Gen Anil Chauhan with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh

by Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (Retd)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call for Atmanirbhar Bharat in May 2020 made self-reliance a policy goal for the Ministry of Defence. Despite decades of effort, India’s defence industrial ecosystem has failed to achieve substantive progress and indigenous research, development and production capabilities remain a challenge.

Time will reveal whether the slogan has been matched by accomplishment. However, even if Atmanirbhartha is accomplished to any acceptable degree, India’s military effectiveness will require the fulfilment of two other crucial reform initiatives – defence university and theatre commands. Both reforms have the potential to provide massive doses of energy to advance India’s military effectiveness through the improvement of leadership and achieving jointness among the three Services through organisational restructuring.

These initiatives lie primarily within the defence ministry ambit and yet they do not seem to attract the urgency they demand. Perhaps in many ways, they are being side lined in terms of focus on Atmanirbharta, which, in comparative terms, would remain a perpetual and long-term quest.

Both the reforms eventually relate to what really matters in terms of achieving military effectiveness: Prudence in development, and the application and conversion of military capabilities toward the realisation of India’s political goals.

Indian Defence University: A Stillborn Reform

In 1967, the Chiefs of Staff Committee first mooted the need to establish a defence university in India. Post the Kargil conflict in 1999, the report of the Group of Ministers (GOM) on National Security recommended its establishment. The recommendation was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security in 2002. Several Committees and studies followed, but IDU appears stillborn.

In 2013, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid the foundation stone for the Indian National Defence University (INDU) at Binola, in Gurugram. In 2016, a draft INDU Bill was put online for public consultation and revised in 2017. Thereafter, the bill moved between PMO (Cabinet Secretariat), MoD and the armed forces. One of the main sticking points has been disagreement on eligibility criteria for the university’s president and vice president. It is learnt that the bureaucracy wanted to keep the door open for all bureaucrats for both positions. This proposition was unacceptable to the armed forces, who preferred a serving three-star General as president and an Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer as vice president. There could be some verve in the argument that, considering the larger trend of institutions being infiltrated with majoritarian ideologies, the freeze in establishing IDU would delay its seepage into military institutions: A subject written about last week.

Conceptually, in IDU’s absence, the intellectual feeder and platform for evolving a common doctrinal glue to foster jointness among the three Services and civil-military elements remains suboptimal in realisation. A fact that may have impacted the creation of the theatre commands – the second imperative reform of recent origin.

Stalling Theatre Commands

While the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was initially recommended by the Report of the GOM, post-Kargil, there was no reform initiated for the creation of the Integrated Theatre Command, till it was politically mandated along with the creation of the post of CDS and the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) in the MoD. The existence of 17 Commands among the three Services reflected the structural distortion that demanded the reform since it was not conducive to jointness, integrated planning, operational functioning, and optimal use of scarce national resources.

Once mandated, the ball was in the court of the three Services. It has remained there for three years, primarily because of irreconcilable views between the Services. It has also been impacted by the tragic death of the first CDS, General Bipin Rawat, followed by the CDS chair remaining vacant for nearly ten months.

Some indication of the theatre commands’ progress was given by the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral R. Hari Kumar during a media interaction on 3 December. He confirmed that studies ordered by the first CDS had been completed and that the three Services were working on the basic principles of Theaterisation and on the way forward.

There is no doubt that the creation of theatre commands is a complex process—it also has to be undertaken in an ambience of growing geopolitical threats. But if even the first step—the ideation process—has not been finalised in three years, it means that disagreements between the three Services are unlikely to be resolved after the recent appointment of the new CDS, Lt General Anil Chauhan (retired). Only a firm intervention can push the reform forward, and that push has to come from the political class.

As a policy, Atmanirbhartha faces many challenges, especially in terms of means and strategy. But no such constraints exist for creating the IDU and theatre commands. Yet, both seem stalled.

Politicians Must Step Up

The Opposition has not posed any meaningful questions in Parliament on these issues. Perhaps this reflects their disinterest in the subject. But since the reforms are the children of the government in power, PMO should nudge MoD and hold the defence minister accountable.

Political guidance and push must be rooted in a knowledge base effectively provided by a politician with a military background, or by the defence minister sourcing advice from outside the serving fraternity. This should facilitate tackling the problem of entrenched views taken by individual Services, which tend to privilege guarding of their service-specific interests. They could have become part of the problem, making it difficult for them to be part of the solution.

Since a defence minister with a military background may not be currently practical, the option of forming a small collective multi-disciplinary body—like a permanent military commission within MoD—could be the way forward. The commission can then be tasked to examine and propose solutions to issues like IDU and theatre commands. From now on, one should expect that several matters pertaining to theatre commands, some of them unforeseeable, could arise. A dedicated commission will be useful as it will relieve the people running the affairs of the day and allow them to concentrate on their primary responsibilities.

It should be apparent that defence reforms are not feasible without political oversight and push. Resistance to change is natural since it involves a shift in power bases. Politicians understand this point better than anyone else. India’s national security interests demand that the political leadership act expeditiously and not let matters linger. Time may not be on our side.