Bottomline | Musings on 7th Anniversary

Bureaucratic vacancies in the MoD ought to be filled with military officers

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

FORCE’s seventh anniversary seems a relevant opportunity to review India’s national security apparatus. I propose India’s May 1998 nuclear tests as the starting point because once India declared itself a nuclear weapon power there was need for transformation of the national security apparatus for credibility. With nuclear weapons capability out of the closet and with both adversaries having this capability, bluff was no longer an option. It was imperative that nuclear capability be converted into nuclear weapons with credible infrastructure in a reasonable timeframe. The armed forces that will deliver these weapons had to become a part and parcel of this maturing capability; the option of having them on fringes of the national security apparatus was closed.Before Delhi could settle down for serious thinking, the 1999 Kargil conflict happened. The single lesson from it was that Pakistan had mastered the art of fighting a regular and irregular (terrorism) war simultaneously. And with the Chinese PLA’s intimidations on the Line of Actual Control during the 1999 Kargil conflict, it was evident that they could not be ignored. Given the situation, the writing on the wall was clear 11 years ago. Three actions became necessary. One, the Indian military had to build credible conventional capabilities for a two-front threat. Two, as the Indian Army does not work alongside terrorists, it required an overwhelming conventional capability against Pakistan to achieve military aims (however modest) soonest before terrorists disrupt its lines of communication. And most importantly, the political leadership did not have the choice of refusing to understand national security. An institutionalised regular and direct interaction between the political and military leadership became essential.

The Vajpayee government that conducted nuclear blasts initiated some meaningful work, but it remained half-hearted. The three defence services headquarters were designated as integrated headquarters of the defence ministry, but the integration never happened. They still remain on the sidelines of the defence ministry with the faceless bureaucracy calling the shots. Ideally, up to 50 per cent of bureaucratic vacancies in the defence ministry ought to be filled with military officers of appropriate rank. This will encourage transparency and trust within the defence ministry leading to timely actions especially regarding procurements. Bureaucrats with little accountability do not appreciate defence services’ operational gaps and instead remain fixated on procedural issues unduly worried about enquires against misappropriations. Moreover, over the years, in the name of civilian supremacy the defence services’ chiefs have been gagged into silence; they pretend to have adequate capabilities against adversaries. In reality, not to talk of China, the Pakistan Army more than matches the Indian Army at the operational level of war. The Indian Air Force lacks capability for a two-front threat, and the Indian Navy, with its fast depleting submarine fleet faces enormous challenges in the region.

Critics say that things are moving. But given the imminent threats and the fact that India has finances to spend, the procurements’ pace is tardy. Defence minister A.K. Antony is right when he seeks value for money spent. But his mantra of 70 per cent indigenisation will remain a pipedream if he will not allow two fundamental things: a level playing field to the India private defence sector, and more that 26 per cent FDI to foreign vendors as incentive for meaningful technology transfer.

The other half-hearted though important reform by the Vajpayee government was the creation of the Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS) office. What was required was a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for three important tasks: be the institutionalised military advisor to the Prime Minister, ensure timely procurements, and monitor nuclear weapons credibility. The CDS never materialised because the air force worries that the army as the bigger service will snatch this post permanently, and the bureaucracy put the fear of possible military takeover in the politician’s mind. The biggest setback has been in the maturing of nuclear weapons capability. At present, only the senior-most service chief who holds the Chairman, Chief of Staff Committee (COSC) office knows a little about nuclear aspects. This chief, who usually holds the office for under a year, does some quick rudimentary learning on nuclear matters. It is doubtful if he is privy to the range and yields of nuclear weapons and their readiness status which remains the preserve of the scientists and the National Security Advisor. It is unclear if the Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command, who should be responsible for nuclear weapons targeting list does his task based on real or notional statistics. Such state of affairs can neither inspire confidence in the user (defence services) nor be credible deterrence for adversaries. Wonder what is the basis of service chiefs’ claim made to the media that the adversary’s nuclear weapons capability has been taken care of?

Because the CDS did not materialise, the VCDS post was re-named Chief of Integrated Staff to Chairman (CISC); the latter became the COSC secretariat. Over time, despite no meaningful reforms by the Manmohan Singh government, two good things came out of this half-baked initiative. To remove duplicity in procurement of equipment common to all defence services, the defence integrated headquarters now streamlines procurement based upon realistic needs of the three services. And operational integration of the services for certain missions has been made possible through various tri-service pamphlets. But this is not enough. Much more needs to be done to make India secure from external threats!