Govt. in a bind over naming CDS

NEW DELHI, MAY 20. Sharp differences between the Indian Air Force and the Navy are holding back the revamp of the defence apparatus.

The rift appeared after the Government began debating the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff. In the Government's view, the CDS would head the country's nuclear forces and also serve as its principal military adviser.

As the senior-most officer in the three services, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sushil Kumar, appeared to be the frontrunner for the post. The IAF, however, reportedly opposed this which may have been a factor in the Government deciding to keep the appointment of the CDS in abeyance, sources say. Admiral Kumar has subsequently withdrawn from the race and has written a letter to the Defence Minister in this regard.

Notwithstanding the IAF's reservations, there have been nagging doubts in the Government about Admiral Kumar's suitability. Decision-makers may not have been entirely convinced about his familiarity with nuclear issues, which could have been one of the reasons for keeping the post vacant, sources say.

The post may have been kept unfilled on two other counts. First, the Government may be still deliberating on the question of Admiral Kumar's tenure and the fallout in case he was made CDS. Admiral Kumar will retire in December-end, in case the CDS post is kept ``co-terminus'' with his present position. That may not upset the government's plans about its future military hierarchy. The Army Chief, General S. Padmanabhan, who apparently enjoys the Prime Minister's confidence, will be the senior-most officer in the three services by January 2002. But, Admiral Kumar may be in the saddle for another two years after December 31 in case his position as naval chief and appointment as CDS is kept de-inked. The fallout of such an eventuality would be completely unpredictable.

Second, the Government may have found it hard to ignore the circumstances under which Admiral Kumar was made Navy Chief. Its negative repercussions may aggravate in case he is ``rewarded'' with the CDS post.

By squabbling over the post, neither the IAF nor the Navy's media managers have covered themselves with glory.

The IAF response to the Government's proposals related to higher defence management, including the creation of the post of CDS, has been reactive. The IAF initially opposed any changes saying the existing system was adequate. Analysts say the IAF feared changes in the military command may undermine its status. The bottomline of the argument appeared to be that the IAF alone understood how to use airpower effectively and hence, its functional insularity was necessary.

The IAF's position, however, has subsequently evolved. With the Government determined to carry forward defence reforms, the IAF has shifted its focus to the appointment of the CDS. It apparently feels it alone has the assets for delivering a nuclear strike and therefore forms the core of the country's existing minimum nuclear deterrent. Besides, air forces, in general, have enjoyed an elevated status in strategic commands such as the United States.

The Government is likely to find fault with the IAF's logic. For instance, in the not-so-distant future the IAF may not be the only one with nuclear assets. The Russian TU-22 strategic bombers are expected to go the Navy. With its last test validating its design, the serial production of the nuclear-tipped Agni missiles is also not far away.

The Government's dilemma in selecting a CDS lies in finding a non-controversial officer of the right seniority who has a proven grasp for exerting tri-service leadership.