SOURCE: INDIA TODAY
Arow of Indian Air Force (IAF) C-17s, Indian Army tanks in the Himalayas and a naval landing ship tank in the Andamans. Three large photo frames hang on one wall of General Bipin Rawat’s spartan office in South Block, a daily reminder of his task at hand. As India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Rawat has to get the army, air force and navy, the world’s second, fourth and seventh largest, respectively, to work together as one unit.
“Some years ago, we used to ask, ‘Why do we need a CDS?’” says General Rawat, with a smile. “Now, there is acceptance and acceptability all around and structures are being created for integration.” (See accompanying interview.)
The idea of creating the post of CDS, a single-point military advisor to the government, was always a political one. It was first proposed in 2001 by the Group of Ministers appointed after the 1999 Kargil War, reiterated by an MoD (ministry of defence)-appointed committee of experts in 2016 and finally announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15 last year. The armed forces were opposed to it for reasons of inter-service rivalry. The post of CDS is independent India’s single-biggest military reform, one that will over the years change how the armed forces are structured.
Apart from being the CDS and the single-point military advisor to the government, General Rawat wears two more hats. As the permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, he is first among equals on a panel that includes the three service chiefs. And as Secretary, Department of Military Affairs (DMA), he’s a file-pushing military bureaucrat heading a fifth department in the MoD. All these responsibilities converge at a low-roofed, windowless 300 sq. ft office on the ground floor of South Block. For an office that wields enormous power and responsibility, it has a remarkably modest setting. The room is smaller than the lounge where General Rawat met visitors when he was the army chief. The potted plants in brass containers and the red foot-mat outside, government code for an important office, break the monotony of a long corridor. Officers from the three services hurry past with files to be perused by the CDS’s one-star military advisor. This is the beating heart of a one-year-old military-bureaucratic machine set up to make the armed forces future-ready.
Even General Rawat’s worst critics will agree that the tasks before the CDS and DMA are humongous. A one-year review would hence only list what will largely be work in progress. “The office of the CDS is like a one-year-old child who is still taking baby steps. It will take time to stabilise,” says Lt General D.B. Shekatkar, who headed the 2016 MoD committee that, among other things, recommended the post of CDS.
Over the next few days, General Rawat is to prepare for defence minister Rajnath Singh a report on ‘annual achievements in jointness during the year’. This, in all probability, will list some of his office’s most significant accomplishments over the year. These include kicking off three studies that will create the first of two integrated theatre commands, the National Air Defence Command (NADC), followed by the Maritime Theatre Command (MTC), by 2021. Next is a plan to harmonise the Rs 1 lakh crore worth of military hardware purchased by the armed forces every year. And finally, a drastic proposal to increase the retirement age of armed forces officers to save pensions and give the government a brief budgetary respite.
THE JOURNEY SO FAR
General Rawat took over as CDS on the first day of a year that has been a turning point in the nation’s history. The Covid-19 pandemic saw a nationwide lockdown leading to an economic crisis. The sudden mobilisation of two divisions following incursions by China’s PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in eastern Ladakh in May completed a near-unprecedented convergence of health, economic and national security crises. General Rawat listing his biggest achievement as getting the three services “to talk to each other” might sound facetious. But it must be seen in the light of what was, until last year, a peculiarly siloed defence ministry. The military, the political leadership and the bureaucracy stood like the Ashokan Lion symbols of the Indian state, each looking in different directions and rarely speaking to each other.
General Rawat says that the first test of a new structure, where the stakeholders began to speak to each other, came during the Ladakh border crisis. IAF fighter jets and transport aircraft were flown in almost immediately to support the army while the navy stood mission-ready in the Indian Ocean. This was in stark contrast to the Kargil War when the army struggled for a month to get the air force to deploy their fighter aircraft to support the ground offensive. “We are very optimistic about the CDS and the DMA,” says Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh. “There are several instances where we have been able to take problems head on and move [forward] in terms of jointness.”
“Everybody was kept on board from the very beginning,” says General Rawat of the Ladakh standoff. He regularly visited the operations rooms of all three services for briefings. His office is now pushing to integrate the three secure standalone communication systems used by the armed forces. The Air Force Net, the Navy Enterprise Wide Network and the Army Data Network link up all of a single service’s command headquarters, bases and formations. But it is only in Delhi that these three networks are linked. All three services will be linked across the country once the Network for Spectrum (NFS) fiberoptic cable backbone is completed a few years hence.
