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Lt General Rajiv Bhalla, PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, (Retd) Writes:The announcement of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) by Prime Minster Modi in the course of his Independence Day address to the nation, which came after a long gap post the recommendation by the Group of Ministers (GOM) in their Report in May 2001, provided immense solace to the Armed Forces fraternity.

 Lt General Rajiv Bhalla, PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, (Retd) Writes:

The announcement of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) by Prime Minster Modi in the course of his Independence Day address to the nation, which came after a long gap post the recommendation by the Group of Ministers (GOM) in their Report in May 2001, provided immense solace to the Armed Forces fraternity. It was amongst the foremost recommendations, not only by the GOM as also by the Lt Gen Shekatkar Committee of Experts.

It had long been a perception amongst the Defence Services that HQ IDS was incomplete without a CDS and this appointment would curtail the inter-service differentials. The CDS would also help the services to achieve synergy, which would be the winning factor in a technologically advanced battlefield in a two-front scenario.  The announcement of the retiring Army Chief to become the first CDS did not surprise many as he was a strong contender with his proactive media approach and skillful handling of the sensitive issues within the realms of the Government policy.  He was one of the few Chiefs who could articulate his answers to satiate the media hunger on the military issues.

It is well known that the creation of HQ IDS was primarily to amalgamate the Services HQ with the MoD and be designated as the ‘Integrated HQ of MoD (Army/Air Force/Navy)’ and not continue to function as an ‘Attachéd office’ of the Ministry of Defence.  However, probably due to administrative challenges during the raising period of such a huge tri-services HQ and subtle resistance by the bureaucracy, the amalgamation never materialized. Rather it was perceived to have become another HQ under the MoD and an intermediary organization seeking a loose form of control over the Services. It was allotted certain resources from the Services to rationalise their efficient functioning and was instrumental in forming the first joint command at Port Blair.  The first Chief of Integrated Staff Committee (CISC) along with his experienced staff officers and their visionary approach did extremely well to streamline its functioning and achieved a high degree of confidence in the newly formed Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC).   The handling of strategic assets under the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) was also streamlined and re-structured by firming up the chain of command over a short period of time. However, it was seen that the tri-service assets allocated under the newly formed Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) and HQ IDS did not get sufficient patronage and probably lacked the requisite financial support by the respective Services. This inadequacy of operational growth of the ANC had a direct bearing on its augmentation and joint war fighting potential.

After functioning with much gusto and enthusiasm for a few years, HQ IDS with its tri-service staffing seems to have had aspirational desire to expand their charter. This was opposed by the respective services and they continued to retain control over the proposed assets and function as hither-to-fore. Notwithstanding this, over a period of time HQ IDS was allocated certain more tri-service institutions and organizations which had a tri/bi – services element or dealings, under its administrative control.  The DGAFMS however despite all endeavours continued to retain its ‘autonomy’ with a direct access to the MoD.  It is now well acknowledged that HQ IDS over the past two decades has evolved and attained adequate experience to form joint structures and make them operationally effective under the dynamic and ever-changing war scenarios.

Alongside the decision to appoint a CDS was also to create a Department of Military Affairs (DMA) as a separate vertical in the Ministry of Defence and the CDS being appointed ex- officio Secretary of the DMA. Work areas relating to the administration, organisation and training of the Armed Forces being handled by the Department of Defence were transferred to the DMA. A number of Sections along with the civilian staff and two Joint Secretaries have been side stepped to form part of the DMA.  He has also taken service officers from each service to synthesize in this newly created joint construct. The civilian officers report directly to the CDS and will help the CDS in implementing the policies and instructions within the ambit of Rules of Business, which governs the entire functioning of the Government machinery. The CDS has therefore de facto donned two hats viz, the military hat of CDS and Permanent Chairman of COSC, and a civilian hat of Secretary DMA and the Principal Military Advisor (PMA) to the Hon’ble RM.

As Secretary DMA he would probably be expected to operate within the overall template of the MoD as spelt out by the Defence Secretary and will need to be routing higher issues of DMA through the Defence Secretary.  While a COAS would never attend a conference chaired by the Defence Secretary but the CDS wearing the dual hat of Secretary DMA may be obliged to attend conferences called for by the Defence Secretary of all his Secretaries within the MoD. He would also attend the conferences chaired by the Hon’ble RM for all the MoD Secretaries wearing a dual hat of CDS and Secretary DMA. While such an arrangement is perceived to be functionally viable and probably achieve more deliverables for the services, we need to also analyse the possibility of likely dilution of the military hierarchy status and the standing of the CDS/Chiefs amongst the IAS bureaucratic fraternity.

It may be recalled that when the Service ranks were equated with the Civil bureaucracy in the mid-80s, it was considered a justified decision to facilitate better functioning in a civil-military environment. But in due course, it was realized to be a short-sighted decision resulting in lowering the status of Defence Services officers and giving the civilian officers an edge. It is hoped that this acceptance does not have a similar effect in times to come wherein the Chiefs face a down gradation of their status. In a recent communication on COVID 19 by the Cabinet Secretary to all the Secretaries to GoI, the CDS was also issued the letter as Mr Rawat, Secretary DMA. It is hoped that this is not the beginning of the dilution of military rank and protocol status and the issue was taken up with the Cabinet Secretary’s Secretariat and be put to rest by clarifying at the staff level.

