The terrorist attacks on Pathankot Air Force Base revealed weaknesses in our intelligence, police and security procedures. While all of them need to be addressed, however there are larger issues—which can have far more disastrous consequences for India’s national security, which need attention. This is the issue of defence reforms—initiated in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil war (which followed from a previous Lahore yatra by a BJP Prime Minister to meet Nawaz Sharif), virtually ignored by the two UPA governments and brought to life by the current government. Indeed, in an important speech, while addressing the Combined Commanders Conference last month Prime Minister Modi challenged his defence minister and senior military commanders to reform their “beliefs, doctrines, objectives and strategies.” This is nothing less than appealing for a paradigm shift, on a number of different fronts, echoing the sentiments of generations of military reformers. The Defence Minister, who has publicly supported defence reform, has his task cut out for him. Unfortunately he should not count on support from civilian bureaucrats in his Ministry. In turn, it is far from assured whether the current generation of senior military officers are up to this task. In short, while the prime minister’s vision is bold, its implementation faces formidable obstacles. The attacks in Pathankot should remind him—and his security managers, that India lives in a dangerous neighbourhood and it should therefore focus on strengthening our military.
It is an open secret that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was keen to undertake some form of defence reforms. His office was the driving force behind the Naresh Chandra Committee, established in 2011, ostensibly to revisit the defence reforms process. This committee recommended the creation of a Permanent Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee—a less than perfect nomenclature for the Chief of Defence Staff. For the first time ever all three service chiefs supported creating such a post. However, Defence Minister A.K. Anthony, for reasons not entirely clear, was not that enthusiastic. Civilian bureaucrats in his ministry also shared his scepticism. Later, numerous controversies surrounding General V.K. Singh put paid to any talk of defence reforms.
Prime Minister Modi identified six broad areas for reforms—in defence planning, enhancing jointness (the ability of the army, navy and air force to operate together), urging manpower rationalization (smaller tooth to tail ratio), emphasizing professional military education, restructuring higher defence management and in the defence procurement process. His analysis of problems in each of these sectors challenged the assumptions, and world-view, of India’s senior military commanders. For instance, India is probably the only country in the world which is expanding its military manpower which, by definition, curtails resources for military modernization (China recently announced cuts of up to 300,000 troops). The Indian military is among the least ‘joint’ major militaries in the world and its system of professional military education emphasizes training over education. However, like with so many of the prime minister’s project, the most important issue is that of implementation. If this initiative is left to the bureaucracies—civilian or military, then reforms are unlikely to succeed.
Conventional wisdom would have the government announcing reform measures and leaving it to the military and the defence ministry to implement them. Doing so will likely subvert the reforms, as has happened in the past. In 1986, Arun Singh was instrumental in creating a tri-services and joint civil-military institution called the Defence Planning Staff (DPS) in an attempt to rationalise defence planning. It quickly lost its relevance as the services opposed this initiative. More recently, the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee was tasked to find way to lower the age of combatant commanders. However, the implementation of the committee report was left to the services. In the army this created a major controversy—which is currently being battled in the courts. The Andaman and Nicobar Joint Command, which was founded to be an experiment in jointness has, in practice, been “subverted” by a non-cooperative attitude from the services. Finally, there is a variance between the report submitted by the late K. Subrahmanyam (under the aegis of the Committee on National Defence University) on India’s Defence University and how it is currently being implemented by the military. In sum, reforms will not succeed if its implementation is not closely monitored.
There are three significant obstacles to defence reforms. First, it is not clear if, and how, will the Chiefs of the three services give up powers for the proposed Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). If the restructuring of higher defence management results in an institutionally weak CDS then it defeats the purpose. Second, it is not clear how the government will create more joint commands, especially since this is opposed by the military. Their opposition, shorn of its elegance, is primarily because it curtails the number of posts available for their upward mobility. It is not surprising therefore that they will advocate for more joint commands—Cyber, Space, Special Forces for instance, but will be unwilling to integrate existing commands. Effectiveness and efficiency is therefore sacrificed to the logic of bureaucratic expansion and increased promotion pathways. Third, there is opposition, usually in private, from civilian bureaucrats who do not want to change the status quo. They prefer the existing arrangement which gives them considerable powers with little accountability.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar—responsible for implementing the prime minister’s vision, has claimed that he has read the Goldwater Nichols Act, which transformed the U.S. military. However, this initiative did not occur overnight and was preceded by a public debate and, perhaps more importantly, required a civil-military partnership consisting of reform minded individuals. As he faces obstacles from his own officials perhaps Mr. Parrikar should consider forming a Defence Reforms Unit comprising politicians, former officials and technocrats all sharing the vision for defence reforms. This could thereby monitor the progress of different reform measures.
The media is fond of comparing the leadership styles of President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi. It is surely a coincidence that both have publicly come out with statements calling for reforming their militaries. We therefore have the unique opportunity to compare two different institutional and leadership styles. It would be India’s loss if, after a year, defence reforms remains an aspiration.