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Is the Modi government’s refinement of the CDS Role an insult to the military hierarchy?

Is the Modi government’s refinement of the CDS Role an insult to the military hierarchy?

With widespread riots and subsequent troubleshooting by the government and the armed forces, the Narendra Modi government’s contentious “Agnipath” or short-term contractual recruitment scheme for soldiers, air warriors, and sailors of the Indian Armed Forces has dominated the headlines for the past ten days. Another contentious choice regarding the “deep selection” process used to choose the Chief of Defence Staff, and potential changes to his mandate appear to have been shelved.

The Modi administration announced on June 7 that all serving and retiring generals, including Chiefs of Army, Air, and Naval Staff and Lieutenant Generals (Lt Gens) under the age of 62, would be qualified for the position of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Defence analysts and veterans who saw this choice as a means of appointing “political generals” as the CDS, as well as weakening an established command and control structure in the Indian military, criticised it for having an impact on the seniority, rank, and standing of the military hierarchy.

In the realm of military leadership, the government firmly think that there is always a “first among equals, and for the modernisation of the armed forces, just as in combat, it is the “most meritorious” General who matters; not the “senior-most.” Finding “the guy” in a fair, open, and moral manner is the task facing the Modi administration.

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Government’s prerogative

The political government has the authority to choose the CDS and Service Chiefs in a democracy. However, the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister have minimal interaction and information with higher commanders. The government is forced to rely on the nebulous comparison of dossiers based on the military’s evaluation system, input from the Intelligence Bureau, input from the defence ministry bureaucrats, and public reputation and political leanings. With this in mind, the seniority-cum-merit principle—in which seniority is given priority and merit (among very senior officers) is deemed equal or relative—was widely followed by all governments.                       

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Any interference with the principle of seniority-cum-merit will reek of political interference and make the military hierarchy subservient to the government unless a transparent and ethical system is established for selection based on the principle of merit-cum-seniority, that is, merit being given priority and seniority among contenders being considered relative.

According to a recent government announcement, three serving Service Chiefs under the age of 62 and about 150 active and 50 retiring Lt Gens will be qualified for the position of CDS. The seniority gap between the most junior Lt Gen and the most senior Service Chief may be as big as 6-7 years.

The evaluation and selection processes used by the Indian military for Army Commanders and their equivalents, as well as for Service Chiefs who are appointed to higher ranks than Lieutenant Generals, have been called into question by the Modi government. Even if “deep selection” was the goal, the panel may have been limited to the three Service Chiefs and the 25 or so active Army Commanders/equivalent.

As of the now, there is no formal requirement, competency standard, or qualification for the appointment of Service Chiefs and CDS. The Defence Minister does not conduct a thorough evaluation of Army Commanders or their equivalents or the Service Chiefs within the armed forces. It goes without stating that, if based on “merit,” the selection of the Service Chiefs and the CDS will remain arbitrary given the current situation.

The appraisal process used by the armed forces, which chooses the Lt Gens and Army Commanders/equivalent who are now vying for the position of CDS, needs to be improved. Any appraisal system’s objectivity is constrained by the existing moral and ethical norms.

The military’s existing evaluation process is plagued by subjectivity, assessor character faults that compromise moral courage, and a predominance of parochialism tied to regiments, arms, and associations. Due to this, annual secret reports have increased, and there are now too many “meritorious officers” competing for a small number of senior places.

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Genuine merit within the armed forces is up for debate. This is demonstrated by the fact that several senior officers, including three Service Chiefs, were complicit in the Adarsh housing scam. The fact that it applies to everyone equally is the only mitigating aspect.

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Past experience

Regardless of the controversy, there is precedent for very young, deserving commanders to be assigned to the top military positions both domestically and internationally. Regarding the selection of Service Chiefs For the Army, Navy, and Air Force in India, it has happened three times, twice, and once, respectively. Another prominent example is General Dwight Eisenhower, who became President of the United States.

Due to a lack of openness and a proper method of choosing the deserving, such appointments became involved in controversy. In the interest of the organisation and the country during a time of war, superseded officers either resigned or accepted the position. The difference in seniority was slight, nevertheless.

Major disruption and a negative effect on military morale are likely to result from a wider gap in seniority or the replacement of current Service Chiefs. This is especially true if a former Lt Gen who was previously senior based on the date of commission is appointed but is junior in rank to existing Service Chiefs. If the Service Chiefs have a straight spine, they will resign, embarrassing the government.

A retired officer being brought back into duty and subsequently promoted to the highest military position has never happened in India. After the disaster of 1962, Prime Minister Nehru toyed with the idea of inviting General S P P Thorat back to serve as Army Chief but ultimately chose to appoint him as a member of the National Defence Council. As Deputy NSA, Military Advisor to NSC, members of the National Security Advisory Board, and currently advisor to the MoD retired officers have been appointed.

Recalling senior officers to active duty to fill important military positions hasn’t always happened, not even in other services. General Maxwell Taylor, General Douglas MacArthur, and General Peter J. Schoomaker are illustrative figures from the US.

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Recalling retired officers to fill the top military position begs the question of why the officer in question could not be nominated to the position through extensive selection or, if necessary, by removing his ‘incompetent superiors’ while still in the service. The political establishment has praised the military’s excellent leadership for the past eight years. If such leadership is suddenly discovered to be incompetent, it does not bode well.

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Way forward

It appears that the qualifying requirements were changed in order to appoint a certain retired Lt Gen or Army Commander to the coveted CDS position. It is a ruse to use “deep selection” to pick the deserving candidate from a group of 150 active-duty and 50 retired officers with the rank of lieutenant general and above.

The Modi government would be wise to specify the CDS position’s competency standards and to limit the selection panel to Service Chiefs. It has already used the option of merit-driven deep selection three times for the appointment of Service Chiefs over the past eight years. The panel can be expanded to include all currently serving Army Commanders/equivalent if it lacks trust in them and wishes to mock its own selection standards.

Create a special committee including the Defense Minister as chairman, the NSA, former Service Chiefs, and Cabinet Secretaries. The special committee must carefully review the dossiers, investigate the officers’ reputations, and interview them to narrow the field to three candidates in priority order. The Cabinet Committee on Security ought to make the ultimate decision.

Long term, the armed forces must overhaul their evaluation process and implement “deep selection” based only on merit for all selection positions. The Modi government must establish a fair and moral process for choosing the CDS and Service Chiefs based on seniority and merit. It disrespects the current military hierarchy and ridicules the government’s selection process to sift among retired officers to fill the highest military job.

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