India’s national security cries out for defence reforms (Comment, Special to IANS)

At a juncture when party ideologues are starting to write the first draft of election manifestoes, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speech to the Combined Commanders of the three services last month provided much food for thought. Certain significant points made by him deserve special attention; not just of the political parties or the intelligentsia but also the aam aadmi, because national security concerns us all.

Having mentioned several external developments with grave security implications for India, the prime minister made a rare departure from the customary expression of proforma sentiments to focus on some sensitive issues which rarely find public mention at such a high level. Zeroing-in on the most debilitating inadequacies of our national security edifice, the prime minister called for “urgent and tangible progress”, not only in establishment of “the right structures for higher defence management” but also for “the appropriate civil-military balance in decision making”.

In an era of dwindling budgets, his pertinent demand that the defence ministry and the Defence Research and Development Organisation should strive for “a higher index of indigenous capability” complemented his remark about the “need to match investment in military equipment to national resources”.

India’s strategic environment is, indeed, becoming more fraught with hazards. Threats to the nation’s security, both internal and external, are far more serious than in any time in the past. The reassurance that we derive from our large (and growing) military establishment and nuclear arsenal may be quite illusory because of our flawed national security structure – civil-military dissonance being a prime fault-line.

The “right structure” for India’s security establishment, sought by Manmohan Singh is obviously one in which the Service Headquarters (SHQ) are totally integrated with the defence ministry and allowed participation in national security decision-making. Such a measure is, however, part of a larger reform package whose implementation faces stiff resistance from two strong votaries of status quo: the bureaucracy and the political establishment.

The bureaucracy has vitiated civil-military relations by steadfastly stalling every attempt at integration of the SHQ with the defence ministry since it apprehends erosion of its own influence and authority. The bureaucrats have been so successful in perpetuating the myth that advice to the politician must come exclusively from them that many in the political establishment now actually believe that this is key to “civilian control” of the military.

Near-Luddites in their resistance to change, the bureaucrats have rejected proposals for cross-posting of officers between the defence ministry and SHQ because, they argue, the service officers deputed to the ministry would not only be sub-standard but also lack in ‘loyalty’ to civilian superiors. At the same time, they consider it infra dig for an IAS officer to serve under a military superior. The proposal for creating a specialist cadre of civil servants with national security expertise has been summarily dismissed on the grounds that it would impede the career prospects of rising IAS stars.

The politician, in his turn, does not consider national security a vote-catching issue and since political survival remains his first priority, he is happy to entrust the management of defence and security to the bureaucracy. While his comfort level with the bureaucrat is high, he is ill at ease with the soldier, and ever-ready to believe murmurs and conspiracy theories – emanating from the government establishment – that the latter harbours praetorian ambitions. Politicians have, therefore, conveniently used fanciful arguments thrown up by interested lobbies to postpone reforms that will enhance the jointness and combat efficiency of the armed forces and reduce duplication in defence expenditure.

Resistance to change is a known phenomenon worldwide and that is why defence reforms in all major democracies have invariably been pushed through by a visionary political leadership. The best example of such political activism is the US, where lawmakers, deeply concerned about national security issues, have ensured that systemic reforms are periodically legislated through radical laws such as the National Security Act 1947 and the Goldwater-Nichols Act 1986.

Far more important than this is the fact that US lawmakers have unambiguously outlined, in Title 10 of the US Code of Federal Laws, the functions of the armed forces and their combatant commanders. Title 10 provides the legal basis for the roles, missions and organization of each of the services as well as the department of defence. By way of contrast, no military functionary, including the three chiefs, finds mention in any context, in the Indian government’s Rules of Business. At the same time, the defence secretary has been designated as the functionary responsible for the defence of India and for the armed forces and their HQs.

Apropos the prime minister’s concerns about defence expenditure in a tight fiscal environment there is indeed a dire need for prioritizing the military hardware and manpower demands projected by the individual services so that scarce funds can be channelized in optimal directions. This prioritization has to be based on an objective evaluation of the need for a particular capability against the prevailing threat scenario and fund availability.

In the current set-up, the generalist defence ministry civil servant lacks both the inclination and the necessary experience/expertise to critically examine the validity of many demands made by the services. The preferred solution for the uninformed bureaucracy is to delay the case – anything from 5-15 years – and if the SHQ still persists with its demand, to accord approval at a hugely escalated cost.

The final irony is the prime minister’s wistful mention of “the different task force reports that our government has initiated”. The fact that recommendations of successive committees, groups of ministers and task forces have been consigned into oblivion speaks as much of the helplessness of a myopic and beleaguered polity as of an obdurate bureaucracy. The adverse effects of the consequent growing civil-military dissonance have not just undermined India’s national security but also spread beyond South Block to impact our three-million strong veteran soldiers.

It may be a case of too little, too late, but the head of government has, at last, committed on official record the serious national security voids that exist and the crying need for reform. This should form the priority action list for the government post-elections 2014. We have had enough of task forces; there is much that a new government can and must fix urgently – by executive fiat.

(Admiral Arun Prakash is a former Indian Navy chief. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at arunp2810@yahoo.com)

IANS