Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh to be appointed chairman of chiefs of staff committee in January, Lt Gen Anil Chait to head army, say sources
Nine years into the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance, the government is poised to appoint a tri-service military chief who would be the government's single point of contact on national defence.
Indications emanating from military brass and the ministry of defence suggest that Army Chief General Bikram Singh will be appointed the permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee next month. Simultaneously, Lieutenant General Anil Chait, heading the integrated defence staff, will succeed Gen Bikram Singh as the army chief.
A permanent chairman, COSC will be a four-star general like the chiefs of the army, navy and air force, but would wield less power than a five-star chief of defence staff that a Group of Ministers had proposed in 2001. But the appointment would implement a key recommendation of last year's Naresh Chandra task force on improving national security.
There is already a chairman, COSC, who is an ex-officio, the senior most of the three service chiefs. He is a sinecure without real power, as he is preoccupied with running his service, and also lacks adequate staff and establishment. A permanent chairman, COSC, backed by an effective headquarters and with the time to focus on tri-service matters, would be better poised to coordinate between the army, navy and air force.
With the strategic community and serving and retired military brass unanimously backing the proposal, it is being seen as a win-win for a government that has faced allegations of being soft on national security. The MoD did not respond to a request for comments.
The key to appoint a permanent chairman, COSC, has been a new consensus between the army, navy and air force.
At the Combined Commanders' Conference on November 22, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne announced in front of the prime minister that all three services had agreed on the need for a permanent chairman, COSC as an interim measure towards appointing a CDS.
In his speech, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signalled concurrence. "We require urgent and tangible progress in establishing the right structures for higher defence management," he said.
If the services were in agreement, "I can assure you of the most careful consideration of your recommendations by the political leadership," Dr Singh added.
In fact, the ball was already set in motion by then. In October, COSC chairman Air Chief Marshal Browne had initiated a formal proposal for a permanent chairman.
Browne is unlikely to benefit from the proposal since he will retire on December 31 and is unlikely to be given an extension. Instead, Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh, the senior-most service chief and ex-officio chairman COSC would take over as permanent chairman COSC when the cabinet clears the appointment, probably in January 2014.
Lt Gen Anil Chait is likely to succeed Gen Bikram Singh as army chief, who would be the senior-most eligible general in the army with effect from 2014. Gen Chait would, in fact, be senior even to the newly-appointed Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha.
This chain of appointments would upend the apple cart of Lt Gen Dalbir Singh, currently heading the eastern command in Kolkata, who is currently poised to succeed Gen Bikram Singh as chief next year.
The need for a tri-service commander has been institutionally articulated since 1999, when the Kargil Committee Report, noting the difficulties in inter-service coordination during the Kargil conflict, recommended the appointment of a CDS.
The appointment of a CDS would have meant a radical change in the system of higher command. Since 1947, the four-star service chiefs of the army, air force and navy had functioned autonomously under the MoD, presenting it with single-service viewpoints rather than an integrated viewpoint. The creation of a five-star CDS would place the three service chiefs under a powerful new appointment who would be in turn from the army, navy and air force.
In 2001, a GoM endorsed the Kargil Review Committee's recommendation for a CDS. The government said it would consult with "various political parties" before appointing a CDS. But, many years since then, the Air Force blocked the proposal, fearing the Army and Navy CDSs would erode the IAF's influence and turf.
The IAF had been scarred by the experience of 1976-77, when the maritime reconnaissance role and aircraft were transferred to the navy. This apprehension was reinforced in 1986 when a range of light helicopters was transferred to the newly-established Army Aviation Corps.
As an interim measure, an integrated defence staff was set up for tri-service coordination, with a three-star officer in command of some 300 officers. However, with the four-star service chiefs able to have their way, the IDS has made only partial headway towards improving inter-service coordination.