Civilian supremacy and defence reforms

India should not wait for another crisis to recognise the pressing need for higher defence reforms. There are sufficient studies, reports and recommendations that the government can depend on while planning the restructuring process. It can also consider an Act of Parliament to offset the existing resistance to defence reforms

Updated - May 23, 2016 07:11 pm IST

Published - October 28, 2014 01:13 am IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi should appoint a defence minister — a full-time one — and demonstrate a great deal of administrative acumen and political will if he is serious about his declared intent to strengthen India’s national security and defence preparedness. Indeed, the absence of a full-time defence minister is merely symptomatic of a larger set of serious structural problems being faced by the country’s higher defence management today, which is in urgent need of innovative reforms and radical restructuring. Mr. Modi’s address to the Combined Commanders Conference in New Delhi on October 17 found no mention of structural reforms in higher defence management whereas his predecessor did mention it from time to time even though the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had sidestepped implementing the crucial reforms.

The disturbing reality today is that in the absence of a full-time defence minister and by not introducing defence reforms, it is the civilian bureaucracy — having generalist IAS officers whose expertise in defence matters is questionable — that has a major say in the country’s defence planning and decision-making. This needs to change.

Committee recommendations The demand for reforms in India’s higher defence management is a long-standing one and has grown in strength ever since the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) recommended a number of reforms. In 2000, the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government appointed a Group of Ministers (GoM), with four task forces on intelligence reforms, internal security, border management, and higher defence management, to review the country’s defence preparedness in the light of the KRC’s recommendations. Many of the recommendations made by the GoM were only partially implemented. And the most important one, of creating the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), was ignored.

It is the civilian bureaucracy that has a major say in the country’s defence planning and decision-making. This needs to change.

As a result, it has been widely perceived over the past decade or so that the country’s defence sector needs further restructuring. In response, the UPA government appointed a task force on national security under the chairmanship of Mr. Naresh Chandra in 2011; it submitted its report a year later. Although classified, some of its content has been leaked to the press. Many of its recommendations were not to the liking of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Defence Minister. As a result, the UPA government lost an opportunity to introduce crucial reforms. The report was to have been taken up by the Cabinet Committee on Security in February this year — after the government sat on it for no less than one-and-a-half years, but it was too late by then as the UPA government felt that it should not take key national security decisions in its final days in office. It’s now the turn of the NDA government to act.

Key issues One of the key issues that should be addressed by the Modi government is the GoM’s recommendation to appoint a five-star military officer to serve as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who then will be the single-point military adviser to the government. The CDS will chair the meetings of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC) and smoothen the process of military planning, streamlining budgetary requisitions and effecting coordination between the three services. This proposal was earlier shot down by the MoD as it feared that a “super general” would bypass the civilian bureaucracy in defence decision-making. There has also been opposition to the idea from within the military, by the Indian Air Force (IAF). The Chandra committee, being cognisant of the bureaucratic opposition to the CDS proposal, watered down the authority of the CDS and instead recommended the creation of a four-star permanent chairman of the CoSC. According to reports, this chairman, to be appointed on a two-year tenure on a rotational basis among the three services, will not only coordinate various inter-service issues but will also be in charge of the country’s tri-Service Commands: the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) dealing with India’s nuclear forces and the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). This too was put on the back burner after opposition from the MoD.

Another issue is the creation of tri-service theatre commands. While the future of warfare lies in joint planning and operations, the Indian defence establishment has ignored it. As a result, the country’s defence planning is deeply reflective of service-specific strengths, weaknesses and visions. Issues that should be addressed jointly by all three services are hardly ever the priority of any of the services. Without a common leader, each service chief tends to be the spokesman of his own service. The primary concern is about a protection of autonomous turfs, and not in promoting jointness as it is bound to challenge claims of autonomy. The IAF’s opposition to the establishment of tri-service theatre commands is one such example.

Building expertise The other area of concern is the absence of synergy among the various arms of the state dealing with defence and national security: the armed forces, the MoD, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). An attempt at synergy was made in 1986 when the Directorate General of Defence Planning Staff (DGDPS) was formed, but it never got anywhere because civilian officers were not keen on working in the DGDPS which functioned under the CoSC. Post-Kargil, the KRC report had proposed the integration of the armed forces headquarters with the MoD, as doing so would have led to more cohesion in the country’s defence planning. Instead, the government created the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) — run by three-star officers and with hardly any role in the defence decision-making. It does not fulfil any of the intended purposes. In June this year, Union Defence Minister Arun Jaitley laid the foundation stone of the IDS building in New Delhi. He emphasised the need to develop “synergy between the services to achieve optimum force application”. But the IDS, Mr. Jaitley should know, is a stillborn institution and cannot contribute to synergy among the forces.

The GoM and Chandra committee reports strongly recommended the posting of military officers to important posts in the MoD to improve defence planning. Generalist IAS officers who spend one or two years in the MoD are unlikely to understand the highly complex nature of defence issues and strategic planning. This is the result of an unhealthy tendency in the government to prioritise routine administrative management over strategic planning based on specialised domain knowledge. It is time the government realised the need for specialised knowledge and expertise in the MoD. This can be taken care of by encouraging civilian officers to build expertise in strategic affairs and involving the services in strategic decision-making.

Standing committee reports It is not as if politicians are unaware of what ails India’s higher defence structures. Various defence related parliamentary standing committee reports have not only supported reforms but have often expressed displeasure over the lack of their implementation by the MoD. In 2007, one such report, on the CDS, said that “the Government should take the GoM’s recommendations as well as this Committee’s concern in this matter seriously and take the final decision on CDS at the earliest.”

In 2009, another standing committee on defence (SCD) said that it is “of the considered view that the creation of an additional post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to act as Chairman of the CoSC is essential to ensure optimum level of jointness among the different wings of the Armed Forces and to provide single-point military advice to the Government.” Parliamentary committees have also been critical of the Defence Ministry’s unwillingness to implement the required reforms. The second SCD report of the 15th Lok Sabha said: “Merely writing letters even from the level of the Defence Minister is not sufficient. There is an urgent need to use the various fora of interaction with the leaders of the political parties … The Committee expects the Ministry to take the effective steps as suggested above so that the institution of CDS is set up expeditiously.”

The Defence Ministry’s favourite excuse for not carrying out defence reforms is that there is no political or inter-service consensus on what shape the reforms should take. The reality is that it has never been serious about creating such a political consensus, and it will remain a pipe dream. The lack of inter-service agreement on defence reforms is not difficult to overcome. Today, there is clear consensus among the services on the issue of the CDS even though such consensus has still to be arrived at on the issue of tri-service commands.

The other excuse is that keeping the military out of decision-making strengthens civilian supremacy over the armed forces, a flawed argument for a number of reasons. One, while civilian supremacy should imply the supremacy of the political leadership, in India it translates into the overlordship of the civil services over the armed forces given that political bosses hardly have any time to manage defence related issues. As a result, the defence secretary, a generalist IAS officer, is the one who advises the minister on defence issues besides “managing” the armed forces. Second, since generalist bureaucrats in the Defence Ministry are not experts in the defence sector, they are either reluctant to carry out reforms whose importance they don’t understand, or actively obstruct them fearing the loss of the authority they have traditionally enjoyed. Creating a special cadre of defence specialists is one way to overcome this problem.

India should not wait for another crisis to recognise, all over again, the need for higher defence reforms. There are already sufficient studies, reports and recommendations that the government can depend on while planning the restructuring process. The government could also consider an Act of Parliament to offset the existing resistance to defence reforms.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-mail: )

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