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Swiss cheese and defence reforms

The holes in the three cheese slices comprising the defence set-up must align for a nation to be prepared militarily

The Swiss cheese model is associated with accident investigation in an organisation or a system. A system consists of multiple domains or layers, each having some shortcomings. These layers are visualised in the model as slices of Swiss cheese, with the holes in them being the imperfections. Normally, weaknesses get nullified, other than when, at some point, the holes in every slice align to let a hazard pass through and cause an accident.

Three slices in defence set-up

When applied to a nation’s defence preparedness, the Swiss cheese model, in its simplest form, works the reverse way. The slices represent the major constituents in a nation’s war-making potential, while the holes are pathways through which the domains interact. At the macro level, there are only three slices with holes in each. These must align to ensure that a nation’s defence posture is in tune with its political objectives; any mismatch may turn out to be detrimental to the nation’s aatma samman (self-respect) when the balloon goes up. In these days of the Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, a clinical analysis is necessary to obviate any missteps that may prove costly a few years or decades down the line.

In the Indian defence set-up, the three slices are: one, the policymaking apparatus comprising the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and Ministry of Defence (MoD); two, the defence research and development (R&D) establishment and domestic manufacturing industry; and three, the three services. When the MoD alone existed, a certain relationship between the three layers saw India prosecute four major wars since independence. The holes in the three slices were aligned to different degrees and hence the results were varied in each conflict; that the system required an overhaul would be an understatement.

With technology progressing exponentially, a single service prosecution of war was no longer tenable, because the advent of smart munitions, computer processing, networking capabilities and the skyrocketing cost of equipment brought in the concept of parallel warfare. Synergised application of tools of national power became an imperative. Thus, it became essential for militaries to be joint to apply violence in an economical way — economical in terms of time, casualties, costs incurred, and political gains achieved. The setting up of the DMA and the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to achieve synergy are the most fundamental changes; as further modifications and tweaking take place in the way the services prepare to go to war, it is imperative that the transformation be thought through with clinical analysis, without any external, emotional, political or rhetorical pressure.

Access to the right equipment

India’s security managers have to factor in the increasingly belligerent posture of the country’s two adversaries. Terrorist activities have not reduced in Jammu and Kashmir, ongoing incidents along the northern border with China do not foretell a peaceful future, and the China-Pakistan nexus can only be expected to get stronger and portentous. Such a security environment demands that capability accretion of the three services proceed unhindered. To elaborate, the Indian Air Force at a minimum requires 300 fighters to bolster its squadron strength; the Army needs guns of all types; and the Navy wants ships, helicopters, etc. The requirements are worth billions of dollars but with COVID-19-induced cuts in defence spending, and their diversion to the social sector, getting all of them is a joint mirage. Enter the well-meaning government diktat for buying indigenous only, but for that, in-house R&D and manufacturing entities have to play ball. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited can, at best, produce just eight Tejas fighters per year presently; the Army has had to import rifles due to the failure of the Defence Research and Development Organisation to produce them; and the Navy has earnest hopes that the hull designs that its internal R&D makes get the vital innards for going to war. So, the Swiss cheese slice representing indigenous R&D and a manufacturing supply chain that ensures quality war-fighting equipment, at the right time and in required quantities, is still some years away. Wars cannot be fought and won on well-meaning policy intentions and nationalist rhetoric; wars are won when war fighters have access to the right equipment to prosecute them.

Creating theatre commands

The forthcoming reform of creating theatre commands is the most talked about result of jointness expected from the Swiss cheese slice in which lie the DMA and a restructured MoD. Doing so would be a shake-up of huge proportions as it strikes at the very foundation of the war-fighting structure of the services. The three-year deadline spoken about by the CDS must take into account the not-so-comfortable state of assets of each service which would need to be carved up for each theatre. The Chinese announced their ‘theaterisation’ concept in 2015; it is still work in progress. The U.S. had a bruising debate for decades before the Goldwater-Nichols Act came into force in 1986. Turf wars are not a patent of any one nation. New relationships take time to smooth out, and in the arena of defence policymaking, which is where the DMA and MoD lie, the element of time has a value of its own: any ramming through, just to meet a publicly declared timeline, could result in creating a not-so-optimal war-fighting organisation to our detriment.

So, the three services that constitute the third Swiss cheese slice have to contend with the other two slices being in a state of flux for some time to come. It’s a no-brainer that this disruption requires level-headed non-parochial handling. The political, civil and military leadership must have their feet firmly on ground to ensure that the holes in their Swiss cheese continue to stay aligned; impractical timelines and pressures of public pronouncements must not be the drivers in such a fundamental overhaul of our defence apparatus. To paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, shun publicity and build capability first.

Manmohan Bahadur is Additional Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies. The views expressed here are personal

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Printable version | Jul 12, 2020 11:09:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/swiss-cheese-and-defence-reforms/article31751073.ece

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