Appointment of India's Next Chief of Defence Staff

The untimely demise of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, on 8 December 2021 disrupted several important high-level transitions that were underway; most notably, the process of theaterisation, a mammoth undertaking akin to what China was able to achieve a few years ago. Rawat was nearing two years of his term completion (out of a total of three). In the present circumstances, Air Marshal Balabhadra Radha Krishna, incumbent Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS), will understandably be functioning as the Acting/Interim CDS until a name is finalised by the Government of India.

When it comes to the appointment of a service chief, the principle of seniority is not binding upon the Prime Minister of India. Recall here that Rawat himself was selected out of turn to supersede two of his seniors, Lieutenant Generals Praveen Bakshi (then leading Eastern Command) and Pattiarimal Mohamadali Hariz (leading Southern Command). The reported rationale for selecting Rawat was his experience in Indian-Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IOJ&K) and the northeast. However, there are also reasons to suspect it was a political move influenced by National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval, who shared the same hometown as Rawat.

Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Manoj Mukund Naravane is presently the senior-most from the tri-services chiefs and is scheduled to retire in April 2022. His counterparts in the Air Force (Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari) and Navy (Admiral Radhakrishnan Hari Kumar) were appointed relatively recently. Logic dictates that once Naravane completes his tenure at Army HQ, he would be the preferred choice for further elevation as CDS.

The incumbent COAS enjoyed regular interaction with Rawat and would encourage the continuity of ongoing programmes. However, as Rawat’s tenure was slated to end on 31 December 2022, he would simply act as a “filler” before the CDS slot is filled by an officer from a sister service.

The incumbent COAS enjoyed regular interaction with Rawat and would encourage the continuity of ongoing programmes. However, as Rawat’s tenure was slated to end on 31 December 2022, he would simply act as a “filler” before the CDS slot is filled by an officer from a sister service. The Indian Air Force and Navy may not be eager to have Naravane’s tenure start from scratch (for a renewed period of three years) or to have him serve beyond Rawat’s original term-end. For his part also, Naravane would find it near-impossible to complete Rawat’s pending assignments in such a short span.

Naravane’s move to the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) would help solidify engagements with Army HQ once his successor is finalised. There are debates on whether the Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) Lieutenant General Chandi Prasad Mohanty would be appointed, on seniority, or his batch mate Lieutenant General Yogesh Kumar Joshi, currently leading Northern Command.

The Army, in particular, is embroiled in a recurring standoff with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China and would benefit from Naravane’s patronage, seeing how he was directly supervising the entire negotiation process with the Chinese in concert with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). If Naravane is confirmed as CDS, and Mohanty or Joshi become COAS, either of the latter two would remain the senior-most service chief. The bonhomie required for high-level politico-military dealings with China would remain in force between the Army Commanders, thus levelling fears of abrupt shuffling within Army HQ.

Unlike his predecessor, Air Chief Marshal (Retired) Rakesh Kumar Bhaudauria, who was visibly vocal about apprehensions on theaterisation, Chaudhari is apparently on the back foot and has expressed outright support for implementing the theaterisation plan. The Navy has already been an ardent supporter.

Speculations are rife on social media that a recently-retired service chief (Bhaudauria or the Navy’s Admiral Retired Karambir Singh) might be reinstated to serve as CDS. While such precedence exists within the Indian Army, when Lieutenant General Patrick Oswald Dunn was recalled after retirement to raise 1 Corps, it would be symbolically and practically imprudent to replicate such an extraordinary arrangement within the DMA. The CDS not only sits within the Ministry of Defence bureaucracy but also serves as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, functionally supervising and directing service chiefs. A retired officer heading Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) would create a perplexing precedent and generate resentment and confusion within the active duty ranks.

In December 2022, the dilemma of service dominance in DMA would be revived nonetheless. If Air and Navy headquarters jointly agree to extend an Army Commander’s term as CDS for a further three years (until 2025), which would be in their own service-wide interest as well, the matter would be resolved amicably.

A second possibility involves projected succession of VCOAS Mohanty as COAS, who would uphold continuity at Army HQ while his batchmate, Joshi, is directly transferred to DMA. Joshi’s status as a celebrated war hero within India and his somewhat “tense” interactions with the PLA during the ongoing standoff gives him added merit when choosing the CDS. Nonetheless, irrespective of who becomes CDS, they would retain their influence on account of seniority and allow the Air Force and Navy chiefs to settle down. However, to do so, their tenure would have to start anew (until 2025).

In December 2022, the dilemma of service dominance in DMA would be revived nonetheless. If Air and Navy headquarters jointly agree to extend an Army Commander’s term as CDS for a further three years (until 2025), which would be in their own service-wide interest as well, the matter would be resolved amicably. However, the Army’s continued high-level defence policymaking dominance would not be an easy bargain. In exchange, the Air Force might ask for continued headship of Strategic Force Command, being the least accepting of the entire restructuring efforts.

Rawat was politically favoured as COAS by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and it was this very political trust that secured him further elevation to the DMA. Compared to Mohanty, Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys better bonhomie and regular interaction with Joshi; both the BJP and Joshi had a synergised narrative when it came to perception handling of the Indo-China standoff. In this context, Joshi could serve as the BJP’s best bet as Rawat’s successor. His experience in high-level consultations with the PLA, including his past career experience as Defence Attach√© to China, place him in an advantageous position to direct the Armed Forces in their critical theaterisation process.

A radically different paradigm involves the appointment of Lieutenant General Kanwal Jeet Singh Dhillon, incumbent Director General of Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), as COAS bypassing both Mohanty and Joshi. Dhillon is one of the most political general officers from the current crop of Indian Army and could be favoured, like Rawat. Nonetheless, it is hard to foresee Dhillon sidelining Joshi; if the former is appointed COAS, it would be a win-win for the BJP since an “iron hand” on the IOJ&K would lead the Army while an experienced China hand would manage DMA.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid is a strategic analyst and freelance commentator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His areas of interest include national security, geopolitics, cyberspace and maritime affairs. He is also the founder and editor of 'Pakistan Geostrategic Review (PGR)', an independent platform publishing a premium newsletter and podcasts on geostrategic developments. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk.

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