The DMA overcame the service bugbear that the military was kept outside the edifice of MoD for over 70 years. It took over all military responsibilities that were earlier performed by the Department of Defence, headed by the defence secretary. Among other issues, it looks after transfers, postings and promotions of one-star officers from the three services, tasks earlier performed by the civilian bureaucracy. The DMA is a mix of civilian and military officials. The department includes five joint secretary rank officers, one from each of the three services and two from the civilian bureaucracy. (Interestingly, within the DMA, the armed forces officials are designated ‘Joint Secretary Equivalent’ or ‘Director Equivalent’.) A senior military official says the DMA secretariat has speeded up file movement, the ultimate measure of government efficiency. “Earlier, it was almost a rule that files would come back with multiple queries; now it is no longer so,” says General Rawat.
It is impossible to separate the persona of General Rawat from the post he occupies. Over the year in office, he has stoked controversy, generated antipathy and inspired WhatsApp memes. There are jointmanship jokes, such as ‘all services now jointly loathe the CDS’. A former army commander, who did not want to be named, terms his record “a mixed one, mostly negative”. “He has initiated a few things, meddled in a few things that were not his responsibility, earned a poor name for having become politicised and hasn’t been able to take all the services along with him,” says the officer.
A senior government official calls the CDS “a great idea but stuck with the wrong guy”. Another officer dismisses the DMA as yet another structure within the MoD: “Earlier, we had a four-bedroom house, now we have a five-bedroom house.” An armed forces official calls General Rawat “bull-headed” but also agrees that “goody-goody guys never bring change”.
General Rawat shrugs off the criticism and is nonplussed about making enemies. “Dost toh sabhi ban jaate hain, lekin dushman humko satark rehne ki chetawni bhejte hain (Friends are easily made, but enemies keep us alert),” he says. The angst, he adds, comes from the love of inertia and resistance to change.
THE REFORMS PLAN
Much of the recent furore comes from a DMA proposal to increase the retirement age of officers. General Rawat says the issue was “misread” as an attempt to cut pensions. The proposal was only aimed at raising the retirement age of officers in the ranks of colonel, brigadier and major general and their equivalent ranks, by three, two and one year, respectively. This will defer payments in the short term and make funds available for other priority areas, including infrastructure development. “I visualise the government going through a crisis over the next two-three years because of Covid. In a small way, we are helping overcome it by cutting down on the pension budget for some time,” says General Rawat of the proposal, which will be sent to the cabinet committee for approval for implementation in the next financial year.
Theatre Commands will be the next big leap for the armed forces. Jointmanship, the military term for integrated military operations with a common strategy, methodology and conduct, is the cement that will go into building the military structures called theatre commands. These theatre commands, which will see the three services move out of their 17 single-service commands into just five integrated theatres, will form the edifice of the reformed structure.
The navy has just finished its study for the MTC, which aims to knit together all tri-service military assets operating out of peninsular India and having a bearing on the maritime domain. An IAF study on the NADC and an army study on the Western, Northern and Eastern Integrated Theatre Commands are underway. All of these commands will be under a future Chief of Defence Staff, but only seven or eight years hence, says General Rawat. That is because, he adds, the services don’t know enough about each other’s capabilities yet.
The MTC proposal puts the command under the Chiefs of Staff Committee and envisages the navy chief as responsible only for equipping, arming and training functions. General Rawat believes it is too early for that to happen. “As of now, you cannot take away the responsibility of operations from the service chiefs. How they will get integrated will be [taken care of] by a theatre commander. But the operational guidelines will come from the respective service chiefs, depending on the theatre. In a land theatre, the army chief will be responsible for conduct of operations. The air force chief will be responsible for air space management,” he says.
General Rawat speaks about his CDS post in third person, as though anxious to not sound overbearing. He is generous with his praise of the three service chief colleagues and believes that the CDS should always be a four-star officer because “a higher rank will disrupt the bonhomie we share”. “The CDS must be [made] strong enough by giving him power, but in decision-making. The decision he takes must be implementable.”
By mid-2021, General Rawat hopes to get government approval for a plan that will reassess how the armed forces buy military hardware. The Integrated Capability Development Plan (ICDP) is aimed at equipping the forces and managing procurements. So far, the system was for the three service headquarters to submit their 15-year wishlists or Long Term Integrated Perspective Plans (LTIPPs).
Importantly, LTIPPs were not linked to available budgets or urgency. Proposals were worked on a first-past-the-post system, with the acquisition case that successfully jumped through all the hoops making it to the contract-signing stage. The Defence Capital Acquisition Plan (DCAP) will review the five-year horizon and bring all services on common capability development. This could see the CDS facing opposition from the armed forces as he questions big-ticket purchases. Does the navy, for instance, need a third aircraft carrier? Does the IAF need as many squadrons as projected or there is a case for unmanned state-of-the-art aerial systems becoming game-changers in future combat?
“Any new plan to redo acquisitions needs to balance three issues, requirement of the hardware, financial capability to pay for it, and the feasibility of acquiring it,” says Lt General P. Ravi Shankar, former director-general artillery. Clearly, questions needed to have been asked for several years now.