In yet another oddly-timed move, the government has set up a defence planning committee last month to reboot defence planning in India. The step has been taken four years too late. With the general elections due next year, the focus should have been on wrapping up a few deals for the procurement of equipment badly needed by the armed forces, assuming that finances are not an issue. That would have been far more productive than taking a step which calls into question the relevance of the existing long-term, five-year and annual plans of the armed forces, which form the basis of several procurement proposals that are in the pipeline.
This move also infuses uncertainty in the rollout of several steps taken to promote Make in India in defence. Revamping of the “make” procedure for indigenous design and development of equipment and the introduction of the strategic partnership scheme for production of aircraft, helicopters, submarines and armoured fighting vehicles were expected to rejuvenate the defence industry. Now there is no saying whether all this, as also many other policy decisions, will fit into the new strategies and plans prepared by the committee. What if, for example, the idea of developing defence industrial corridors does not fit as a high priority objective in the committee’s prescription for building a robust defence manufacturing ecosystem?
It may not have mattered much but for the fact that, given its composition and an amazingly wide charter, the committee is unlikely to come up with a comprehensive plan of action soon. The committee consists of extremely busy persons like the national security advisor, service chiefs and secretaries of three of the most important ministries of the government. It will require extraordinary effort on their part to meet often enough to do justice to the committee’s charter that entails not just carrying out strategic reviews and coming up with plans on issues ranging from defence diplomacy to exports but also a lot of micro-management.
Identifying “ways” and “means” across the ministries, prioritising capability development plans and obtaining approval from the cabinet committee on security (CCS) for those plans, providing guidance to the ministry of defence (MoD) for budgetary support, reconciling the differences between the armed forces and the defence public sector undertakings, and standing in for the still-born national counter-terrorism centre are disparate and mundane tasks which will require continuous hands-on involvement. This is not going to be easy for the high-level defence planning committee.
To be sure, the committee will be assisted by four sub-committees on policy and strategy, plans and capability development, defence diplomacy and defence manufacturing ecosystem. But they too will require continuous guidance from the main planning committee. In any case, their usefulness will depend on their composition and terms of reference, both of which are yet to be decided. Even after this is done, it might take a long time for the sub-committees to find their bearings because of the inevitable teething problems related to logistics, procedure and coordination.
A challenge for these sub-committees is to ensure that deliberations are free from presumptions and prejudice. This has been the bane of defence planning. Assuming, for example, that the defence budget will be pegged at three per cent of GDP, or that the government will be able to allocate whatever funds are asked for by the MoD in a given year, as has been the case in the past, would be unrealistic. There is no point in pursuing this line of thinking or to rehash jejune ideas like the creation of a non-lapsable pool of funds for modernisation. It’s important that the committee makes ready-to-implement recommendations.
It seems that that the committee will be required to submit its reports to the defence minister, which implies that these would be subjected to examination by the ministry officials who may not find all the recommendations workable. This has happened in the past with many committees recommending measures like appointing a chief of defence staff or integrating the services headquarters with the MoD but the latter finding these suggestions impractical for various reasons, all of which cannot be summarily attributed to machinations of the civilian bureaucracy.
Media reports also suggest that the committee would obtain the approval of the CCS for the capability development plan it has been tasked to prepare. There is a certain romance attached to the plans being approved by the government but little clarity on what it signifies. Three of the several five-year plans of the armed forces were approved by the cabinet committee on political affairs/security in the past but no one knows what useful purpose was served by that or what impact the approval had on the management of defence during those plan periods. Many defence analysts hold the view that the approval of the plan should imply that no further approvals will be required for executing it and whatever money is required for the purpose will be made available. It remains to be seen how this issue pans out.
All these apprehensions notwithstanding, any effort, even if belated, to set right the problems besetting defence planning should be welcomed. It will be good if the defence planning committee picks up momentum and brings about a seminal change. However, one cannot help observing that the chances of this happening would have been far brighter had a high-level defence planning board been set up within the MoD itself. The board could be tasked to prepare and oversee execution of a financially viable overarching plan covering not just the armed forces but also organisations like the research and development, coast guard and border roads, which are equally critical for defence capabilities but run the risk of being elbowed out in the defence planning committee’s scheme of things.