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Defence reforms stand at the crossroads after the sudden untimely demise of Late CDS General Bipin Rawat

Source : The Tribune

Defence reforms stand at the crossroads after the sudden untimely demise of Late CDS General Bipin Rawat
Visionary: General Rawat had the personality to carry through the reforms that he had visualized. (PTI)

With the recent demise of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, in an air crash, certain important and critical questions loom large over the government. Three of these — higher defence organisation, theaterisation and indigenisation — would define the way India’s military reshapes and emerges for future battles, which could, anyway, be far removed from the kind of battles we have known so far.

These three issues are part of the mandate of the CDS, who is also the Secretary, Department of Military Affairs. General Rawat has set a template for making the Indian military capable enough of pursuing the country’s national interests in the 21st century. Whosoever is made the next CDS, the pertinent question on the status of reforms initiated by the late General remains.

In their nature and intent, the reforms kickstarted from the office of the CDS were radical. Not only did they aim to demolish the inter-services silos in terms of planning, operations, logistics and procurements, they also heralded the arrival of innovative fighting structures within the Indian subcontinent.

The Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) — based on an Indian interpretation of jointness reforms undertaken by major militaries across the world, including the US, China and the UK — are a way of combining the strengths and optimising the potential of the three services: the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Though land-centric, the joint combatant commands are focused on specific geographies and adversaries under a single commander and its attendant resources. Additionally, functional commands, such as the Logistics Command and the Joint Air Defence Command, are sought to be created to streamline the redundant acquisition processes and, thereby, reduce avoidable defence expenditures.

In fact, General Rawat also spoke about a possible ‘Rocket Force’ — an allusion to combining the non-contact warfare capabilities of the three services and a nod to an increasing ascendancy of the idea of non-contact warfare in Indian warfighting.

Similarly, indigenisation has been attempted at multiple levels. The promulgation of an import ban list by the Department of Military Affairs (euphemistically called the Positive Indigenisation List) was one of the first steps which saw a ‘burnt bridges’ strategy being applied to the import of certain critical items required by the armed forces. Two lists, with combined 209 defence items (101 in August 2020 and 108 in May 2021), have already been released with two aims: to wean off the armed forces from foreign-manufactured items; and to provide an impetus to the indigenous defence manufacturing ecosystem.

A number of startups were given handholding assurances in terms of institutional and monetary support to come up with products required by the armed forces in the information age, especially in the fields of robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and block-chain technology. Even in the field of cyber security, General Rawat acknowledged India’s shortcomings and was a vocal advocate of the creation of a national framework to thwart cyber attacks, as also the creation of offensive capabilities in the field, all using indigenous talent.

A Transformation Division within the Headquarters of the Integrated Defence Staff — that is, under the CDS — was created to carry out these transitions.

What makes General Rawat’s position hard to fill? And more importantly, what will happen to the reforms that he initiated? General Rawat was often labelled as the proverbial bull in the China shop. He had the heft of his vision and personality to carry through the reforms that he had visualised.

Notwithstanding the critiques over the nature and future of reforms that he had kickstarted, India’s defence apparatus required a shake-up like this and the personality of a man like General Rawat. Unlike the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, through which the unified combatant commands (UCCs) were created for the Americans, the act of integrating India’s three services was not legislated and only a person like General Rawat could have done it.

This does not absolve the political setup of its responsibilities. But in the absence of a legislative Act of Parliament, only a resolute mind and personality could bring about the changes that have now germinated.

The Indian Air Force has had major conceptual issues with the concept of joint theatre commands and a lot of unnecessary hysteria was created over the ‘division’ of air assets. It remains to be seen whether the Air Force will now strengthen its opposition or go ahead with the reforms. Similarly, a lot needs to be sorted out between the Air Force and the Army’s Air Defence arm over the impending joint air defence command.

India now finds itself in a place where the transition towards joint structures has started but not reached a satisfactory culmination point. In view of the Chinese geographic creep and the operationalisation of its Land Boundary Law from January 1, 2022, it is essential that either the entire process of jointness and integration is taken through an Act of Parliament or we wait for an evolution of consensus within the services.

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