With China, UK & Gorkha Factor In Backdrop, India’s New CDS Faces Challenges For A Post Which Glitters Without Much Substance

The Narendra Modi–led Government of India has appointed Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan (Retd.) as the country’s next Chief of Defense Staff (CDS). It is said that, as was in the case of his predecessor General Rawat, General Chauhan’s expertise on China (as the Army’s Head of Eastern Command till May 2021) and closeness to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval (as a consultant after retirement) – tilted the scale in his favor.

Incidentally, Doval, Rawat, and Chauhan all hail from the tiny hill state of Uttarakhand (UK), bordering China. It is also a coincidence that both late General Rawat and General Chauhan were commissioned in the same unit: 11 Gurkhas.

General Rawat, a former Army Chief, did not complete his tenure of three years as the country’s first CDS, a post that came into being in January 2020. Unfortunately, he was killed in a helicopter crash in December 2021.

Thus, there has been an unusual delay in filling the post for nearly nine months. This delay had led some critics to say that the government might do away with the post altogether.

However, many other perceptible Indian military watchers thought the government was taking extra time to decide on General Rawat’s successor to clear many operational shortcomings during his brief tenure. But, the delay does not seem to have provided any clarity, except for the changes in the required criteria for being selected as a CDS.

And that means that the CDS office remains a half-hearted implementation of an idea that has been under debate since the end of the India-Pakistan War in 1971.

After the 1971-war, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the first to suggest the appointment of  Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw as Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) with a unified Staff. But this was vehemently opposed by the then Naval Chief, Admiral SM Nanda, and then Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal PC Lal.

This inter-services rivalry, with the Air Force and Navy fearing the prospect of domination by the Army in case there is a CDS, delayed the creation of the CDS post even after the Kargil War in 1999, when the Kargil Review Committee, headed by the then leading strategic thinker K Subrahmanyan (present foreign minister S Jaishankar’s father),   recommended the CDS post with a “five-star” general or equivalent, who would be the principal military adviser to the government.

Later, in  2012, the Naresh Chandra (a former Cabinet Secretary) Task Force recommended the creation of the post of a permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC), which comprises the Army, Navy, and Air Force chiefs. The senior-most among them would act as chairman.

Be that as it may, in December 2019, the Modi government did decide to create the post of CDS, but in the rank of a four-star General with a salary and perquisites equivalent to a Service Chief.

The CDS also heads the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), created within the Ministry of Defense (MoD), and functions as its Secretary. The DMA is to deal with the: three Services Army, Navy, and Air Force; Integrated HQ of the MoD comprising Army Headquarters, Naval Headquarters, Air Headquarters, and Defense Staff Headquarters; Territorial Army; works relating to the Services, and; procurement exclusive to the Services except for capital acquisitions, as per prevalent rules and procedures.

Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan
Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan

In addition to this, the mandate of DMA includes: promoting jointness in procurement, training, and staffing for the Services through joint planning and integration of their requirements; facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilization of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through the establishment of joint/theatre commands, and, promoting the use of indigenous equipment by the Services.

Apart from heading DMA, the CDS works as the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (Army, Air, and Navy) and acts as the Principal Military Adviser to the Defense Minister on all tri-Services matters. That means the three Service Chiefs continue advising the Defense Minister on issues exclusively concerned with their respective Services.

The CDS does not exercise any military command, including over the three Service Chiefs, to be able to provide impartial advice to the political leadership.

As the permanent chairman of COSC, functions of the CDS will include: administer tri-services organizations – tri-service agencies/organisations/commands related to Cyber and Space will be under the command of the CDS; be member of Defense Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by the Defense Minister and Defense Planning Committee (DPC) chaired by NSA; function as the Military Adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority; bring about jointness in operation, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, etc of the three Services, within three years of the first CDS assuming office; ensure optimal utilization of infrastructure and rationalize it through jointness among the Services; implement Five-Year Defense Capital Acquisition Plan (DCAP), and Two-Year roll-on Annual Acquisition Plans (AAP), as a follow up of Integrated Capability Development Plan (ICDP); assign inter-Services prioritization to capital acquisition proposals based on the anticipated budget, and bring about reforms in the functioning of three Services aimed at augmenting combat capabilities of the Armed Forces by reducing wasteful expenditure.

How Do The Functions Of The CDS Meet The Hopes Of The Much-Expected Military Reform?

The basic idea inherent in the Kargil Review committee was that there should be an integrated MoD and that the CDS would be the principal military advisor of the government, meaning thereby that he would be the topmost military official in the country. However, that has not happened

The nomenclature “Principal Advisor to RM (Defense Minister)” indicates the CDS is not the ‘Single Point Advisor.’ The CDS is not even the commander of all the country’s armed forces; he is on par with the three service chiefs, all with four stars and hence equal military status. At best, he is “first among equals,” which does not mean anything in concrete terms in the military hierarchy. The CDS lacks full operational power.

The fact that the CDS is now the Secretary of the newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) in the MoD makes it absurd that a four-star General like him is equated with a Secretary to the Government of India. In contrast, as per the protocol, a four-star General (or equivalent) is supposed to be on par with the Cabinet Secretary, the country’s No. 1 civil servant.

The delay in General Chauhan’s appointment as the CDS has not provided any improvement on the above issues that were in the Modi government’s knowledge. Instead, what the government has done over the last nine months is that it has only broadened the eligibility criteria for the CDS appointment, something that has furthered the bitterness in the top echelon of the Armed services.

In June, the government widened the eligibility criteria by including the three-star officers, both serving and retired, including even those who have not been commanders, for the CDS post as long as they have not attained the age of 62.

In effect, it has killed the prospects of any serving Chief of the Army, Navy, and Air Force for the post as they retire at 62. All told, General Rawat was the Army Chief before being elevated to the position of CDS. Now, any serving Army or Navy or Air Chief becoming the CDS is virtually impossible unless he takes a premature retirement to apply for the post.

Besides, imagine the embarrassment of three serving Chiefs with four stars when a three-star officer (as with general Chauhan) becomes the permanent head of the COSC!

Secondly, General Rawat’s tenure was marked by his open differences with the Air and Naval Chiefs. India’s first CDS was not in favor of India having a third Aircraft carrier, something the Indian Navy badly and rightly wanted.

General Rawat also did not share with the Air Chief that Air power is not a “supporting arm” of the Army. In other words, critics had a point when they said that being an Army man, General Rawat’s military vision was Army-centric, much to the dismay of the Indian Navy and Air Force.

Indian Army
File Image: Soldiers

This perception of an Army-centric military vision at a time when the roles of the Navy and Air Force have multiplied in modern warfare and in promoting India’s national interests far away from the mainland during peacetime will continue with General Chauhan as the new CDS.

It is all the more so when General Rawat’s road-map for restructuring the Indian Armed Forces into five distinct ‘Theatre commands’ by bringing the supposedly reluctant Navy and Air Force on board remains a lively challenge.

There are strong arguments that the idea of theatre commands, as is the case with the US military, may suit the American troops with a global presence and thus not applicable in the case of India.

Besides, there are severe reservations on the concept of the US – types where the theatre commander, leading forces from all the services, reports directly to the Secretary of Defense through the Joint Chief of Staff. The service chiefs in the US only play supporting roles in their forces’ recruitment and management.

Will the Indian Service Chiefs like such reduced roles for themselves, with the Theatre Commanders, who will be of Lieutenant General and equivalent ranks with three stars, reporting directly to the Defense Minister?

Will they like the idea of just being providers of the resources to the Theatre Commanders without any control over them? General Chauhan has to find answers to these questions. And that is going to be a Herculean task.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com
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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com