Right time to usher in reforms in India's Armed Forces

The armed forces, after decades of clamouring, have been accorded a historic opportunity to usher in change and reforms. It is imperative that this opening is utilized with sagacity and deliberate forethought writes  Admiral  Arun Prakash (retd) for the South Asia Monitor


If we take the 2001 Group of Ministers Report as the starting point, the Indian state has taken 19 years to initiate the process of genuine national security reform, whose ‘green shoots’ are represented by the newly constituted Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and Department of Military Affairs (DMA). Although unduly delayed, this move, by the NDA government represents the most significant development in the national security domain since Independence.

To put things in perspective, the Indian military has, for the first time, been accorded recognition in the edifice of the Government of India (GoI) and has thereby been empowered to take decisions that will shape its future. The first priority for the armed forces should be to squarely address certain fundamental incongruities that have stunted their capabilities vis-à-vis adversaries and impinged adversely on India’s national security. While these anomalies are being rectified, the process of defence reforms should be set in motion and pursued with vigour.

But before proceeding further, let me deal with a seemingly trivial issue. The term CDS does not connote a ‘rank’; it is a ‘post’ tenable by a General, Admiral or Air Chief Marshal. Therefore, the creation of a new rank-badge for the first incumbent was unnecessary. The new, maroon shoulder epaulette seems designed only for an army uniform and conveys an inappropriate message since the navy and air force wear their ranks on the sleeve.

Coming to a more substantive issue, if the relegation of Service Headquarters (SHQ) to ‘attached offices’ was an early ‘act of commission,’ which made the military subaltern to the bureaucracy, an equally damaging ‘act of omission’ was the failure to accord recognition to the armed forces of the Union in the new Constitution.

While Article 312 created the IAS and IPS as ‘All India Services’, the functions, responsibilities and status of the armed forces, and their Chiefs, found no mention in the Constitution of India or any Act of Parliament.  Even the GoI Allocation of Business Rules (AoBR) have ignored them. This absence of recognition and lack of defined status has worked to the detriment of India’s military in many ways.

The PIB note of December 24 and brief gazette notification of December 30, 2019, has added two more anomalies that can further complicate the already tangled arena of higher defence management.

Firstly, the CDS, in the pay-grade of Cabinet Secretary/Service Chiefs, has been designated as ‘Secretary DMA’, which is a rung lower. This sets a wrong precedent and jeopardizes the status of Service Chiefs who are on par with the Cabinet Secretary. Secondly, having created a CDS it seems anomalous to retain the responsibility for, “Defence of India and every part thereof…”  with a bureaucrat; the Defence Secretary. Indeed, the Defence Secretary has been given even greater institutional responsibility by adding “…defence policy and preparation for defence,” to his new charter. This goes against the very spirit of reforms and needs to be reviewed. The recognition of senior military appointment-holders as ‘functionaries of the GoI’ will provide a legal basis for the discharge of their duties, and is an issue that needs to be pursued by the new DMA on priority.

This brings me to the second area of concern; India’s failure to attain self-reliance in defence hardware.  Dependence on foreign countries for weapon systems not only diverts our defence budget into their coffers but also undermines our strategic autonomy and freedom of action.

The main reason for the dismal failure of India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and massive defence-production complex, to achieve self-reliance, is three-fold. Firstly; the SHQs have been denied a say in the prioritization of DRDO’s projects, and the latter is free to spend its budget on technologies which often do not have relevance to the military’s operational needs. Secondly; since no instrumentality exists for independent review and oversight of DRDO’s projects, time/cost overruns, performance shortfalls and even failures go unaccounted for. Lastly; the armed forces, by focusing exclusively on ‘current combat capability’, have displayed indifference towards the indigenous defence industry and contributed to the current stasis.

A key result area for the CDS must be to ensure that DRDO and the defence-production complex are put on the right track and provided motivation and guidance; so that India can aim for self-reliance in defence by 2070. Apart from other policy changes, the GoI must be persuaded to appoint Service officers as CMDs/CEOs of DPSUs and to ensure military representation on the boards of directors of these units.

The most serious consequence of the military’s isolation from MoD has been the huge delays imposed in the processing of cases; related to hardware acquisition, infrastructure and personnel-management.  Each case, after being steered through multiple layers of MoD bureaucracy, is questioned all over again by its Finance Wing. Queries are sequential, repetitive and often raised to prevaricate.

Integration of SHQ with MoD has been sought for decades because bringing civil and military expertise under one roof would reduce file discussions and eliminate delays. These attempts have been firmly opposed by the bureaucrats, who insist that the status quo is quite satisfactory. Loosening the stranglehold of the bureaucracy and putative ‘financial advisors’ on the SHQs, through civil-military integration, should be an important objective of the DMA. Its attainment will have the most beneficial fallout for force-modernization and combat efficiency.

Finally, I come to the crux of the reform process – the evolution of ‘unified’ or ‘joint’ command structures. Contrary to the general impression, the GoI has not specified any deadlines for creation of what is called, ‘theatre commands.’ In fact, while embracing every other aspect of jointness at the earliest possible, the constitution of such commands, their span of responsibility and geographic boundaries must be decided after due consultation between the CDS, the Service Chiefs and their staffs. There are two other reasons for proceeding with due caution.

Firstly, we lack officers with the background or qualifications to function on the staff, and as ‘component commanders’ or Commanders-in-Chief, of a unified command and to operationally deploy its three service components. Creating a cadre of such officer’s calls for re-shaping the system of professional military education followed in the armed forces. Important steps in this process will be to re-cast the Defence Services Staff College as the Joint Services Staff College and to alter syllabi of the service War Colleges so that their graduates are competent to fill billets in a unified HQ.  

Secondly, once unified commands are created, the operational control of field forces would devolve from respective SHQs to the unified commanders. The Chiefs, having been divested of operational responsibilities, would, then, focus only on recruitment, training, and logistics. Since the critical transition from one system to the other could lead to degradation of operational capability, it must be preceded by adequate preparation and undertaken in phases.  Creation of a Joint Staff HQ would facilitate the oversight of this process.

The armed forces, after decades of clamouring, have been accorded a historic opportunity to usher in change and reforms. It is imperative that this opening is utilized with sagacity and deliberate forethought. While making haste, it is important that the leadership gets it right the first time, for there may never be another opportunity.

(The writer is former Chief of the Indian Navy and former Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee)

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