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Mr Antony, what's your agenda for India's defence?

By M P Anil Kumar
Last updated on: July 23, 2009 16:19 IST
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The steady drip of rain continued to bathe us that October afternoon as we lingered on to catch a glimpse of the candidate.

Our excitement brimmed over as we espied him emerging in a roofless jeep -- no outriders, no hooting escort vehicles, no security detail, no fanfare, just a solitary jeep -- standing in tandem with a lone party man, with a handkerchief tied like a bandana to protect his pate from the drizzle, heading towards the staff quarters where his potential voters resided.

He smiled and waved at us bunch of batchmates on the roadside. Thrilled, we waved back with typical ninth-standard-boyish exuberance. After all, it was not every day that a chief minister waved at you from close proximity!

The year 1977 turned out to be an annus mirabilis for Arackaparambil Kurian Antony. On April 17, all of 37, he earned the distinction of becoming the youngest chief minister of Kerala. The incumbent, K Karunakaran, who was the home minister during the Emergency, had to demit office following allegations of unconstitutional excesses.

A K Antony replaced him, but as he was not a member of the Legislative Assembly, he had to become one via a by-election. He chose to contest from Kazhakootam, and came canvassing that day to my alma mater (Sainik School, Kazhakootam) situated bang in the middle of the constituency.

The year 2009 is definitely not 1977. Forget a drenched one, now you cannot imagine a chief minister moving about without a cavalcade, girded by finger-on-trigger commandos, flanked by his retinue, surrounded by an army of hangers-on.

Discount the effaced hairline, and Antony of 2009 has much likeness to Antony of 1977. Even his loudest critics will concede that he has possessed himself in Gandhian simplicity and scruples. Similarly, even his ardent admirers will admit that he still lacks the dynamism that was found wanting in that high noon of 1977.

The second coming; Antony reloaded

Besides defence, the armed forces are also a tool of the government to accomplish national political objectives, stated and unstated. Yet India seems to be the sole major power not to have a national military doctrine, which does not speak well of our politico-bureaucratic establishment.

So, blessed with or not, as defence minister redux, Antony will need oodles of dynamism to infuse a strategic vision to his ministry and the armed forces, inculcate a strategic culture and impart a strategic direction to helm them away from the cul-de-sac they are confined in now.

Our revitalised prime minister started the ball rolling by directing his ministers to chart a 100-day programme to convey he meant business this time round. Despite the convulsions rocking our immediate neighbourhood, despite external aggression (terrorism) and internal insurrection endangering national security, the defence minister has conspicuously absented himself from enlightening us citizens on what he intended to pursue in the first 100 days.

I mean if the defence minister or the national security adviser (NSA) has a 100-day dream, it remains a well-concealed secret. Vital issues of national security cannot be dealt so casually. Perhaps only another terror strike will jolt these high functionaries into some action.

Since we are halfway through that much-ballyhooed 100-day period, it would be an exercise in futility to enumerate a 100-day charter now. I shall therefore dwell on three very important steps that have the potential to convert our armed forces into a modern fighting force, with an operational and organisational kernel in sync with the requisites of a 21st-century military.

Modernise or perish; governmental flippancy is enfeebling our forces

During the Kargil War, a frustrated General V P Malik, the army chief, made a grim statement that his men would fight with whatever they have, an allusion to the ill-equipped, ill-protected, ill-shod, ill-armed Indian soldier.

With electoral politics overriding national security, with defence ministry eyed by politicians as a milch cow, with the ghosts of Bofors haunting South Block to nix fresh acquisitions, the armed forces routinely return huge chunks of budgetary allocation (Rs 7,000 crores returned just last year as unspent), which has more or less paralysed modernisation.

Barring few exceptions, the three services are forced to make do with antiquated hardware and systems, and DRDO duds in some cases.

Post-Kargil, a Defence Acquisition Council was created to hasten the R&D, production and procurement of military equipment, but the exertions of the DAC have so far produced only stillborn babies!

With the Chinese behemoth having revved up into a menacing juggernaut, with the US administration indulging Pakistan with billions to buy choicest weapons, our haemorrhaging armed forces are crying to be outfitted with lethal weaponry. Antony has to find ways to bridle red tape and to fast-track acquisitions and upgrades before it is too late.