It may be therefore prudent to deliberate and take a long-term view of its implications based on the existing military ethos and the necessity of retaining the military ranks hierarchy. Just for academic purposes, it may be highlighted that a four star General and equivalent are equated in protocol to the Cabinet Secretary and are placed at Serial 12 of the warrant of precedence, while the Secretaries to GoI are at Serial 23 of the precedence, much below the Chiefs/CDS. The military officers are definitely not status conscious due to their dealings with soldiers in trying and adverse operational situations warranting a very close interaction and relationship. They are also heavily engaged in its pursuit for excellence in training and operational & strategic planning against the adversary, to retain the requisite supremacy in its calling for imposing the political will on the adversary as the instrument of last resort, in case the need ever arises.

Soon after the appointment of CDS, Gen Rawat probably with the intention to hit the ground running, must have had certain key issues in mind and started working with his new team with the intent of forming joint structures for better management of resources as also synergising the war fighting capability. He immediately announced the need to form a unified Air Defence Command and certain administrative issues relating to services for optimal usage and efficient jointness during operations. Over the past four months, the CDS has definitely been addressing a large number of issues of common concern.

Gen Rawat, being the erstwhile COAS for a full tenure of three years knows all the tri-service issues intricately, including those which would have been taken up by HQ IDS with the services during his tenure. In the former system of rotational Chairman COSC, HQ IDS could only bring those issues to the table for discussion, which were acceptable to the three services (read Chiefs).  The decision to implement was also taken by consensus and never unilaterally or even on the acceptance of two services, but never, if not agreed by one service.  This procedure and its methodology have been imbibed by the Services for the past few decades and have accordingly maintained the decorum and necessary protocols to avoid any disharmony.  It is very unlikely that the mindset from this way of methodology will get altered overnight and any service may give up their interest/stake for another service. It is therefore important that till such time the CDS does not have operational control and more overarching powers, he needs to continue with the same model to take the three services forward for final operational unification.  Any unilateral action is likely to unhinge the finely balanced equations being maintained amongst the services. It is also imperative that the CDS has absolute support of the Chiefs on issues he intends to address and adopts a democratic style of functioning and leadership in this nascent stage.  The present CDS has been appointed post his full tenure as the COAS and is the senior most amongst all the Chiefs, which may not be the case in the subsequent appointments. The follow on CDSs may be one of the Vice Chiefs or the Senior C-in-C, appointed as CDS closer to his retirement by the Government in power.

It is perceived that issues, which were being resisted previously, are being flagged to the CDS now for his consideration and seeking approval at the joint meetings. The future of jointmanship and synergy lies in all moving synchronously ahead and not with a top down decision- making approach. To reach a reasonably high level of bonhomie and confidence, it will take some time and will not happen in a hurry. His endeavour to speed up decisions and their implementation on sensitive issues, instead of achieving quick results in jointmanship, may rock the smooth sailing boat, thereby creating ripples which will not be easy to smoothen. For starters, he should primarily focus on training, administrative and some operational issues of jointness to build the desired level of confidence and synergy amongst the three services.  The operational and administrative challenges and mindset of Theaterisation of Commands are not easy to overcome and should therefore be left for a slightly later stage, despite the fixed timelines for it. It is preferable to accept a certain delay and let it happen smoothly vis-à-vis in a turbulent milieu.  The Individual services with requisite jointness have performed exceptionally well with a high degree of operational success in any given scenario over the past many years, and will continue in times ahead, so a slight delay will not have any adverse fallouts.

It may therefore be prudent to pend sensitive issues which may need more deliberations and can wait for some more time without affecting our operational efficacy. The discord amongst the services during joint planning for operations viz, OP Pawan, OP Vijay and OP Cactus was overcome by the charismatic personalities of military leaders at that time. However, it is imperative that we achieve institutional jointness and not personality based jointness, wherein the joint plans are formulated and executed by tri- service staff officers and not by the personal indulgence of senior Commanders/Staff officers.  It is this gap which needs to be filled up by the CDS and bring in the long awaited institutional jointness instead of playing the super Chief role. In the long term he also needs to bring in the amalgamation of HQ IDS and MoD to the extent that there is lateral decision making and not the present hierarchical system.

In case the CDS by virtue of his dual hat and access to the powers to be, can prompt the service Chiefs and their PSOs to be at the same wave length, he should consider it to be an unparalleled achievement and would have prepared the arena for executing any major decision on jointness.   While the CDS per se is a professionally competent soldier with a superlative degree of calibre, with a clear grasp for executing projects, he still needs to take baby steps at this stage to bring all the stake holders on a common page to synchronize their thought process.  Changing the mindset and bringing all on the same page is a herculean task, which the CDS needs to address and focus as his topmost priority and not be diverted on matters mundane, which can be addressed by those much lower down in the chain.


Lt General Rajiv Bhalla, PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, (Retd) a former Director General of Military Training, retired as the Military Secretary.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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