is not so – and is made doubly difficult by a playing field not being level. Not that it was in the first place, but the hope remained that, as the CDS position gets sanctioned, the field would also be prepared accordingly.

Also read: CDS General Bipin Rawat gets cracking, Air Defence Command first priority

Resistance still in order

Jointness, the ultimate quality in military operational efficiency, is best achieved through joint formations that plan and execute together. This has long been a demand in India, but it has always met with much resistance over the years, within and outside of the three armed forces. CDS Rawat, as secretary of the DMA, will be the ‘single point’ adviser to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. This arrangement had long been a demand, although not of the entire military fraternity. Logically, this should mean that the CDS will oversee all such matters that someone of his stature and experience should be handling. But that is not to be, since the bureaucratic empire has a way of striking back, like it has in the past, keeping alive the resistance of yore.

The first entry to the rules of business that accompanied the announcement of the CDS makes it clear that this decades-old resistance still exists, and it has in fact been strengthened enough to foil the evolution of this new office to its logical conclusion. What once read as ‘Defence of India and every part thereof including preparation for defence…’, now reads as ‘Defence of India and every part thereof including defence policy and preparation…’

Add to this the charter of duties as announced for the CDS, wherein it declares, ‘He will act as the Principal Military Adviser to Raksha Mantri on all tri-Services matters. The three Chiefs will continue to advise RM on matters exclusively concerning their respective Services. CDS will not exercise any military command, including over the three Service Chiefs…’. This raises a fundamental question about the role of the CDS: ‘If there is no defence policy formulation and no command control’, then what precisely will the CDS be doing as a single-point military adviser?

Also read: Modi govt’s CDS is big reform, but this is what the charter lacks

CDS without military command

Jointness of command and operations is also based on the commonality of equipment and logistics – both of which are within the charter as defined for the CDS. Modern equipment is essential for military modernisation, except that a sleight of hand has operated here as well – the CDS-led Department of Military Affairs will be responsible for ‘Procurement exclusive to the Services except capital acquisitions, as per prevalent rules and procedures’. The last words are an insult to which the armed forces are long accustomed, but when read with another alteration to the rules of business, the rub becomes clearer.

‘Capital acquisition exclusive to the defence services’ will now solely be the purview of the defence secretary, in place of the earlier ‘procurement exclusive to the defence services’.

This means that the defence secretary will formulate the policy and decide on modern equipment with which the armed forces will go into combat. And, yes, the CDS will not exercise any military command.

The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. Views are personal.

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  1. Hopefully, Gen. Rawat has the mettle to rise above the petty military-bureaucracy struggle for primacy in the pecking order, and lead through the force of his ideas and arguments, and his initiative. The fact that the position of CDS was at long last created shows that he has the support of the NSA and the PM, the most important people in the system. It is now up to him and the military as a whole to utilize this and not get bogged down in a turf battle. Leadership does not derive from where one stands in the order of precedence; it comes from the fact that people all persuasions – politicians, bureaucrats, the media, the public at large – rally around the vision and proposals that the CDS is expected to show. He will need to use tact, patience, drive and opportunity; and skillfully work the various levers available to him – public opinion, the media, the frustrations that political class and bureaucracy have with each other – to get his way. No point starting off with the usual lament about the clever bureaucrats using sleight of hand …. two should be able to play that game.

  2. One of the early challenges for CDS General Rawat will be paucity of resources. Especially for acquisition of weapons. A certain scaling down of ambitions is unavoidable. FM, who has served as RM earlier, would be a valuable source of guidance and advice.

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