Deliver the defence forces from bureaucratic meddling and meanness

The armed forces are not simply an aggregation of guns, tanks, aircraft, ships, submarines, missiles, etc; its personnel form its nucleus, and there is something called morale that fires their fighting fitness and backs it up. Commentators have written expansively about how the soldiers and veterans were hard-done-by the Sixth Pay Commission, how the impudent babus then rubbed chilli in their wounds, thus scarring their psyche almost irreversibly.

For instance, though the Pay Commission made no such recommendation, the babus maliciously segregated veterans into pre-2006, post-2006 and other divisions, to perpetrate some kind of apartheid besides robbing the so-called pre-Jan 2006 veterans of their dues. Now another bureaucratic exercise is afoot to fob the veterans off with a diluted version of 'one rank one pension', a legitimate demand that earned the imprimatur of the Supreme Court 27 years ago, and hitherto opposed by none expressly!

The prime minister intervened by announcing a separate Pay Commission for the defence forces, but with a rider -- the next time onwards! There is however no guarantee that the government a decade later will stand by Dr Manmohan Singh's verbal assurance. Hence Antony has to do two things to demonstrate the UPA government's professed solidarity with the armed forces: one, push through the necessary statutory provision to confer de jure backing to the prime minister's word, and two, disband the present anomalies committee populated by the babus and constitute a lite Pay Commission with members also from the defence community, to swiftly disentangle and resolve all the anomalies contrived by the clique of secretaries.

The military wants 'civilian control' exercised by the political leadership directly, but in the name of 'civilian control,' the foxy babus, through coup mongering, have erected a bureaucratic wall between the political executive and the service chiefs, which has ossified over the years, thus converting 'civilian control' into 'civil service's control' in effect!

A generalist defence secretary, lower in warrant of precedence vis-a-vis the service chiefs, actually enjoying the last word in military matters is absurd. The babus have thus disallowed the involvement of the armed forces in national security issues. How long will the babu ride roughshod over the soldier?

I am not arguing for dumping the bureaucratic interface, but minimising the number of civilian busybodies will certainly enhance the efficiency and sinews of the armed forces. Antony can accomplish this, with minimal bloodletting, with the third step -- restructuring the higher defence management. And the blueprint is readily available in a strongroom of his ministry; he needs to dust it off and implement it.

Jointmanship and Chief of Defence Staff, the catalysts of military perestroika

In the light of the lessons it learned from the 1991 Gulf War, the United States military expounded a concept called Effects-Based Operations (EBO) to tackle threats in irregular fourth generation warfare.

In a recent article, Admiral Arun Prakash, the former navy chief, explained EBO with the following example. 'Should we want to undertake a limited precision strike on a terrorist training camp in our neighbourhood, the "effect" desired would be the delivery of "x" tons of high explosive with a specified accuracy on target.'

'Under the EBO concept, this mission could be accomplished with equal dexterity by air force strike aircraft, army missile or artillery units, naval carrier-borne fighters, and even cruise-missile armed submarines. The actual choice of weapon system would be dictated by a variety of factors including effectiveness, economy of effort, surprise, etc.'

The beauty of EBO lies in its flexibility. But are the Indian armed forces EBO-ready? No. Because the concept of EBO hinges on tri-services jointmanship.

Rear Admiral Raja Menon posed the following query in an article:

'China has a strategy of tying India down south of the Himalayas, using Pakistan as a proxy. Unless India acts with determination and urgency, we could end up with a nuclear arms race, the outlines of which are already discernible. The latest act of perfidy and duplicity is in arming Pakistan with a cruise missile Babur with a strategic capability (range of 1,000 km), unlike the BrahMos. The Babur harkens back to the Chinese Hongniao, which goes back to the Ukrainian Kh-65, which goes back to the American Tomahawk. The Babur will inevitably form the backbone of a first-strike capability, with the Chinese factory made Shaheen II as the long-range first strike. The Shaheen I will probably be relegated to a second strike role. China's nuclear strategy is therefore Pakistan's nuclear strategy and we are the victims. The Indian answer to this carefully crafted collusive strategy is yet to be worked out. The question is, who will do it?'

