New CDS Rules, Tour of Duty Scheme Could Trigger Complex Issues for the Military

One serving officer said the government tinkering with service promotion procedures only serves to further politicise India’s higher defence management.

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Chandigarh: The strong possibility of the Union government appointing a retired or serving three-star military officer as India’s second Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), considering its recent notification in this regard, could trigger complex and knotty fundamental issues to which several service officers have no apposite response.

These concerns principally involve elevating a three-star officer to the designated four-star post of the CDS, whose job description rendered him primus inter pares or first ‘first amongst equals’ alongside the three service chiefs. Hence, the conundrum to which there seemingly appears to be no ready comeback centres around promoting a potential three-star CDS nominee to four-star status, in what would be the first such instance of its kind in independent India’s military history.

The government’s June 7 fiat, which had expanded the talent pool of officers eligible to become CDS to include all serving and retired three-star officers below 62 years of age is instructive in this regard. This directive had resulted in several military officers and defence analysts concurring that the government had, in actual fact, shortlisted a three-star officer as CDS to replace General Bipin Rawat, who died in a helicopter crash in December 2021, but was reportedly awaiting a ‘politically opportune moment’ to make the announcement.

Meanwhile, former Chief of Army Staff General V.P. Malik was forthright in his criticism of these new norms which he termed as ‘flawed, messy and confusing’ and above all, potentially troublesome. “The CDS selection process should be credible,” he declared in an interview to The Wire on June 13, “and should take into account the experience of potential candidates, their exposure to politico-military affairs, and the overall functioning of the armed forces. I feel that in these new rules, these parameters have not been convincingly met.”

He further stated that if a serving Lieutenant-General rank officer, or his equivalent in the two other services, was made CDS he would be junior to the three service chiefs; but as CDS he would be the permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC), and hence senior to them in authority. “This will cause uneasiness and affect their functioning” General Malik declared, adding that under these circumstances some chiefs might even ‘choose to resign’, which would be “embarrassing” for the government.

But despite such possible pitfalls and shortcomings, the government, for now, does not seem to be in any mood to back down or reconsider its recent guidelines for appointing the new CDS.

In fact, one major obstacle facing the government was promoting a prospective three-star officer to four-star status in a hermetically enclosed, seniority-driven setting, in which competition remained brutal and resentments over it endemic. Either way, this potentially paradoxical situation posed the BJP administration a formidable challenge, with the real possibility of irreparably impairing the military’s institutional primacy, firmly established over decades of trial and error.

A cross-section of senior serving officers asserted that the prospect of promoting a retired or serving three-star officer as CDS was ‘vexatious’ to say the least, and would be difficult, if not impossible, for the top military brass to swallow. They suggested that in the event of a retired three-star being appointed CDS, the administration could try and invoke his seniority over the three serving four-star service chiefs – taking his age, commissioning date and subsequent years of service into account – to justify, however feebly, adding that extra star to his collar and additional brass to his shoulders. Nonetheless, officers warned that this would generate resentment that could manifest itself in myriad ways, once the CDS assumed office.

But further complications, asserted by a two-star Indian Army (IA) officer, could arise in the event of the government selecting a serving three-star officer to become the CDS. Arbitrarily promoting him to the four-star CDS post, he argued, would involve adopting a procedure which disregarded established services promotion norms, in addition to justifiably prompting charges of the BJP-led government ‘politicising’ military appointments. Besides, as General Malik observed, the service chiefs would, in effect, outrank the CDS, even though as head of the CoSC he would be their superior in a bizarre command-and-control comedy of errors.

“The entire CDS appointment issue has become a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and one that is getting more and more jalebi-like by the day,” said a one-star Indian Navy (IN) officer. Besides, the government tinkering with service promotion procedures only serves to further politicise India’s higher defence management, he added.

Previous precedents of post-retirement promotions, albeit all of a ceremonial nature, involved the elevation in January 2002 of Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh to the rank of Marshal of the Indian Air Force for his role in the 1965 war with Pakistan. And, earlier in 1986 General K.M. Cariappa, independent India’s first Commander-in-Chief for four years till 1953, was appointed India’s second Field Marshal after General S.H.F.J. Manekshaw, the hero of the 1971 war, who was conferred with this exalted rank in 1973.

General Cariappa greets Jawaharlal Nehru at Plaam Aerodrome. Photo: Photo Division

‘Clandestine air’

In the meantime, the government was anxious to soon appoint a CDS to manage the contentious short-term contractual ‘Tour of Duty’ (ToD) or Agnipath lapsable recruitment scheme it plans on soon announcing for all three armed forces, despite widespread muted opposition to it by most servicemen. Designed to contain burgeoning annual defence pension pay-outs, the ToD envisages annually recruiting 20,000-30,000 personnel below officer rank for a four-year tenue after which they would all be discharged. Thereafter, around 25% of them would be re-inducted to serve out their full term with pension benefits upon retirement.

“There is a clandestine air to the whole business of introducing ToD and the so-called Transformation of the IA which is worrying,” said a retired three-star IA officer, expressing doubts over whether the proposal had been adequately analysed or ‘war-gamed’. He also voiced concern over whether this was another instance of the army ‘bowing to politico-bureaucratic pressure without so much as a whimper’.

Meanwhile, social media too was awash with this recruitment debate, in which an analysis by Lieutenant General R.K. Nanavatty (retired) in 1986-87 on the army’s regimental system, which the ToD threatens to eventually end with its proposed All-India, All-Class (AIAC) mixed units, is trending widely. Though scripted at a juncture when this ‘outstanding regimental characteristic’ of the IA, tempered by history and tradition, was under threat following mutinies by Sikh Regiment troops in Bihar and Rajasthan in June 1984 immediately after Operational Bluestar, it has salience and an eerie resonance even today.

At the time, the Army’s concerned – and possibly panicked top brass – had seriously contemplated diluting ‘distinctive’ one-class regiments by replacing them with the jumbled and cluttered AIAC structure. But after extended deliberation and internal consultation, the IA soon abandoned the proposal which, decades later has surprisingly been resurrected under the Agnipath plan, likely to be proclaimed shortly.

At that juncture, the Army had determined that the AIAC effect could adversely impact common bonds, group spirit, cohesion and above all soldierly solidarity within units in conflict situations. Re-adopting the proposed AIAC formation would only undesirably impact the army’s overall soldiership, General Nanavatty declared adding that four-year duty tours would only serve to further wreck operationally critical regimental structures.

In his paper entitled ‘The Regimental System-Is it the beginning of the end’, General Nanavatty had presciently observed that “matters regimental required wide debate and discussion, broad consensus and perhaps even ‘user trials’ prior to implementation”. Changing the regimental system, he warned, would alter the character of the combat arms like the infantry, beyond recognition. Although discarded later, General Nanavatty had 36 years earlier expressed surprise over the “quiet acquiescence, without even so much as a whimper of protest” that the AIAC strategy had been propagated in army circles.

Considering the overall radio silence from the IA over the government’s ToD arrangement, little it seems has changed.