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Chief of Defence Staff: Unsettled questions - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla

Defense Minister Rajnath Singh addresses the Navy Commanders Conference

By Vikas Gupta

Unsigned Editorial in Defence News of India

June 10, 22

Since the unfortunate death of the first Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, in a helicopter crash last December, the Indian strategic community has been eagerly awaiting the appointment, or at least the appointment, of of his successor. While that wait continues, the government this week announced the eligibility requirements it would expect its tri-service chief to meet. Few have failed to see the notable difference between the CDS the government wanted in 2019 and what it seems to want today. It is disconcerting that the government changed the eligibility criteria for appointment to the CDS so early in the life of the institution. This begs the question: Was the structure of the CDS, as designed by key government decision-makers, fundamentally flawed?

The most obvious difference between the 2019 eligibility requirements and those the government has now enacted is that a lieutenant general, vice admiral, or air marshal (hereafter collectively referred to as lieutenant generals) who took his 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 Ministry of Defense is opening the post to retired officers. Do the three serving chiefs and some 17 serving army commanders, all senior lieutenant generals, not provide the government with adequate options? Why would the government keep the option of recalling to service a lieutenant general who retired two years ago and is rusty in his knowledge of current developments, and having him replace three serving service chiefs to take the reports as CDS. In these circumstances, the appointment of a retired Lieutenant General to the position of CDS would only give rise to suspicions that the eligibility criteria were established in order to elevate that particular individual. Experience has shown that allowing retired officers to return to senior positions generally does not yield good results.

Calling up a retired lieutenant general to serve as CDS would also not answer the contentious issues of CDS precedence and seniority. Currently, the three service chiefs, all equivalent to full generals, are senior to the Secretary of Defense. Army commanders (who hold the rank of lieutenant generals) are the equivalent of secretaries. The 2019 order creating a CDS names him “Secretary” and Head of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). This has created a conundrum: if the service chiefs are superior to the Secretary of Defense, how can the CDS – as the secretary at the head of the DMA – be the equivalent of the Secretary of Defense and, therefore , subordinate to the three chiefs of the army? There would be rough edges to the policy even within the three services since, technically, an army commander, who is subordinate to the service chiefs, could replace them to become CDS. The new CDS policy should address these thorny issues.

That said, the appointment of a CDS is essential to advancing the military agenda of modernizing equipment, rationalizing manpower and, perhaps most urgently, creating integrated three-service theater commands. Other CDS responsibilities that do not tolerate any delay are its advisory role to the Nuclear Command Authority and the implementation of the five-year defense equipment acquisition plan and the two-year annual acquisition plans (AAPs) .