1 January 2017

What Indian defence needs right now

Guru Aiyar

Overdue reform of Chief of Defence Staff and joint commands is the need of the hour rather than the loud debate over 'out-of-turn' military promotions.

The appointment of Lieutenant-General Bipin Rawat as the next Chief of Army Staff (COAS) by the Modi government has stirred a hornet’s nest. The list of criticisms ranges from doing away with the seniority principle to creating wide chasms within the various arms of the Indian army like the infantry, armoured corps, artillery, etc. What is not being debated in the mainstream media is the most pertinent question that should be asked of the government — what is stopping the Indian government from implementing the long-overdue reform of enacting a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to serve as the Principal Military Advisor to the government?

This idea goes back to the Kargil review committee headed by the highly respected doyen of strategic affairs in India, the late Mr K. Subrahmanyam. In 2001, the panel's report noted rather caustically that “an objective assessment of the last 52 years will show that the country is lucky to have scraped through various national security threats without too much damage, except in 1962. The country can no longer afford such an ad-hoc functioning”. Needless to add, another 15 years have gone by without making much progress in what would have been independent India’s greatest military reform.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar while reviewing a graduation parade of the Indian Air Force in June, said clearly — “I won’t give a timeline, but during the current financial year, I hope I am able to clinch the issue.” The Indian armed forces have seventeen separate commands as of now — seven each of the army and air force and three belonging to the Navy. It is high time that they are reduced to a manageable number of joint commands.

For example, Nitin Pai suggests that the commands could be reorganised into five operational theatre commands —Northern, Western, Southern, Eastern and Expeditionary, each under a four-star officer (General equivalent). The Andaman and Nicobar Command, which is the only joint command at present could become the Expeditionary Command. To put the matter in perspective, no bureaucracy gives way to a reform without a vociferous protest — armed forces are no different. On the contrary, military bureaucracies can be the ones most resistant to change. Service chief is a rather powerful post that brings with it an aura and glamour not necessarily associated with joint command.

The individual service chiefs of army, navy and air force would certainly be loath to see their powers get emasculated and serve under a Chief of Defence staff who would be the single point military advisor to the government. This is nothing new. Even the Pentagon generals and admirals had to be coerced by an act of U.S. Congress–Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 to implement joint commands and the CDS. A revolutionary step, however unpopular, had to be forced down by a political decision.

In major government policy implementation processes, we come across the Overton Window, named after Joseph P. Overton who was a vice-president of an American think tank. He claimed that an idea’s political viability depends mainly upon whether it falls within the window, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences. An idea for reform could be unthinkable, radical, acceptable, sensible and popular before it finally becomes a policy. In the case of Kargil review committee’s recommendation, an idea that was unthinkable before 1999 became a radical departure from the status quo in the wake of Kargil War. The time for acceptability of that idea has certainly arrived. The reform is long overdue and by implementing the CDS and joint command system in a time bound manner, the government can demonstrate its sincere intention.

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