General Bipin Rawat’s zeal for jointness
The untimely and tragic demise of General Bipin Rawat in a helicopter crash on Wednesday (December 8) in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, is a serious setback to the “still evolving” reorganisation of India’s composite military capability — a complex and contested macro policy initiative.
A former Army chief, General Rawat was appointed as the country’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on January 1, 2020, for a three-year term. The post of a four-star CDS was sui generis for independent India. Until the creation of this office, each of the three armed forces — the Army, the Navy and the Air Force — had their own chiefs in four-star rank.
The new CDS wore three hats which combined both military and bureaucratic functions. The most significant was the role as secretary in the department of military affairs (DMA) — for this marked the first time that a serving military officer would be accorded secretary-level status with its attendant financial powers and parliamentary responsibilities.
Concurrently, the CDS was accorded the status of a four-star officer and located as the first among equals in relation to the service chiefs, but had no operational role or responsibility. The CDS was to function as the permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), though the office did not have any command responsibility.
In addition to these two hats, the CDS was also envisioned as the principal adviser to the defence minister, thereby providing the single point military reference to the political leadership.
Some of these provisions were hierarchically tangled. For example, the CDS was a secretary to the government, even while the incumbent defence secretary remained the primary civil servant in the ministry. As per the current rules of business, a service chief (a four-star) is senior to the defence secretary, though the service headquarters function as separate entities.
Hence, there was an anomaly in the role of the CDS as being a serving four-star military office on a par with the chiefs — and thus, senior to secretary rank officers in the government, while functioning as the secretary, DMA, in a ministry where the defence secretary was the primus inter pares. However, it was felt that these wrinkles would be ironed out in a few years of the CDS assuming office.
The rationale for increased synergy among the armed forces and pooling of capabilities while optimising resources was perceived after the 1999 Kargil War and accepted by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. For a variety of reasons, the actual implementation to realise “jointness” was deferred for two decades, and it was only in Narendra Modi’s second term that the plunge was taken: India would create the post of a CDS, and this was described as a “landmark” decision.
The template of responsibilities envisaged for the CDS was substantive and included: “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 utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through [the] establishment of joint/theatre commands; and promoting use of indigenous equipment by the Services.”
This is a Herculean task — of reorganising a vast and disparate, multilayered institution that includes uniformed personnel, civilian employees, defence production units as also research and development (R&D) organisations — some of whose origins went back to the colonial period.
Thus, General Rawat had a mammoth task ahead of him. To his credit, he got down to business with determination and despatch — and perhaps, in too swift and brusque a manner.
India has an imbalanced military with the Army as the lead service with over 1.2 million personnel. The personnel ratio for the Army:Air Force:Navy is 20:2:1 and they are structured in individual service silos, further divided into 17 separate commands.
Rawat was expected to reorganise this behemoth into a few functional joint commands — the objective being to distil the geographically dispersed entities into compact theatre commands. For instance, the Indian military has three eastern commands — the Army, headquartered in Kolkata, the Air Force in Shillong, and the Navy in Visakhapatnam.
In the new framework, the Navy was to be brought under one maritime command and air defence clustered similarly under one umbrella. The challenge from China and Pakistan along the land borders was to be managed by two other theatre commands but this rewiring was a work in progress and occasionally contested.
General Rawat ruffled many feathers with his zeal for jointness and the Air Force, in particular, was incensed with the “supporting role” formulation for the air warrior. It was in the context of internal security that the General — both as Army chief and CDS — invited controversy and rebuke.
But history will acknowledge General Bipin Rawat as an earnest soldier, who was entrusted with an onerous task as India’s first CDS to improve national military preparedness. The institutional challenge is to ensure that the work in progress that he had initiated is taken to its desired conclusion.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal