Chief of Defence Staff coming? A flood of questions on 'when' and 'who' but still no answers

The last day of 2016 — 31 December — was to be a unique situation when reins of both the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) were to be taken over by new Service Chiefs. Two Service Chiefs retiring together in itself would have been unique because it would have implied Admiral Sunil Lanba, present Naval Chief will continue as the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) till he hangs his spurs in July 2019, which is if the government does not appoint a Permanent Chairman COSC (PC COSC) or a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in the interim. Though there have been plenty rumours, even indications by the Defence Minister, that a PC COSC or CDS is in the offing, it is not the political calculations of when such announcement will be made or who should be the incumbent, but in what form and with what authority this new appointment will be positioned.

 Chief of Defence Staff coming? A flood of questions on when and who but still no answers

Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag. PTI

Should the government take a decision now, any out of General Dalbir Singh Suhag, Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi, Lieutenant General PM Hariz, or for that matter any officer of equivalent rank from Indian Navy or Indian Air Force could be appointed PC COSC or CDS, with the previous government already having stated that the CDS / PC COSC need not be senior to the Service Chiefs. But, whether a CDS / PC COSC will actually get appointed itself is a question mark, given the games Ministry of Defence plays that can beat Chinese Checkers any day.

South Block is famous for rumours and intrigue but what is cooking, the flavour floats in all directions. The fact that General Dalbir Singh Suhag, present Army Chief has been given 10 days extension can mean two things: first, that Lt Gen Bipin Rawat, Army Chief Designate gets more time for taking over from the General Suhag, and; second, when the current Air Chief retires on 31 December, Suhag will become senior to Sunil Lamba for taking over the baton of Chairman COSC in the rotational capacity. In both instances, after 31 December, Suhag would be senior-most to be Chairman COSC. Why has the government given Suhag the 10-day extension is perhaps to elevate him either as CDS or PC COSC, even as the previous government had clarified that the PC COSC / CDS may not be senior to the Service Chiefs. Another rumour going strong is that Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, Eastern Army Commander, may be positioned as PC COSC or CDS. But, whether a CDS / PC COSC will actually get appointed itself is a question mark, given the games Ministry of Defence plays that can beat Chinese Checkers any day.

It may be recalled that news reports of July 2015, quoting Ministry of Defence sources, talked about the proposal to create the post of a PC COSC being at "an advanced stage” albeit the issue required ultimate approval by the Union cabinet. Significantly, media also stated that in creating the post of PC COSC, the three Service Chiefs will be left operationally-independent to run their own Services. The perception being built was that the PC COSC would: one, provide single-point advice to the government; two, inject synergy between the Services in doctrinal, planning, procurement and operational matters; three, prioritise inter-service procurements to build long-term capabilities; four, manage country’s strategic resources and nuclear arsenal, and; five, integrate Services HQ with Ministry of Defence and reduce civil-military divide.

Such jargon may impress the public but the establishment and the military know that the PC COSC 'without operational powers' would be no different from the current system of having a rotational chairman; primarily making projections for the annual defence budget, in addition to the responsibility of Out of Area Contingencies (OOAC).

Reports of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and follow up Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by then deputy prime minister LK Advani had both strongly recommended creation of the CDS. The term PC COSC was recommended by the Naresh Chandra Committee after Naresh Chandra was reportedly briefed by then NSA, Shivshankar Menon to make such recommendation. It was a bureaucratic mischief deliberately to water down the CDS. There is every reason to believe that top bureaucrat and then prime minister Manmohan Singh was behind this. The duo were also behind inserting the reference to Balochistan in the joint statement after the India-Pakistan summit at Sharam El Sheikh in 2009, which was ‘not’ part of draft sent by our mission in Islamabad. Manmohan and Shivshankar Menon were the reason why the Indian contingent of the Indo-Pak Track II, under the aegis of the Atlantic Council of Ottawa, recommended that India withdraw from Saltoro range in Siachen area at a great strategic disadvantage.

Menon is known to have briefed three officers of the Indian contingent personally. Sanjay Baru in his book The Accidental Prime Minister reveals that Manmohan wanted India to vacate Siachen (Noble Peace Prize – never mind the reason) while Sonia Gandhi favoured this at a later date (hoping for sonny becoming PM?). Not without reason, Tufail Ahmad, reviewing Bharat Karnad’s book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) wonders should Manmohan Singh, Shivshankar Menon, Salman Khurshid and MK Narayanan be tried for treason against India’s national interests along with crimes against our future generations? Not that there is no precedence – returning 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war (POW) in accordance with the 1971 Shimla Agreement but not getting back our 54 POW from Pakistani jails.

As to appointment of a CDS, Pranab Mukherjee, then defence minister (now President) had brought up the issue in a tri-Service meeting at HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), wherein the then Chairman COSC and Naval Chief, the Army Chief and the Vice-Chief of Air Staff (representing the Air Chief who was on foreign visit) unequivocally voiced that not only was a CDS necessary but the CDS must be given full operational powers over the military, in order to make him effective. The defence minister then stunned all by saying couple months back not only was appointing a CDS decided but even who would be appointed. He, however, said there was no political consensus, adding in the same breath “but then plenty decisions are taken without political consensus”. That was 11 years back.

But selling the idea that PC COSC or CDS will indeed by “single point advisor” to the government is deflecting from the truth. The document under which HQ IDS was established, while referring to the CDS says, "As and when a CDS is appointed, he will have equal voting rights as Service Chiefs and in case of disagreement by two Service Chiefs, arbitration will be done by MoD." It has been drafted so craftily by the bureaucracy that no one is wiser. Under such rules, if two Service Chiefs disagree with the CDS / PC COSC, it is the bureaucrat sitting in Ministry of Defence who will arbitrate. Can you imagine such a system within the Indian Army, Indian Navy and Indian Air Force where two army commanders/equivalents put up dissent notes and the Ministry of Defence arbitrate - definitely not. So, why such provision in case of the CDS?

The concept behind raising of HQ Integrated Defence Staff, an initiative of then defence minister George Fernandes, was that it would be part and parcel of Ministry of Defence but it came up as a separate HQ. The bureaucracy ensured this integration did not take place, a major reason being money, corruption and continuing bureaucratic bliss of enjoying authority sans responsibility. Even the Americans wonder how the military functions in India with its Ministry of Defence without military officers on deputation or permanent absorption. It is for the same reason that the military despite being users have been kept out of the design, planning and decision-making levels of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Ordnance Factories Board and Defence Public Sector Undertakings. Continuing with the British legacy, the defence secretary, not defence minister is officially tasked with defence of India and the Services HQ officially designated as "Attached Offices".

What the country needs is a CDS with full operational powers and HQ IDS getting fully merged with the Ministry of Defence. This is all the more vital given the rising threats facing us. A CDS with full operational powers, aside from being a single point advice to the government, should synergize the military with speedy capacity building in network-centric capabilities, and fighting hybrid wars.

The author is a veteran Lieutenant General.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2016 17:31:54 IST