India’s first Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, has been visible and vocal the past few months on television and public forums explaining what his priorities are, starting with the theaterisation of military commands. Both the CDS and theaterization were recommended by the 1999 Kargil Committee chaired by the late K. Subrahmanyham. These were part of the reforms the Committee had suggested to realize ‘jointness’, absent which the country had managed to put one over the Pakistan army in the last border conflict but at great cost.
India and Indians can’t be thankful enough that there’s always the Pakistan army to rescue us from our military follies because, unmindful of its resource limitations, it screws up by not thinking strategically before lurching into action.
The lack of coordination (owing to the then air chief, Anil Tipnis, not satisfied with an ask for help by the army chief General Ved Malik, insisting on a written directive from the government to use aircraft) led to the Indian Air Force taking no part in the first two weeks of the hostilities. And when it finally was activated, it did so with armed helicopters which were promptly shot down as was a combat aircraft logging, in the process, a startling attrition rate and all inside the first few hours of deployment. The reason the IAF offered for this fiasco was that it had not prepared for war in the mountains!
In line with how the Indian system works — the country got the body first — the Integrated Defence Staff, the supposed secretariat for CDS, as recommended by the Kargil Committee, before the Indian government realized, some 20 years later, that something was missing and around 2019 attached a head, namely, the CDS, to the IDS body. Thereafter, moving with commendable speed, it filled this newly created post with the then soon-to-retire army chief, General Rawat, the sort of grounded infantryman anyone would be happy to take advice from.
But before being pitched headlong into the chair, Rawat failed, apparently, to take the precaution of inquiring from the government about his role, what was expected of him by way of agenda and priorities and, most importantly, what slate of powers the CDS post would be endowed with as these powers would have to be carved out of the decisionmaking turf the services chiefs lord over. This was necessary in order to implement decisions that would require the CDS to work through, over and around the inevitably resisting services chiefs of staff, each of them zealously protective of his own part of the field and preventing encroachment of any kind by any body. Once in the CDS’s chair, Rawat realized he was the proverbial fifth wheel of a running vehicle and served no useful purpose.
For all the pomp and ceremony attending on his CDS position Rawat found himself, in effect, as nothing more than head of the Integrated Defence Staff, but with bigger office and perks. For the Services chiefs he was an imposition but as primus inter pares (first among equals) and so designated by the Cabinet Committee as the single point source of military advice to the Defence Minister and, hence, the government, he could, in theory, insert himself in the military decision-making process with more consequence than the chairman, chiefs of staff committee (CCoSC) in the previous schema could. Except, the CCoSC was an established institution and over the years a gentleman’s understanding had evolved. Because the senior most serving chief served as chairman, each service chief would get his turn and, as chairman, had the opportunity to serve his service’s interests, push his service’s pet projects and programmes. Now insert into this mix a fourth four star but take out the old structure and what you get is a new player who is as much nuisance as inconvenience. It was a recipe for gumming up the works.
To correct this mess, the government then compounded it by creating without much thought or deliberation an organization for a CDS to head and so the country got yet another department of government — the grand sounding Department of Military Affairs (DMA), because IDS HQrs, a subordinate entity, obviously wouldn’t do. So DMA is now in place with a near full establishment on paper — AdSecs, Joint Secs, etc. Except no one from the superior civil services or the armed services wants to serve in it, because it is still a stand alone appendage with no real standing or power. Why, because, again, Rawat, in a tearing hurry to become secretary to government forgot that as army chief he was principal secretary to the government and, as a former CCOS pointed out to me, heading the DMA is actually a substantive demotion. In effect then, all the services chiefs actually bureaucraticaly outrank the CDS and head of DMA, Rawat!
And because Rawat didn’t take care before taking the job of fleshing out the power and authority of the CDS, which he could have done by exploiting to the max his Pauri-Garhwal connections to the powers that be, he and the CDS post are in the unenviable position of remaining transfixed between and betwixt. Because ultimate decisions, short of the PM, pertaining to national defence are still made by the Defence Secretary who retains the responsibility for the country’s military security, and outranks the CDS in every respect!
So, one can see why Rawat cannot push the theaterization of military commands through with the IAF standing in the way. The CAS Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria explained in a TV intervew that his service was not against theaterization per se, but rather that it wants it done just “right”. Of course, if the IAF had its way, it will never happen because it is loath for the sake of jointness or anything else to give up its operational prerogatives and control over its assets. But for the deadlines set by the government, this would be grist for endless disagreement without closure. The IAF, more than the self-confident navy, has always been reluctant to dilute its separate corporate identity even if for a good cause. And it has not fought shy to go to any extent.
