Modi’s giant leap on defence reform | analysis
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has bitten the bullet, as it were, in relation to the long-festering and unresolved national security imperative of creating a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). In his August 15 address, Modi announced, with characteristic aplomb, “To further sharpen coordination between the forces, I want to announce a major decision from the Red Fort: India will have a Chief of Defence Staff — CDS. This is going to make the forces even more effective.”
This is a major policy decision that is to be welcomed and commended for it needed definitive political confidence, and a degree of audacity that had eluded Modi’s predecessors. The less-than-flattering reality is that while the Indian armed forces are repeatedly lauded as being the nation’s ‘pride’, they have received little institutional empathy or understanding.
One reason for the armed forces being less effective than what Modi now envisions is that the three services operate in insular silos, and there is no substantive integration of capabilities and resources, much less a joint operational philosophy. Inter-service rivalry is embedded in the DNA of militaries across the world.
India is not the first democracy to have faced such a dilemma in the pursuit of military jointness. The creation of integrated commands has always been top-driven by the civilian political leadership. Both the United States of America and United Kingdom have gone through this experience in their defence reviews and reorganisation.
There has been an institutional divide between the civilian and military realm in India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had an uneasy relationship with the military top brass and was opposed to the creation of a CDS — the fear of a coup being an unstated factor. After the 1971 military victory, General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw’s name was proposed for the first CDS of India, but it is averred that the two Lals shot it down – the defence secretary KB Lal and the Air Chief PC Lal.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has demonstrated greater interest than the Congress in redressing certain structural inadequacies in India’s wobbly higher defence management.
After the 1999 Kargil war, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government made an earnest attempt to restructure the entire higher defence edifice, with the creation of a CDS as integral to the new matrix. The Arun Singh committee under the Vajpayee government made the first substantive recommendation for creating the CDS in a holistic manner that included the integration of the armed forces into the ministry of defence. However, 2001 was a tumultuous year, and alas, higher defence reforms fell by the side.
It is to Modi’s credit that he has been able to prioritise the need for beginning higher defence reforms fairly early in his second term. Modi 1.0 was hobbled by not being able to appoint a dedicated defence minister for the full five-year term. This has been rectified in the choice of Rajnath Singh, a seasoned leader.
Reforms in the defence sector are long overdue and what is required is something similar to what former PM Narasimha Rao had embarked upon in the economic arena. The CDS as announced by PM Modi should be empowered appropriately through an act of Parliament, and not become a more visible, but ineffective, permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
This would entail a root-and-branch reorganisation of the Indian military into integrated theatre commands with the CDS at the apex and the current service chiefs assuming more of a staff role. The reluctance of the Indian Air Force to robustly endorse the concept of a CDS and integrated theatre commands is well known and some of these deliberations have been conducted in the public domain.
Traditionally, air forces have guarded their distinctive identity and professional competence zealously but the relevance of air power in land and maritime operations has compelled the men (and now women) in blue to cede turf to the army and the navy. Helicopter gunships and air observation posts (AOP) for the army and maritime reconnaissance in the navy are illustrative and the Indian experience has followed this pattern – often acrimoniously.
However, there appears to be a gradual acceptance now by the air force of the imperative for an integrated approach to enhancing military effectiveness and the CDS — when appointed — would have to deal with this legacy issue. The more complex challenge for the CDS will be to manage the national ecosystem, which will enable the improvement in overall military effectiveness that PM Modi is seeking.
Currently the armed forces are in silos and their fiscal allocation is caught in a strait-jacket. The CDS would have to advise the government on whether India should invest more in cyber-space-spectrum capabilities or acquire more tanks, fighter aircraft or submarines and this prioritizing will be the perennial dilemma. Harmonising the intelligence grid to national security requirements, catalysing indigenous Research & Development improving DRDO and defence PSU performance, and manufacturing, speeding up military inventory acquisition/modernisation are likely to be other big ticket issues for the new CDS.
Above all, restoring the ‘izzat’ of the Indian military, which has been bruised over many issues, including Non-Functional Upgrade, the locus accorded to the ‘fauj’ in governance, and the welfare of veterans, will have to be part of the composite stock-taking to enhance the effectiveness that Modi is expecting. A new equilibrium will also be created between the CDS and the National Security Adviser, who currently has a wide spectrum of responsibilities.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
Aug 15, 2019 20:58 IST