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Tiptoe on permanent military top post

General Bikram Singh

New Delhi, Dec. 2: The defence ministry, pushed by the Prime Minister to restructure the armed forces’ headquarters, is reluctantly mulling the creation of a permanent post of a four-star general who would be the government’s top military adviser.

So far, the chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (C/COSC) has been the seniormost of the chiefs of the army, navy and air force. Despite sounding important, it has been viewed largely as a ceremonial post.

Concerned that a change to a permanent post would impact on rivalries among and within the services, the defence ministry has sought the views of the National Security Council (NSC).

It has sent the recommendations of two task forces constituted by the Prime Minister’s Office to the National Security Council secretariat (NSCS).

“We are considering the recommendations (of the task forces) and cannot commit one way or the other,” the defence ministry spokesperson said when asked if army chief General Bikram Singh would be the first permanent C/COSC.

The current C/COSC is Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne who retires at the end of the month. Gen. Singh, who is scheduled to retire in August 2014, will take over from him.

The prospect of turf wars among the army, navy and the air force, and of general versus general (or admiral and air marshal) competitions for plum posts has intensified since the Prime Minister addressed the Unified Commanders’ Conference on November 22.

“We require urgent and tangible progress in establishing the right structures for higher defence management and the appropriate civil-military balance in decision-making that our complex security environment demands. Again, I encourage you to give this the highest professional consideration, harmonise existing differences among the individual services and evolve a blueprint for the future. I can assure you of the most careful consideration of your recommendations by the political leadership,” the Prime Minister had said at the conference.

He also urged the defence ministry to consider the recommendations of the task forces.

The Naresh Chandra Committee on defence reforms — that submitted its report in May last year — had suggested the creation of the post of a permanent C/COSC.

The recommendation got a boost after the COSC itself buried differences and found merit in the creation of the post.

Its argument: each chief has to devote so much time to his own service that there is little effort he can make for joint/integrated operations; besides the tenure of the C/COSC is not long enough.

One defence ministry source, explaining the delay in acting on the Naresh Chandra report, said the committee had “highlighted nearly a 100 action-points and these are very complex matters that cannot be decided so quickly”.

Also, the restructuring of the military establishment is a hot potato in an election year because the next government would have to deal with the resultant changes.

The task force has recommended that the C/COSC should be a four-star general like all the service chiefs and should have a fixed term of two years. At most, a permanent C/COSC may be regarded as a “first among equals”. Generals and equivalents (admiral and air chief marshal) serve a minimum of two years at the top and have to retire at the age of 62 years.

The task force and the COSC believe that with “jointness” or integrated military action being the mantra in the future battlefield, a permanent C/COSC leading to a chief of defence staff (CDS) can preside over tri-service commands that exist or are planned to be set up.

At present, there are tri-service commands in Andaman and Nicobar (commanded by rotation by a naval vice admiral, an army lieutenant-general or an air marshal), the chairman, chief of integrated defence staff to the C/COSC (commanded by rotation) and the strategic forces command (same type of command).

Three more tri-service commands have been proposed by the COSC — on cybersecurity, aerospace and special operations. Each of these commands need not necessarily be commanded by rotation but each may be dedicated to one of the three services.

A permanent C/COSC would also be expected to function as the top military adviser to the government. The creation of the post would also lead to heartburn in the bureaucracy that will wonder about the warrant of protocol that establishes the seniority or otherwise of government servants.

Outside political appointees, the seniormost government servant is the cabinet secretary. The service chiefs are deemed equivalent to the cabinet secretary.