Indeed, who will do it? Nobody. Unless we create the post of Chief of Defence Staff or CDS.

Jointmanship or jointness can be described as inter-services cooperation across the entire spectrum of military functions -- be it training, research, planning, procurement, operations -- in pursuit of a common objective. In fact, the most lucid definition of jointness came from General Colin Powell: 'Train as a team, fight as a team and win as a team.'

Jointmanship equips and readies the forces for joint operations. Jointmanship facilitates collective assessment and cohesive action, thus maximising power. Jointmanship enables rapider deployment of forces.

This begs the question: If jointmanship is so cool, why haven't we embraced it so far? Because our governments have been reluctant to create the post of CDS, the agent that can catalyse jointmanship.

By the way, the seminal concept of jointmanship is not alien to India. Military historians trace jointmanship back to the fourth century BC! The Mauryan Empire had a unified headquarters for its army and navy, with the infantry, cavalry, commissariat, elephants, chariots and admiralty functioning under one commander-in-chief. Needless to add, orchestrating these diverse arms into a composite force was no mean feat.

Immediately after independence, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the governor general, tasked General Hastings Lionel Ismay, his Chief of Staff, with the creation of the higher defence management framework. He advocated the establishment of a Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) comprising the three service chiefs, chaired on a rotational basis by the chief left with the longest service.

Though other countries have moved on, India is still saddled with this six-decades-old anachronistic command structure, where the chairman of COSC remains primus inter pares (first among equals), a toothless one at that.

Despite supreme commanders like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, General Dwight Eisenhower, General Douglas McArthur and Admiral Mountbatten crafting the Allied victory, the Second World War exposed major flaws in the core, and the need for a more compact, robust, harmonised structure dawned on the victors.

Instead of basking in triumphalism, they consolidated the process of integration. The landmark was finally pegged out on October 1, 1986, when US President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganisation Act.

Considered an exemplar of jointness, the Goldwater-Nichols Act expanded the scope and powers of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and recast and streamlined the chain of command, which now runs from the president through the secretary of defence directly to the theatre commanders, bypassing the service chiefs who were assigned an advisory role.

On last count, in different guises, over 60 countries had embraced the jointmanship paradigm and the integrated military command system roughly based on the Goldwater-Nichols model.

Our first tryst with jointmanship could be traced to 1987 when the COSC formally anointed Lieutenant General Depinder Singh, GOC-in-C of Southern Command, as the Overall Force Commander of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, but the arrangement fell apart as his naval and air force co-equals refused to play ball.

Even during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and Kargil conflict of 1999, jointmanship was given the short shrift and the three services followed their own scripts.

Concussed by the utter failure of the various agencies to detect the Pakistani infiltration into the Kargil sectors, the government appointed a four-member committee chaired by K Subrahmanyam to prescribe remedial measures to reinforce national security. To implement the Kargil Review Committee recommendations, the government constituted a Group of Ministers, which in turn formed four Task Forces to recommend the restructuring of the national security apparatus.

Arun Singh, the former minister of state for defence, headed the task force that delved into defence management. The government approved all his recommendations except the most revolutionary, far-reaching one -- the appointment of a CDS as the principal military adviser to the political executive.

Left holding a hot potato, the Indian genius to conjure up a halfway house when confronted with hard choices came to the government's rescue!

The Services Headquarters, which were designated post-Independence as Attached Offices of the Department of Defence, were bestowed with a new nomenclature -- Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence; two new commands, viz. Strategic Forces Command and Andaman & Nicobar Command were sanctioned; the post for a three-star officer was created with the vertiginous appellation 'Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chiefs of Staff Committee' to be the figurehead of the newly blessed Integrated Defence Staff (IDS).

The IDS, originally conceived as the headquarters of the CDS, was left headless, thus artfully, effectively mothballing the CDS!

Why do successive governments dodge the installation of CDS? First, the two usual suspects: The politicians fear the CDS will grow too big for his boots; the bureaucrats fear a dilution in their power and naturally, they do not want to let go off their stranglehold over the military.

Part II: How the government can reform the defence set-up

M P Anil Kumar is a former fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force.

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