For a position, whose efficacy has dominated defence discourse for decades, the end could not have been more tragic and sudden.
With the helicopter crash claiming the life of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Bipin Rawat along with 12 other service personnel, the government is faced with a Hobson’s Choice of epic proportions. It needs to put into place Rawat’s successor and do it quickly enough, given the border tensions along the LoC and the LaC with Pakistan and China respectively.
Apart from other tasks, the CDS also functions as the military advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority chaired by the Prime Minister.
That choice is far from easy. Lt Gen (Retd) Rakesh Sharma, Former Adjutant General, Distinguished Fellow CLAWS, told Moneycontrol: ``It would be difficult to find an officer who could replace Gen Rawat. His drive and dynamism to push things and make them happen was without parallel.’’
Difficult as the choice may be, the country can scarcely do without a CDS at a stage when the biggest ever reorganisation of the Indian defence forces is underway.
The significance of finding a successor to Gen Rawat becomes doubly important because of the reform programme he was entrusted to introduce. His appointment as CDS on December 30, 2019, was justifiably hailed as one of the major initiatives of the Narendra Modi government. For many, it was a step long overdue. Most professional militaries, with CDS or equivalents, have added muscle to their war fighting capabilities.
To that extent, CDS Gen Rawat, went about his work in earnest. Well- placed sources in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that the basic blueprint, under the tutelage of the departed General, has been put into place and sent out to relevant IAF and Navy bosses for their responses.
Rawat worked on redesigning existing military commands into theatre commands and establishing new joint commands, which would combine the resources and assets of the three defence forces, based on threats at India’s borders with its neighbours.
``The work on establishing theatre commands will begin next year and will be completed within three years," the CDS told reporters earlier in 2021. In place of the 17 commands that India has now, there could be five to six integrated commands, as proposed by Rawat.
There are reportedly several new theatre commands on the anvil. The work will start first with establishing an Air Defence Command that will combine the air assets of the three services, the late CDS said. There will also be a Peninsula Command, which will be responsible for India’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
This will lead to 'seamless integration’ between the navy’s eastern and western commands with coordination being done by the naval headquarters in Delhi. There is also a proposed joint training and logistics command, in addition to a space command.
Add to this, theatre commands will be created out of the existing northern, western, and eastern commands. Some of these like Air Defence will come under the Indian Air Force while the Peninsula Command would be under the Indian Navy.
A senior official said that the initial consultation process and file work for appointment of a new CDS is underway. There are no well-defined rules of appointment except that the CDS can serve till 65, as opposed to the three service chiefs, who superannuate at 62.
In status-conscious services, the Indian Army is the dominant stakeholder in the defence services and there is little doubt that Gen Rawat’s successor will come from their ranks. Sources admit that it is highly unlikely that the army will stand for an airman or an admiral to head CDS.
While there are former top officials whose names are being mentioned, some like Lt Gen. (retd) Prakash Menon, Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat, believe that only people from within the system would be entrusted with the job. “In fact, I am surprised that a name for Gen Rawat’s successor has not been announced,” he told Moneycontrol.
Well-placed sources admit that Chief of Army Staff, Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane, is the strongest contender for the job. Low-key, non-controversial and a known China hand, he is slated to retire in April next year and will be directly in line for the job.
The present IAF chief Vivek Ram Chaudhuri took over on September 30 this year, while the navy chief Admiral Radhakrishnan Hari Kumar assumed charge on November 30. Both are two years junior to the army chief and can be safely ruled out for the top job.
A look at some other leading contenders:
Ranbir Singh: Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, former General Officer Commanding (GOC-in-C), Northern Command. He was Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the Indian Army during the 2016 Indian Line of Control strike and during the 2015 Indian counter insurgency operations in Myanmar. He briefed the media after both the strikes.
Satish Dua: Lt Gen Satish Dua, served as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee of the Indian Armed Forces; former Corps Commander Kashmir.
Birender Singh Dhanoa: Former Air Chief, Dhanoa was the 25th Chief of Air Staff and served from 31 December 2016 to 30 September 2019. He has also served as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Was the air chief during the 2019 Balakote air strike.Deependra Singh Hooda: Former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian army's Northern Command. Lt Gen. Hooda was the Northern Army Commander during the 'surgical strike' in September 2016. What counts against him is his reported closeness to the Congress.