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The tragic death of India’s first Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), Gen. Bipin Rawat in a helicopter crash over Coonor while on his way to his alma mater, Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) Wellington  is not only an irreparable loss to the Armed forces but also shook the entire nation. Since morning on Wednesday there has been series of discussions in the mainstream media as well as social media about the nature and possible causes of crash. Before we dwell into the details of the incident, let us first pay sincere homage to Gen. Bipin Rawat and Madam Rawat.

The helicopter that was ferrying Gen. Rawat and his staff this morning is a safe and sophisticated helicopter in terms of agility and manoeuvrability. The MI-17-V5 Russian made helicopter dubbed by NATO as “Hip” was inducted into Indian Air force in 2008. It has standard safety features such as radars, mounted with missiles, dual turbo engines, fully bullet proofed; fibre insulated fuel tank and all weather manoeuvrability. Yet it met with an accident.

What might have been the causes of this accident? Of course, weather can’t be a reason since the weather forecast for Coonoor today was relatively better and sunny. The terrain is also not rough as compared to forward areas in Himalyan range.

Possibility of sabotage by insurgents or terrorist groups or friendly fire have also been ruled out since the area is close to the army cantonment and Coonoor has anti-naxal strike force training centre. The only reason which could be logically convincing is either a technical snag or pilot’s fault.

The MI17-V5 variant is prone to technical snags, which is hard to detect during the routine check up

In the past, the MI-17 variant met with five similar crashes in India and many more abroad. But, there is no conclusive evidence for why such crashes happened in different places.

However, one thing is very clear that this variant is prone to technical snags, which is hard to detect during the routine check up. Twice in Arunachal Pradesh and once in Uttarkhand during flood relief work this helicopter crashed. Since the inquiry by the Air force and other agencies are under progress it would be premature to conclude that technical snag could be the sole reason for all the crashes.

What is interesting to note here is that even VVIPs such as CDS are susceptible to accidents particularly in peace stations like Coonor. This is a worrisome fact.

From Chief of Army Staff to Chief of Defence Staff 

Gen. Rawat’s soldiers journey from COAS to CDS has not been smooth but challenging and tough. He came to the notice of public attention when he successfully conducted a counter-insurgency operation codenamed, “Op-Golden Bird” across the Myanmar border to wipe out NSCN insurgent camps in 2015. Thereafter, he supervised the 2016 “Uri Surgical Strike” where the entire team came back without even a scratch. This not only raised the political fortunes of the BJP government but also proved that Modi is a strong and effective leader. But the real test was Dokhlam 2017 where he stood firm and really prepared his army to face Chinese aggression and literally stopped Chinese road construction. Later on, the Balakot strike in 2019 earned huge respect for his planning and execution.

When he was appointed as India’s first CDS, he had his task cut out for him. He has been an ardent advocate of defense reforms in terms of structural and force posture. It is interesting to note that the CDS position was recommended by the Kargil Review Committee in 1999 for effective tri-service operational coordination. But somehow there wasn’t a political will to do it.

The CDS will be a point person in the ministry of defence on military affairs. By default he serves as a military advisor to the minister of defence, which was earlier held by the Defence Secretary, mostly an IAS level senior officer. All matters related to service, procurement and forces structures and reforms are dealt by the defence secretary. When Prime Minister Modi announced that CDS will be created on August 15, 2019 from the Red Fort ramp, Gen.Bipin Rawat emerged as a natural choice.

Gen Rawat had repeatedly said that India should be prepared for a two-front war in future

Ever since his appointment, Gen. Bipin Rawat has been dynamic and effective in implementing structural reforms such as “Integrated Theatre commands”, creating a new mountain strike core, publicly declaring that China is a major military threat. He repeatedly said that India should be prepared for a two-front war in future.

Also, he strongly believed and worked to reduce India’s net import of high-end defence equipment from foreign countries and worked to achieve 70 per cent indigenisation of defence manufacturing by 2030. He supervised the modernisation of armed forces with latest weapons and communication systems. He showed his leadership mettle during the Galwan Clash in 2020 and made a swift move to surprise the Chinese. He will be remembered as the “Soldiers General” in future for his down-to-earth approach while planning an operation. Behind every successful man there is a woman. Madam Madulika Rawat will be remembered for making a gentlemen into a general.

What Next?

The selection and appointment committee that appoints CDS will now scout for his replacement but that would take some time. Meanwhile, the defence secretary will hold the position of military advisor to the defence minister and look after the department of military affairs. From the strategic perspective, CDS plays a significant role in terms of operational effectiveness of the armed forces. A soldier with an impeccable record and highest integrity with staunch nationalist credentials will never die. Gen. Rawat has become a legend.

(Dr J Jeganaathan, is Sr. Assistant Professor of National Security Studies in the School of National Security Studies, Central University of Jammu, J&K-UT. The views expressed here are his personal)

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