The tragic helicopter crash on December 8 which claimed the lives of India’s Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, his wife, and 12 other military officers and personnel has sent India into deep mourning. Appointed as India’s first CDS on 31 December 2019, Rawat significantly impacted the Indian military by initiating deep structural reforms.
He was instrumental in shaping a joint combat posture for the Indian military and promoted the indigenisation of military equipment to reduce India’s long and costly dependency on imports. His blunt approach certainly ruffled feathers in the civilian and military establishment, but his was a sincere desire to bring about reforms that went against the military’s status-quo-ist approach.
The creation of the position of CDS was long pending. The Kargil Review Committee set up after the Kargil conflict in 1999 had recommended the creation such a post to provide single-point professional military advice to the political leadership. But successive governments could not make headway due to turf wars between the three services over the post. Ultimately, in 2019, the Modi government was able to overcome the differences and created the position of the CDS with the rank of a four-star general. Unlike other countries, in India, the CDS is a political appointee – where seniority and government’s confidence in the appointee matters. This meant Rawat had the political leadership’s trust and mandate to initiate the much-needed military reforms related to tri-service integration and coordination, and equipment acquisition.
This General Rawat did relentlessly, pushing for jointness in the Indian military as his central mandate. He understood that future fifth-generation wars will be asymmetric and fought across entire spectrums, including land, air, sea, cyber, information, and economies. This was a big step up from the three services’ current siloed approach, with underutilisation of resources.
General Rawat aligned India with U.S. and Chinese militaries by setting up five theatre commands to combine army, air force, and naval assets and create joint combat capability. Once operationalised, these commands will replace the current 17 service-specific commands. Rawat had to specifically work through stiff resistance from the Navy and Air Force to form the theatre commands.
It has paid dividends. India now has extensive coordination between the three services, visible during the border stand-off with China in eastern Ladakh since mid-2020. The Army and Air Force pressed into service their assets like the Akash missile system and Su-30 fighter aircraft during the long stand-off, and the Navy deployed gunboats and P8I maritime patrol aircraft for surveillance at Pangong Tso. 
A critical element of jointness that General Rawat accomplished was the operationalisation of Joint Logistics Nodes in Mumbai, Guwahati, and Port Blair. The facilities provide integrated logistics services to the military and have optimised human and financial resources and built interoperability among the three services through shared transport, supplies, and engineering support.
Rawat embarked on defence indigenisation by prioritising the weapons and platforms needed immediately, and in the long term for future joint capabilities. This is where he emphasised indigenous equipment, believing that India could not fight wars on the ‘borrowed strength’ of foreign equipment. The services could, in the meanwhile, buy foreign equipment to meet immediate operational requirements but plan for fulfilling medium and long-term requirements through domestic capability, even hand-holding the domestic defence manufacturers to fulfil the three services’ requirements. S. P. Shukla, Group President, Agri, Defence & Aero Sectors of Mahindra and Vice President of the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers appreciated Rawat’s support “for making India self-reliant in defence manufacturing” and “in building the capacity of the industry”. Companies like Tata Advanced Systems (aerospace), Larson & Toubro (naval systems), Mahindra Defence (land systems) and Kalyani Group (small arms and land systems) have expanded their participation in the defence sector capitalising on the opportunities opened by the Aatmanirbhar Bharat initiative. Some have also collaborated with the foreign players to export sub-systems and become part of the global supply chain.
Naturally Rawat ran up against the powerful vested interests and ‘import lobby’ of middlemen who for decades thrived on commissions and kickbacks from arms imports. From Bofors guns to AgustaWestland helicopters, these created scandal after scandal, until Rawat began to push them back despite their many attempts to discredit him. The preparation and announcement of a ‘negative list’ that banned the import of 101 weapons and platforms in August 2020 is a sign of his successful efforts for indigenisation. His goal was to make India an exporter of defence equipment.
The new CDS will have to follow through with these reforms with vigour and independence. The immediate task will be to keep up the momentum of the theatre commands and sharpen joint combat capabilities, in addition to evolving a consensus among the three services for an integrated view on developing future tech capabilities for the military. General Rawat laid the foundation for his successor to continue the tough reforms needed to prepare India for old and new global challenges.
Sameer Patil is Fellow, International Security Studies Programme, Gateway House.
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