By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Dec 16
If the government had followed tradition, Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi, currently commanding the eastern army from Fort William in Kolkata, would have been named two months ago to succeed the present army chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag, who is scheduled to retire on December 31. Bakshi is the senior-most amongst qualified generals; and the government has traditionally named its incoming army, navy and air force three months ahead of time, to facilitate a smooth hand-over.
But with just 23 days to go for Suhag’s retirement, and no successor named, the New Delhi grapevine is abuzz with speculation that the government is finalizing the appointment of a tri-service chief, along with the next army chief. The four-star or five-star tri-service commander would be over and above existing army, navy and air force chiefs of four-star rank --- general, admiral and air chief marshal respectively.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar have both earlier pledged to create a tri-service chief. There would be both political and functional benefit from such an appointment, with the Bharatiya Janata Party reinforcing its claim to being strong on national security.
However, the degree to which creating a tri-service chief would transform the military’s functioning would depend on the structures around the appointment. There are three ways this could be done.
The least disruptive measure, and therefore the least transformative, would be creating a four-star “permanent chairman chiefs of staff” (PCCOS), as proposed in 2013 by the Naresh Chandra Committee. This would leave the operational command of field forces with the army, navy and air force chiefs, as at present, while the tri-service chief would handle strategic and perspective planning, long-term equipment and manpower structuring; while also rendering military advice to the political leadership. In effect, the new PCCOS would only be an upgraded version of the three-star officer who currently heads the Integrated Defence Staff --- set up in 2001 as a gesture to jointmanship. While the PCCOS is spoken of as “the first amongst equals”, the untrammelled power of the three service chiefs over their respective fiefdoms would render the PCCOS a nominal tri-service chief.
The government’s second option is to appoint a five-star rank commander termed the “chief of defence staff” (CDS), who would be the direct boss of all three service chiefs and the single point military advisor to the political leadership. In 2001, a Group of Ministers (GoM) had recommended a five-star CDS, echoing the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee, which had criticised the lack of tri-service coordination during the 1999 Kargil conflict. The CDS appointment could be rotated between the army, navy and air force; or handpicked by the political leadership from any of the three services.
Smaller services like the air force and the navy worry that the army, being the largest service, would predominate in CDS appointments, which in turn might bring it disproportionate funding and equipment allocations. The IAF has publicly opposed having a five-star CDS exercising control over the air force chief. The bureaucracy, especially the Indian Administrative Service, also opposes a five-state CDS, apprehending that he would be senior to the top bureaucrat --- the cabinet secretary.
The third option, which would be the most transformative, is a root-and-branch restructuring of the entire military command structure, to impose tri-service jointmanship not just at the apex of the hierarchy, but also on the combat force --- the so-called theatre commands. The US military enforced this in 1986 through the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which placed American combat forces from all four services (including the Marine Corps) under geographic theatre commanders, e.g. Pacific Command, Central Command, etc. A similar exercise would merge our 17 single-service commands, into five-six tri-service commands, organised geographically, each under a commander with full authority over all the army, navy and air force assets in his theatre. Every theatre commander would report to the defence minister, including for combat operations in his theatre.
Meanwhile, the five-star CDS, without the burden of operational command responsibility, would be an advisor to the political leadership on military affairs. Meanwhile, the army, navy and air force chiefs, also relieved of operational command, would focus on manpower, training and equipment of their respective services, ensuring that the soldiers, sailors and airmen they send into the field are suitably selected, kitted and trained for combat.
This is the trend globally. In February, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) transformed from a single-service to a tri-service structure, with its seven “military regions” reorganised into five tri-service theatre commands. Each of these so-called “battle zones” incorporates units from the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force.
It remains unclear who would be the first tri-service commander. In the options being spoken of, the first involves elevating Suhag to that job, while promoting Bakshi to army chief. The second option is appointing Bakshi to one of the jobs, while promoting the army’s current vice-chief, Lt Gen Bipin Rawat, to the other.
Last December, addressing the military’s top commanders, the prime minister declared: “Jointness at the top is a need that is long overdue. We also need reforms in senior defence management… This is an area of priority for me.” Now, the government has just three weeks to decide whether to deliver.