The untimely death last month of Bipin Rawat, the country’s longest-serving four-star military officer, attracted a lot of public attention, mostly laudatory and eulogising the current political dispensation’s favourite general. His legacy as the chief of defence staff, nearly two years after he became the inaugural incumbent in the post, however, remains contested. The burden of this contested legacy, both political and military, will be borne by his successor, who has an unenviable job on his hands.
When Rawat was announced as the CDS, in December 2019, he was tasked with creating much greater synergy among the three armed forces, working on a three-year timeline. He specifically had to facilitate the “restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through the establishment of joint/theatre commands.” The restructuring of military commands was the main goal driving Rawat and is the touchstone by which his abridged tenure as CDS has to be judged. For all of Rawat’s perceived closeness to the executive and the political backing he received, his progress on this has been patchy.
The origins of the CDS’s position and mandate trace back several years. In February 2016, the Chinese reorganised their seven military regions into five integrated theatre commands, each specific to an adversary. For instance, the whole Sino-Indian border now falls under the western theatre command of the People’s Liberation Army. Theatre commands, a concept borrowed from the US military, are geography-specific entities, each answering for a theatre of operations. Theatres of operation are defined land and sea areas to be defended or invaded in coordination by all available forces, and include areas necessary for administrative activities incident to military operations. The United States divides the whole world into geographic theatres, each spanning numerous countries and oceans. India is one small part of the US military’s Indo-Pacific command, headquartered in Hawaii.