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What India's defence ministry urgently needs to do!

October 10, 2012 22:34 IST

'The central concern in the Services HQ over the last 40 years or so has been a frustrating lack of appropriate and timely government response to many crucial military issues, often till these turn into a full blown crisis.'

Air Marshal Satish Inamdar (retd) discusses the many challenges and issues confronting India's defence establishment in the light of the recent Naresh Chandra report.

The Naresh Chandra Committee report on the armed forces, defence ministry and the Higher Direction of War is believed to have recommended the creation of a fourth four-star General/Flag/Air as the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

Notwithstanding the change in designation of the three Services Chiefs (from Commander-in-Chief to Chiefs of Staff), in 1954, they continue to be 'commanders' of their respective services.

In contrast, in most Western democracies, the Chiefs of Staff are genuinely 'staff officers.' The heads of operations, personnel, logistics etc report directly to the defence minister. Only the Theatre Commanders are 'commanders' and they also report to the minister.

Our Chiefs of Staff, in comparison, have far more powers than their counterparts in many if not most, progressive Western democracies.

Is that going to change in the proposed new structure?

Whichever new apex armed forces structure is put in place, it would have to necessarily pre-suppose a considerable change of mindset and attitude towards matters military in India in general, and in the political establishment (its public pronouncements notwithstanding!) in particular, if it is to deliver with the necessary speed, substance and success.

Removing the unstated but lurking politico-bureaucratic trust deficit towards the military -- no matter how inexplicable and baseless -- must become part of such a change.

This is possible only with a far greater appreciation and formal understanding of the armed forces in real terms among our civilian government functionaries than what perhaps obtains today.

For the higher direction of war in India to be effective, inspiring and substantive, the near-complete dependence of the political establishment on the civilian bureaucracy for many if not most inputs on the armed forces, has to either go, or the bureaucracy must evolve or get structured differently, or, preferably, both.

The central concern in the Services HQ over the last 40 years or so has been a frustrating lack of appropriate and timely government response to many crucial military issues (often till these turn into a full blown crisis).

This delayed response can be due to innate inability, indifference, ignorance or overwhelming preoccupation with party, legislative and electoral politics of the many political bosses.

This gets compounded by a not uncommon lack of genuine empathy and informed insight into military affairs among sections of the bureaucracy. Oversight sans accountability on the part of some of these officials, either institutional or individual, only makes a bad situation worse.

Inadequate or de facto lack of delegation of powers (financial and administrative) to the Service Chiefs and lower down often hampers many issues affecting not only capital acquisitions, but also the day-to-day running of the three wings of the armed forces of the Union.

This is perhaps the result of the Army, Navy and Air Force being (often not very subtly) treated like mere underling departments of the defence ministry instead of being treated as equal stake holders in National Security and an integral part of the composite whole.

Look at the Ministry of External Affairs. Indian Foreign Service bureaucrats spend a continuous lifetime on the same job, studying and mastering foreign affairs and policy. Those in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), in sharp counterpoint, are invariably, if not always, an itinerant population and as a result get to deal with complex military, defence, security, and strategy matters only during their short, widely spaced tenures in the MoD.

Is that desirable in this day and age?

While this is certainly not an aspersion on the competence and dedication of individual bureaucrats, the point is, will the present situation ever deliver militarily, especially in a two-front conflict? Can or must that be changed partially or wholly?

Even granting the basic difference -- that while IFS bureaucrats are also the MEA's operating arm in the field, the field operations arm of the MoD is not its IAS officers, but the three uniformed Services -- the near total and consistent absence of MoD bureaucrats (past and present) at the various defence, security, military and strategy related conclaves in Delhi comes as a surprise, if not dismay!

One always sees a large number of former IFS officers not just attending such events regularly, but also contributing in a major and meaningful way. This must mean something and should not be dismissed with an imperial wave of the hand.

It may be that the role of MoD bureaucrats with regard to the armed forces and defence, as conceived and formulated by government is one of pure 'supervision, oversight and control' and does not, therefore, require them to either develop an informed insight into the military or to be given continuity of service in that ministry.

If that is so, does that role need redefinition in the interest of expediency and dispatch now, when the nature, content and format of warfare itself is in the melting pot?

In the MEA, not only is the IFS a dedicated, single purpose cadre, even its clerical staff is mostly permanent, unlike in the MoD. There were, no doubt, good reasons for this dispensation in the MoD in the beginning, but is it not now time to at least take a second, concerned look?

One possible way to redress this situation is to review the 'Generalist' nature of the IAS which may have been progressively overstretched, overestimated or overplayed as far as Defence at least is concerned.

The other way is to fill many if not most officer posts in the MoD at all levels with a mix of IAS, IFS and military officers with suitable backgrounds and experience and in the numbers needed in order to speedily, empathetically and efficiently meet the overall needs of the armed forces in the 21st century.

A similar staffing-pattern mix at Services HQ can also be examined concurrently if it promises to improve matters. It probably will.

One of the things this will certainly lead to is the actual integration of the MoD and the Army-Navy-Air Force HQ, which has been tom-tommed for many years, but nothing has happened about it. All that has changed is the mere nomenclature of two wings of the armed forces. Nothing more, either in spirit or in substance: lip service at its best....or worst!

At the risk of iteration, unless there is a change in the present levels of knowledge and appreciation of defence matters and a clear shift in attitude and mindset towards the armed forces in the politician-bureaucrat combine, any exercise in beefing up or streamlining the apex military structure runs the risk of remaining less than complete or a reform on paper alone.

Hopefully, the Naresh Chandra Committee Report will not only start the process of change, but also prepare the ground for further changes over the years.

It must, unlike the earlier Subrahmanyam Committee and GOM reports, posit the possible and the immediately implementable, as against the ideal, the perfect and the best, which in most cases cannot be taken forward.

Given the pre-eminence and outstanding track record of the chairman and the members of this committee and the collective hopes of a very large segment in India, it is my belief that one can and should expect a fascinating report: Path-breaking in its approach, bold in its content and revolutionary in its recommendations.

Anything short of this would be a lamentable anticlimax and a monumentally lost opportunity!

What the government does with the report subsequently is anybody's guess. The MoD repositories can be deep, dark and cavernous!

Air Marshal Satish Inamdar (retd) PVSM, VSM, is a former Vice-Chief of the Air Staff.

Air Marshal Satish Inamdar (retd)