A large number of standalone military reforms have been conceptualised but for inexplicable reasons have not been executed

by Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (Retd)

Even the worst critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideology acknowledge that it was committed to national security and a strong military befitting an emerging power. It was expected that the BJP would give utmost priority to national security and transform the armed forces for conflicts of the 21st century. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had absolute clarity on this issue when he addressed the Combined Commanders Conference on 15 December 2015 — “Modernisation and expansion of forces at the same time is a difficult and unnecessary goal. We need forces that are agile, mobile and driven by technology, not just human valour. We need capabilities to win swift wars, for we will not have the luxury of long drawn battles.”

Eight years down the line, the transformation process Modi directed to be implemented, is in disarray. There has been much rhetoric from the political and military hierarchy and the media, based on “reliable sources”, dutifully gave out details of numerous standalone reforms in the offing. However, despite the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff on 31 December 2019, none of the major reforms except a policy with respect to Atmanirbharta or self-reliance in defence equipment, which is yet to bear fruit, have fructified.

The political leadership has neither “owned” the transformation by giving clear strategic directions and laying down the process with timelines, nor shown the drive to supervise the execution. Consequently, a “bottom up approach” from a statusquoist military known for inter-Service squabbles was adopted. Non-appointment of a CDS — who could have at least continued to coordinate this flawed approach — for five months, only proves the point.

Own The Transformation And Correct The Process

Historically, transformation of the military is politically driven. The government must carry out a long-term strategic review to evolve ‘National Security Perspective 2050’. From this must emerge a progressive National Security Strategy reviewed periodically and matched with the forecast of the GDP. This is the responsibility of the government and not the military and has been pending with the National Security Advisor since 2018.

The above process will decide the size and capabilities of the armed forces. Currently, we are engaged in incrementally reforming the armed forces tailored for wars/conflicts of a bygone era. What we need is their transformation, “top to bottom” in concept and “bottom to top” in execution. It must be steered by an empowered committee under the defence minister. The committee should include the NSA and have a balanced representation of the military and bureaucracy — CDS, Service Chiefs, secretaries of defence, home and finance ministries — and domain experts.

The empowered committee must prepare a vision document for transformation with timelines and firm financial commitment and get it approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security. All contentious issues must be addressed in the vision document. Thereafter, a formal directive must be issued to the CDS to prepare detailed proposals for transformation. Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence or a Special Committee must also be set up to oversee the transformation process and eventually steer the passage of a National Security/Defence Act.

Unless the above formal and politically owned and driven process is followed, transformation of the armed forces cannot take place.

An Empowered CDS Is Essential For Transformation

Having used its prerogative for merit–driven selection for higher ranks, the five months delay on part of the government in appointing the CDS is inexplicable. Five months were enough to set up a board under the defence minister to shortlist three names for the appointment through deep selection in a transparent manner for approval by the Appointments Committee of the cabinet.

One only hopes that due to the bitter experience of the public spat between the CDS and the Chief of Air Staff over fundamentals of air power, the government has not decided to indefinitely put the issue of tri-Services integration on the back burner. Tri-Service integration and creation of theatre commands is sine qua non of transformation. The CDS is the linchpin for transformation. He should be an intellectual visionary, who must also have the will for execution.

The conceptual anomalies with respect to the appointment must be removed. There is no such thing as ‘first among equals’ and ‘consensual decision’ in military command. The CDS must be formally made senior to the Service chiefs if not by rank, then by appointment as is the case with Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States. An overzealous or brash CDS can easily be kept in check by a more involved defence minister. During the transformation process, the empowered committee will resolve the “CDS versus Chiefs” differences.

The CDS must also exercise operational command over the theatre commands. The role of the Service Chiefs must be restricted to training and administering their own Service. So long as the Service chiefs continue to exercise command functions, true integration of the three forces cannot take place. The operations directorates of the three Services must merge with Integrated Defence Staff, which must act as the military wing of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). There is also a need for the DMA and the Department of Defence to amalgamate with the Defence Secretary functioning under the CDS and the Allocation of Rules of Business duly amended. How can the CDS be the single point military advisor to the government with the Defence Secretary being responsible for the “defence of India and every part thereof, including defence policy and preparation for defence”?

Make A Fresh Start

Let there be no doubt that, so far, no tangible major reforms have taken place towards transformation of the armed forces. Indeed, a large number of standalone reforms have been conceptualised but for inexplicable reasons have not been executed. The government failed to own the transformation by not formalising a National Security Strategy, issuing formal directions to the armed forces and supervising/coordinating the execution by setting up an empowered committee under the defence minister.

The armed forces too failed to rise to the occasion. They should have seized the opportunity opened by cryptic directions of the Prime Minister given during the Combined Commanders Conferences and systematically reformed from within. More so, when the draft for the Prime Minister’s speech is forwarded to the Prime Minister’s Office by the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

The government and the military must get back to the drawing board and make a fresh start.