Just how petty the IAF can get was revealed by a former commander-in-chief (CINC) of the integrated Andaman Command — the first demonstration project for jointness. He reveals how the IAF refused, for instance, to cede its land to the Command, land where the CINC hoped to build living quarters and recreational facilities for IAF and other military personnel on base, at a time when airmen were living in tents. And not to give ground even in matters of protocol, he recalls how airmen waiting for a service bus invariably failed to salute the CINC passing in his car because he was from another service and how they went to great lengths to avoid doing so. When this CINC asked the IAF chief at the time about it, he was told that that was because the IAF men did not have their caps on. To avoid such protocol situations from arising the IAF component commander, under instructions from IAF Hqrs, then changed the location of the bus stop!
The Andaman Command experience points to the major issue at the core of the integration problem. The authority to write annual confidential reports (ACRs) of officers, which defines the limits of the CINC. In the current circumstances, CINC, Andaman Command, writes the ACRs of his deputy from a different service and of each of the component commanders. Except the final vested authority on the ACRs rests with the services chiefs in Delhi. Should the deputy chief or any of the component commanders act in any way considered detrimental to the interests of the service as determined by the chief, well he and his ACR are fixed, promotion prospects marred. In other words, even in an integrated setup, loyalty to the parent service is paramount or an officer gets it in the neck, hardly the incentive for officers serving in integrated commands to feel loyalty for the joint setup. Or, for the Command to come up with optimized battle plans and crisis solutions involving use of all resources. So what would the falloff be in terms of the Command’s military efficiency and effectiveness? I reckon it would not be insignificant.
A simple reform of making the CINC the final authority in ACR writing will do more to generate loyalty in an integrated military structure than all the endless gassifying on the subject by politicians and militarymen. This is the stickiest point and no service chief will make concession. It requires the defence minister and, if he is averse, the prime minister to simply lay down the law and, by diktat, affect this change. No debate on the topic, no discussion, no endless file pushing in the Defence ministry, no nonsense!
The other immediate issue are the proposed plans for theaterization. The trouble with them is their byzantine nature. There’s so much opacity and such a tangle of crossed lines it is hard to know whose authority will work when, where, and how, and over what. For instance, Rawat in a recent TV interview talked about his priority — the proposed integrated air defence command that will make a single commander in charge of all air space management, including all air activity by assets held by the three armed services, this to avoid, as he put it, fratricidal kills. (See https://youtube.com/watch?v=wwhbsvN9o_l .) These air assets are inclusive of everything from the army’s longrange artillery firing shells to 40 km range because at apogee they reach 15 km altitude in their ballistic course, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters, to combat and transport aircraft, in other words every last thing of military use that flies.
Then Rawat talked of the extant complication: He tried to explain why because of the live borders with Pakistan and with China, the IAF’s northern and western air commands will continue as they are. He did not clarify just how all the flying objects with these two air commands will fold into the air management scheme overseen by CINC, Air Defence Command, and how utter confusion can be prevented. Untangling the operational control over the multitude of assets in these three commands will be a nightmarish exercise with what results will be decided by the outcome of the next war!
The aforementioned fomer Andaman command CINC believes there’s no way to resolve such problems other than for the three armed services chiefs to sit around a table with, perhaps, the CDS presiding, and working out just how and where the fighting assets in particular are to be distributed, located and controlled at literally every moment in time — which aspect will become crucial in case of crisis and hostilities. This is inherently difficult business, and the CDS and his staff will have to work the details out with Bhaduaria, Admiral Karambir Singh and General MM Naravane and their respective staffs, and find appropriately dynamic solutions.
The rest of us can only hope and pray our adversaries will show some consideration and not thrust a war on us before the three services chiefs and the CDS iron out the integration wrinkles.
On the larger issue of military integration, however, the minimum that is expected of the CDS is that he will be familiar with the other two services, their inventories, their capabilities, and of the whole host of specialist skills and competences they represent and embody. In this respect, Rawat has disappointed. He has not shown the necessary knowledge of, leave alone insights into, even the basics of air and naval warfare. Just how deficient he is in his appreciation was showcased by his calling the air force a mere “supporting arm” which, in this day and age, is inexcusable and almost a goad to the IAF to stand its ground against theaterization. Not content, Rawat then almost revelled in his ignorance of the differences in combat flying conducted by the air force and the navy. Sounding verily like one of the generalist babus populating the defence ministry, who can’t tell the business end of a gun from their elbow, he said he can’t see why IAF pilots cannot fly their aircraft off carrier decks, and naval pilots their planes from air bases!! In Rawat’s mind, flying is flying — what’s the big deal?!! The small matter of the vast and consequential differences in aircraft and in combat flying over land and at sea off aircraft carriers is for him of little concern. Ooh, boy!!!
With Rawat as CDS, the Modi government better begin to worry about the sort of military “integration” that may materialize under his charge, and its overall effects on the armed forces’ efficiency and effectiveness.