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CDS: Promote Merit cum Seniority From Serving Pool

The appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) after the untimely demise of late General Bipin Rawat is now due for the past eight months.

While in the initial weeks in December last year, there were speculations that then Army Chief General MM Naravane was fully eligible to tenet that appointment based on seniority, he has now retired on April 30th.

General Naravane was even appointed as Officiating Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) but could not make the grade for the CDS and was allowed to superannuate. Thereafter while the Air Force Chief of Staff Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhury is the senior most in protocol amongst the three service chiefs, he has not been elevated to the officiating or a full fledged Chairman COSC. This has led to the conclusion that there are alternate options for appointing a CDS.

The COSC which is the erstwhile CDS in parts had an important role to play in terms of coordination of operations – disaster management, modernization, training and logistics of the three services and is supported by the HQ Integrated Defence Staff. However there is a degree of ambiguity as he is not Primus Inter Pares as the CDS is.

The CDS in addition to HQ Integrated Defence Staff is also head of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) a subset of the Ministry of Defence under the Defence Secretary. This has added to the degree of integration with the MOD even though the outcome arising from the same remains a question mark given the handling of the Agni Path Recruitment Scheme which was steered by the DMA. In the absence of the CDS, the DMA’s functioning may have been impacted if the anomalies in rolling out of the Agni Path Scheme as highlighted by the massive protests from all quarters can be seen.

The importance of the CDS is underlined given need to integrate silos and coordinate under the whole of government approach which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally emphasized from time to time.

More over Indian Armed Forces plan for restructuring approved in principle a key component Theaterisation – that is integrating 17 individual services commands of the Indian Army, Navy and the Air Force into what is likely to be four to five geographic commands including a peninsular or maritime and a functional Air Defence Command.

Discussions over theaterisation have reached a degree of finality amongst the services as is evident from some media reports which need cross verification.

However coordination and submission in a consolidated manner would be the function of the CDS who remains absent as the vacancy remains.

Government Notification CDS

There was much speculation with a number of names floating of who will be appointed the Chief of defence Staff.

To overcome the information gap on June 06 almost six months after the demise of General Rawat, the Ministry of Defence through three separate gazette notifications for the Army, Navy and Air Force specified the criteria for appointment of the CDS.

The sum of these notifications was, “The Central Government may, if considered necessary, in the public interest, so to do, appoint as Chief of Defence Staff, an officer who is serving as Lieutenant General [or equivalent in the Navy and Air Force] or an officer who has retired in the rank of Lieutenant General or General [or equivalent in the Navy and Air Force] but has not attained the age of sixty-two years on the date of his appointment”.

The gazette also states that the, “Central Government may, if considered necessary, in the public interest, so to do, extend the service of the Chief of Defence Staff for such period as it may deem necessary subject to a maximum age of sixty-five years”.

Issue of the Gazette six months after the vacancy has arisen has raised a number of questions.

Normal Principle & Process of Promotion Chiefs of Three Services

While the government of the day has the rights to make appointments in the armed forces there are certain norms that have evolved over a period to maintain the professional elan of the services and avoid politicization through nepotism and political biases. This also ensures that serving officers in the run to the top jobs maintain their apolitical profile and do not know tow to the demands of polity.

Towards this end normal principle and process for appointment of the Chiefs of the three services as per norms is that of merit cum seniority.

Under this principle in general the senior most Lt General and equivalent in the Navy and Air Force are eligible to be appointed the Chiefs.

These would be the commanders in chief and the vice chief of staff of the services.

A panel of the three senior most is drawn up and the government of the day is at liberty to select one of these.

There have been cases in the past when the senior most amongst these three have not necessarily made it to the rank of the Chief. Two recent cases are of late General Bipin Rawat nominated as the Chief of Army Staff and Admiral R K Dhowan as Chief of Naval Staff in 2014.

However, the two figured in the list of the three senior most and thus the Central Government has the liberty to appoint one amongst them. The panel could also be enlarged if required but does not include a retired officer.

CDS – Criteria Concerns

In the case of the criteria for appointment of CDS the panel has been enlarged in a way that retired three star officers and chiefs have also been made eligible provided they have not crossed the age of 62.

This has brought in concerns over likelihood of a general officer, admiral or an air marshal who may be appointed not on purely professional considerations but due to political influence.

Recall of a retired officer also sends a signal that the panel of serving officers may not be fully qualified as the CDS which may be a wholly subjective assessment given that these have been elevated based on their relative merit.

The other issue of concern is that in case a retired three star general is reappointed in service as the CDS he would be elevated above the three service chiefs which is undesirable from the point of view of functional as well as ceremonial factors.

What should be done?

Application of merit cum seniority for selection of the CDS who is expected to provide not just the ceremonial but also be a moral compass to the three services is essential, rather than picking one from a large bouquet of choice which includes retired senior officers.

Such a review will ensure that allegations of political biases are overcome, professional considerations in selection are retained and the best amongst the services is appointed to the top job – the CDS.

While the appointment may appear to be less significant at present eventually it would evolve into one and thus a system that is similar to that of the appointment of service chiefs could be evolved.

This does not imply that the Gazette notification issued be withdrawn as that will be embarrassing for the Ministry of Defence facing flak on the Agni Path front, but only appointment of CDS made from a pool of serving senior officers of the three services based on professional considerations.


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