Late last month, the government announced measures to reduce the non-operational flab of the Army and increase its combat capability by redeploying and restructuring about 57,000 posts of soldiers and civilians by end-2019. This decision, variously described as “far reaching” and “the biggest since Independence”, has been taken on the basis of a report submitted in December 2016 by an 11-member committee headed by Lt General (Retd) D.B. Shekatkar. The rejig is to be effected by shutting down 39 military farms and postal establishments in peace stations and by optimising and restructuring ordnance and vehicle depots, signals establishments, base repair depots and supply and transport units.

While these measures are a welcome step towards improving the tooth to tail ratio, there are three critical and necessary areas for reform that successive governments have been hedging for some decades now. These reforms, if and when implemented, will indeed be path breaking and will lead to a marked improvement in decision making for India’s defence and also for the war fighting capability of the country’s armed forces.

The long pending reforms comprise creating the post of a Chief of Defence Force as a principal military advisor or a single point for military advice to the government, as is the practice in most countries equipped with large, modern and powerful militaries. The second reform involves consolidating and restructuring the various Army, Navy and Air Force operational commands, none of which are co-located, into fewer and more efficient theatre commands. And finally, restructuring the Ministry of Defence to include armed forces officers in the ministry’s decision making process, which is currently the preserve of generalist bureaucrats, who wield power with little or no accountability.

In keeping with the country’s “committee culture”, successive governments have been appointing committees to review the functioning of the Ministry of Defence and the national security apparatus. All reports have, with some modifications, essentially professed a need for major reforms. Yet governments across all political dispensations have unitedly avoided altering the status quo on all major issues. Rather, they have taken comfort in sporadically making symbolic, cosmetic and incremental changes, none of which have led to any significant improvement in decision making. The armed forces, which continue to be kept on the margins of the country’s national security decision making apparatus, are left fending for themselves, whether on anomalies of the Pay Commission, one rank one pension, or shortages in war fighting equipment, starting with basics such as bullet proof jackets and thermal imagers.

What is worrisome for a country of the size and importance as India with its serious security concerns is that all defence reforms have stemmed from a crisis or negative incidents. So slothful and status quoist have been governments that none has been progressive or pro-active in reforming the country’s defence apparatus. Politicians, who enjoy power with little sense of responsibility, lack a genuine interest in defence. Clearly, reforming India’s defence apparatus is hard work and will involve some hard decisions, including disturbing the status quo. That would be unpalatable for politicians, especially since it does not promise to translate into votes. Neither does it suit the generalist bureaucracy, which continues to wield power with little accountability. Ridiculous as it may sound, it is the Secretary of Defence, an officer from the generalist Indian Administrative Service, who continues to be responsible for India’s defence under the Rules of Business framed in 1961.

Governments at the Centre have perfected the art of throwing red herrings. Soon after the Navy chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, was dismissed from service and Defence Secretary Ajit Kumar simultaneously transferred to another ministry on 30 December 1998, then Defence Minister George Fernandes sought to quickly deflect the severe criticism that had followed by promising to implement the recommendations of the still classified Arun Singh-led Committee on Defence Expenditure report of 1990, which suggested restructuring of the Ministry of Defence in order to make the civilian bureaucracy and the armed forces function with greater cohesion and less rancour. Nothing happened.

The long pending reforms comprise creating the post of a Chief of Defence Force as a principal military advisor or a single point for military advice to the government, as is the practice in most countries equipped with large, modern and powerful militaries. 

The Committee on Defence Expenditure was appointed in 1990 by the National Front government headed by Prime Minister V.P. Singh as an attempt to reform India’s higher defence organisation following two major events: (i) serious allegations of bribery while purchasing 410 pieces of howitzers from the Swedish company Bofors and four submarines from the German company HDW, and (ii) India’s ill-conceived tragic military expedition to Sri Lanka from 1987-1990. But what followed typified India’s decision making culture: the report was quietly buried and a newly created National Security Council (NSC) meant to take a holistic view of national security issues was shelved after meeting only once.

The next attempt at reforms followed eight years later, which again, was precipitated by three events in quick succession – the nuclear tests in May 1998, the first-ever dismissal of a Service Chief in December 1998 and the Kargil War over May-July 1999. Yet again, decisions were slow and reforms half baked. Following the nuclear tests, an NSC was formed for a second time in April 1999, a year after the nuclear tests. A National Command Authority to oversee a possible nuclear war was formed in 2003, five years after the nuclear tests as was also a Strategic Forces Command entrusted with India’s missiles meant to be armed with nuclear warheads.

The Kargil War, however, evoked a more serious attempt at reform with the appointment first of a Kargil Review Committee, followed by a Group of Ministers Committee, which recommended sweeping reforms in four critical areas—higher defence organisation, border management, internal security and intelligence. But then, in keeping with India’s national style, the government took the middle ground and made changes that have been more cosmetic than substantial. The government upgraded the earlier tri-service Fortress Andaman and Nicobar to an Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), with no meaningful addition to force levels. This solitary tri-service command continues to remain dependent for resources on the Eastern Naval Command. The government created a Defence Intelligence Agency headed by a lieutenant general, even as the three services retained their respective service-centric intelligence wings, also headed by a three-star general equivalent. And more fundamentally, it took the half measure of creating an Integrated Defence Staff as a tri-service secretariat for a Chief of Defence Staff that remains elusive. Since then, the previous UPA government appointed another committee on defence reforms headed by the late Naresh Chandra, only to consign the report to the shelf.

The three Services continue to train, equip, procure and plan their own wars. There is duplication not only between the services, but also to an extent within an individual service. Attending joint courses, confined mostly to class room lectures and some travel, is progressively limited to fewer officers owing to the steep inverted pyramid in the officer cadre of the three services. There is no institutionalised joint warfare training on a continuous and regular basis at various operational levels. The Services operate from 17 single service Commands, 13 of which are operational Commands, with none of them co-located. The system is inefficient, as much as it is wasteful.

It remains to be seen whether this government will make a departure and enforce much needed reforms and restructuring of India’s higher defence management. Substance, and not cosmetics, is the dire need for India’s defence apparatus.

Dinesh Kumar is a Chandigarh-based defence analyst


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