The announcement of a CDS by the Government was a welcome step after over seventy years of inaction. It was the distrust between the polity and the armed forces at the time of independence and incidents in Pakistan of the army taking over the country, which compelled the first Indian Government to change the system of higher defence management, recommended by Lord Ismay at the time of independence,and make three services independent of each other, pushing them away from the Government and national security decision making. Politicians believed they were securing the nation from a coup, whereas they ended up making them subservient to the bureaucracy, rather than the polity.
For decades, the nation lumbered on, battling crises after crises, just about pulling through, while the three services looked at everything, operations, warfighting strategy as also developing capabilities and capacities, independently. There was hardly any concept of joint war fighting. In 1971, Sam Manekshaw and his air force counterpart, PC Lal, were barely on talking terms. In 1999, the air force was initially unwilling to participate in operations and when they did join, they became a force multiplier.
The armed forces structure in the current environment desperately needed change, compelling themto plan, operate and develop capabilities jointly, especially in an era of reducing budgets. It was with this aim that a CDS was announced.
General Bipin Rawat, who retired on 31st Dec last year as the COAS, was appointed as the first CDS. Being the first, there would be multiple challenges which he would face. These would range from changing the existing system, which few would accept with grace, to bringing about reform in management of defence and in functioning of the MoD, again leading to possible turf battles with the bureaucracy.
He would have three service chiefs, all from the same NDA batch, as his colleagues in the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which he would head. As a CDS some of his tasks would result in his stepping on toes of service chiefs, an action which would need to be accepted by them. Simultaneously, issues which concern all three services would be rightly projected by him directly to the defence minister, rather than through the defence secretary, as was the norm.
Joint planning and capability development are an aspect which could ruffle feathers within the COSC. After all, each service chief is responsible to his command for their future power. Each service also has its own view of the emerging battlefield and its impending role. For the CDS, it would be viewing the future battlefield milieu in its entirety and envisaging procurement within the expected budget. If he must succeed and carry the armed forces along, he would need to win the trust of the chiefs and create in within them the confidence that he has the interests of the nation foremost in his mind and their service concerns are being addressed.
The organization structure of the MoD has remained unchanged since independence. Even with amending of terminology of the armed forces from attached offices to integrated HQs, nothing changed. They remained away from the government structure, not even a part of the ministry. All cases they projected were assessed from the bottom up in the MoD, with no consideration on importance or time. They had to approach the bureaucracy for all their requirements, which led to them controlling defence, an aspect they were least geared for.
Changing the movement pattern of the slow and lumbering MoD elephant is easier said than done. His being a part of it is itself a threat to their power, which they wielded till date. Segregating military affairs from multiple issues being projected by service HQs is not an easy task. It would require deliberation and understanding. The government continues to have the defence secretary responsible for national defence, an absurd idea, which should have been amended.
There would also be stumbling blocks in creating the structure of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), which he would head. Seniority between the bureaucracy and armed forces, distribution of departments etc are subjects of concern.There would be multiple times when he would have to push his weight to get the best decisions for the armed forces.
The CDS has been tasked to evaluate the establishments of joint commands. This implies breaking existing moulds and views within the services and ensuring that no service is considered secondary to the other. Another tough assignment as mindsets of years cannot be removed overnight.
While General Bipin Rawat has stated that India would have its own model of joint commands, it may still lead to disgruntlement as the air force has vehemently been against the concept. It is possibly with this consideration that the first joint command under consideration is the air defence command under the air force.
The demands on the first CDS are immense and for him to overcome these stumbling blocks, he should be strong, ignore criticism and push for what he feels is right and best for the armed forces, for which he needs to be senior and more experienced. He must be ready to face stone walls as his task involves changing an accepted and established system for the better. Simultaneously he needs to be diplomatic and possess immense patience as nothing moves overnight.
While what has been initially allocated to him and his stature is below what was expected, his actions would bring forth the desired change in the system. He needs to be supported by the government, especially the NSA and PM, as he would push changes which have been considered taboo for decades.
For such a role, General Bipin Rawat is ideally suited. The changes he has brought about during his tenure as the COAS, despite criticism and objections, sticking to what he believes is right, against the wishes of many, indicates that he is ready for his next battle. It is evident that he has the support of the Government and that is primary. The manner he pushes the armed forces agenda and sets the stage for the future would determine the creation of the next major reform, establishment of theatre commands. A lot rides on his shoulders.
The reforms have begun and there is no stepping back now. The initial steps may be slow but once the system is functional, there would be faster movement. The critics of the government decision of establishing a CDS need to step back and let the new organization take root. They need to trust the individual specifically selected by the PM to be its forerunner. There is no doubt, with his experience he would deliver and set the ball rolling for further reform.
(The author is Major General, Retd)