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Home > India > News > Columnists > Harsh V Pant

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Armed forces should put their house in order

August 21, 2008

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When the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations came out earlier this year, the reaction in the rank and file of the Indian armed forces was strongly negative as it once again felt let down by the political-bureaucratic establishment. The veterans came out on the streets to protest and the Indian army [Images] chief was forced to take his case to the President, much to the annoyance of the government.

The issues related to the Military Service Pay, the exclusion of the rank pay from the pay scale of officers leading to a lowering of officers' status, introduction of running pay bands were, among others, issues that caused a lot of consternation within the services, especially as it reinforced a perception that it's all part of a well-established pattern of behaviour on the part of their civilian masters.

Such turmoil within the ranks of any nation's armed services should be a cause for concern but in the case of India that aspires to join the ranks of world's major global powers this is a recipe for disaster. Some time back, I had written in these columns about the need for the government to take these concerns seriously and to give due recognition to the role that armed forces play in our society.

The government has now decided to implement a modified version of the Pay Commission recommendations and the service chiefs seem to have given their blessings to the proposed changes. The navy chief has been quoted as saying that the concerns of the armed forces appear to have been suitably addressed. One hopes these views are shared by the rank and file of the nation's defence forces.

If the top leadership is indeed satisfied with the government's response, then the onus now is on them to give the Indian defence policy a new direction, a trajectory that does justice to India's rising stature in the global inter-state hierarchy. Blaming the government for all the ills afflicting the defence sector seems to be becoming the default position within the ranks of the military, and taking this too far can be really dangerous for the liberal democratic ethos of this nation.

India's armed forces need fundamental reforms, a restructuring that enables them to operate with utmost efficiency in a rapidly evolving domestic and global context. The armed forces can begin by putting their own house in order.

A General's letter in anguish to the PM

It is true that big macro issues remain beyond the influence of the armed forces as they have to work within the strategic framework set by the civilian leadership. The Indian economy will have to continue to grow at high rates of growth if Indian defence needs can be adequately catered to. High rates of economic growth over the last several years have given India the resources to undertake its military modernisation programme and redefine its defence priorities.

India, which currently has the world's fourth largest military and one of the biggest defence budgets, has been in the midst of a huge defence modernisation programme for nearly a decade that has seen billions of dollars spent on the latest high-tech military technology. This liberal spending on defence equipment has attracted the interest of Western industry and governments alike and is changing the scope of the global defence market.

A country like India does not have the luxury to make a choice between guns and butter and high economic growth is the only solution that will allow it to take care of its defence and developmental needs simultaneously. India's own version of 'revolution in military affairs' will force it to spend much more on sophisticated cutting-edge defence technology and on trained manpower. Without sustained rates of high economic growth, this will become very difficult to achieve as the defence forces will find it difficult to make demands on the government for greater resources.

The other issue is of appropriate institutional frameworks that enable a nation to effectively leverage its capabilities -- diplomatic, military and economic -- in the service of its strategic interests. India lacks such institutions in the realm of foreign and defence policies. While the prime minister laments the paucity of long-term strategic thinking in India, his government has done nothing substantive to stimulate such thinking.

The National Security Council still does not work as it ideally should. The headquarters of the three services needs to be effectively integrated with the ministry of defence and the post of the chief of defence staff is the need of the hour for single-point military advice to the government. The fact that successive Indian governments have failed to produce a National Security Strategy is both a consequence of the institutional decay in the country as well as a cause of the inability of the armed forces to plan their force structures and acquisitions adequately to meet their future challenges.

Yet, the Indian politico-bureaucratic establishment is not the only guilty party here as the Indian armed forces also have a lot to answer for. Their top leadership has shied away from making tough choices about reducing manpower strength; about adjusting the inter-service budgetary balance; and about restructuring the nation's professional military education system. No military anywhere in the world gets all the resources from its government that it deems adequate but an effective military organisation should be able to optimise the use of whatever is at its disposal.

Resources alone, however, will not make Indian armed forces the envy of its adversaries. It is the policy direction that is set by the military leadership and the quality of training imparted to its manpower that will make the difference. The debate on the wide-ranging changes that India's defence set-up needs should have been initiated long back by the armed forces themselves.

The questions that need to be debated and answered include: Do we have a 21st century military in terms of doctrine and force structure? Have the doctrines and force structures evolved in line with the equipments that the nation's resources are being spent on? Do India's command and control processes reflect the changing strategic and operational requirements? Does the Indian military have the capacity to initiate military actions on very short notice and actually conduct military operations that result in something other than a stalemate, something that India might have wanted to do during Operation Parakram in 2001-02 but could not? Have the Indian armed forces got the balance between capital and labour right?

Though high rates of economic growth have given and will, in the future, provide greater resources for defence, the changing socio-economic milieu will also make it increasingly difficult to attract young men and women to the services. As a result the armed forces will have to find a way to strike a balance between growing manpower shortage and the easing of budgetary constraints. The services have no option but to modernise their human resources policy -- recruitment, retention, promotions, exit et al which will make a huge difference to the satisfaction levels of the rank and file.

The armed forces need to do some serious introspection if these issues are to be sorted out before it's too late. It is disappointing to see the service headquarters continuing to resist greater integration and inter-services rivalry continuing to be as vicious as in the past. When the army came up with the doctrine of Cold Start, it found no support for it in the other services. The other services may have had genuine concerns about the doctrine but they have made no attempt to reconcile their differences, underlining Indian operational weaknesses.

The government, meanwhile, can always point to the malaise within the armed forces as an excuse for not undertaking any meaningful defence reforms of its own. India, for example, finds itself in a peculiar position of having a Strategic Forces Command but no CDS, partly because of the differences among the three services.

The debate has got stuck on the issue of the CDS whereas the nation needs to be thinking seriously about integrated theatre commands, allowing the three services to share their resources and enabling a reduction of manpower at various levels. Today's military challenges can not be tackled without a real integration up to the command level.

India desperately needs a defence policy that can do justice to its rising aspirations and its armed forces need to rise to this challenge. It is time for the Indian defence forces to start producing men and women of intellectual leadership and administrative acumen that this time in India's history demands.

The armed forces face a choice: They can keep blaming the political-bureaucratic establishment and do nothing or they can initiate a process of internal reforms forthwith. India's future, in many ways, will depend on the choice that they make.

Dr Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College London [Images]

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