Syed Ata Hasnain | As a new CDS takes charge, fresh start for the military

The Asian Age.  | Syed Ata Hasnain

Opinion, Columnists

The appointment of Lt. Gen. Anil Chauhan as the CDS, with the rank of general, is largely being welcomed

File photo of Lt General Anil Chauhan (retd) who has been appointed as the new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). (Photo: PTI)

It’s good that the government has decided to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff, much against the projected apprehension that it had decided to shelve the proposal, after the unfortunate demise of Gen. Bipin Rawat, who was the first incumbent. All kinds of rumours were on just as they usually are when any major decision is in the offing. The appointment of Lt. Gen. Anil Chauhan as the CDS, with the rank of general, is largely being welcomed; I for one definitely welcome it.

Unfortunately, however, there is also consternation on the way forward in functioning, powers, timelines, concepts and areas of focus, including the high-profile transformational issues involving “theaterisation” and self-reliance in defence manufacturing. That should be expected. It’s a sea change which is being attempted and that is being done in the face of live threats at the borders, maritime and continental, in an increasingly volatile world. There are ongoing conflicts and potential ones, all affecting India’s security interests. On top of that, India’s rising strategic status is converting it into a middle, rising and swing power, all at one time, thus increasing the stakes like never before.

Let’s take the issue progressively, instead of the “first off the block kind” of assessment. What’s at stake at the outset is the suitability of the personality and the manner in which he was appointed. That is of least concern. The government did just the right thing. It legally expanded the ambit of catchment to allow a personality senior in service to the three serving chiefs to fit the bill. Then it gave time to allow the environment to absorb it through debate, objections and endorsement. Gen. Anil Chauhan’s selection merits no discussion because there seems complete convergence on his abilities. More than enough field and staff experience across both the China and Pakistan fronts, and a short stint as military adviser to the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) has probably added to his acceptance. He will bring his own intellect, competence, experience and leadership skills to the job. For me, the most important thing is leadership skills. His professional faculties are not in doubt, it’s the ability to meander through a highly complex maze of inputs while dealing with uniformed personnel, technocrats, bureaucrats, diplomats and the political community which will be the real challenge. All this must happen while keeping the mission of attaining integration of the three services with least turbulence, maximum convergence and tight timelines. There’s no doubt that leadership is the first and foremost challenge for the CDS.

Gen. Chauhan will be pelted with jargon and efforts at foisting technologies and modern concepts borrowed from foreign armed forces while progressing the entire field of integration. India’s strategic circles are mastering these but Gen.Chauhan would be well advised to follow the “Vishwa Guru” theme of keeping the choices according to India’s special needs. To bring that in at this early stage of discussion is simply to plant a thought. We need, for example, balance between the maritime and continental domains. China will continue to force its hand at the northern borders to keep our efforts focused there, which suit its security needs. China’s real vulnerability is in the vast maritime domain where India now needs greater focus. It’s the switch or even the attainment of balance which is the challenge. The entire gamut of collusive threats from Pakistan and China is not something that can be ignored despite the oft-mentioned perception of threats from Pakistan being no longer as significant.

This is a fallacy. Pakistan’s independent capability of maintaining proxy capability to wear down India’s strategic security and also calibrating hybrid threats has yet not been sufficiently diluted. In addition, no one can predict the arrival of the next phase of global terror. All this will have an effect on the integration structures contemplated and will invite intense debate.

The key among the new CDS’ challenges will be self-sufficiency and self-reliance. The “atma nirbharta” label will define success as budgets and the speed of adaptation by different services will become competitive. Deficiency in capability will have to be accepted as a risk even as local manufacturing catches up and Indian players, including start-ups, begin reaching commercial levels. Thus, risk identification as a subset of threat management will be a key. This can’t be seen in isolation and will need a far greater consultation with the national strategic structure.

One of our experiences in the past was the over-hype given to ideation and the inability to take fast-track execution to its logical conclusion. It’s going to take some time to resolve the issue of command and control at the highest levels. The status of the department of military affairs (DMA) can be questioned, the entire issue of operational responsibility as against only advisory may come up and so also a host of others involving structures. These issues will place unnecessary obstacles in the way of the CDS. My recommendation is that the CDS would need some bold political and quasi-political support to evolve a working structure around which this edifice is built and corrections effected as and when needed.

“Ideation forever” is not going to lead us to the next steps. No one should ever question the CDS’ political outreach to attract such support.

The CDS concept is to be built on the HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), which must necessarily have a highly competent think tank of its own to receive and generate intellectual thought processes and ideas.

The Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS) must now take on that responsibility in an expanded way. It needs to be funded and infused with greater intellectual capital having linkages to the three Services and academia. Without the enhanced involvement of the academic world, we can hardly move to the next steps to acquire a higher strategic culture which will support the next generation strategic efforts of the nation; that is what the integrated approach is all about.

Noticeably, I have made no mention of functional issues such as which service has objections to integration, which should be the dominant service in a theatre and how many theatres do we need. Let this be decided by deliberations within, but a pilot project would be strongly recommended, even if it has to be for a short period. Let the CDS and his staff come up with final options, which need a short gestation period of discussion, as it happened with the change of the rules on the expanded ambit of the catchment of talent.