Indian armed forces T-90 tanks pass Rajpath, during the 72nd Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26, 2021. (PTI) PREMIUM
Indian armed forces T-90 tanks pass Rajpath, during the 72nd Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26, 2021. (PTI)

India’s armed services must prepare for reform

In the last few years, there has been a change and a slew of defence reforms have been brought in. More than at any other time in post-Independence India, there is a commitment to change the way the Indian defence forces are organised
By Harsh V Pant
UPDATED ON JUL 06, 2021 04:15 PM IST

Defence reforms are tricky. With entrenched interests and bureaucratic rivalries, most nations struggle to bring in fundamental changes to their national security apparatus. India is no exception. The recent debate on the move towards theatre commands underscores the challenge that India faces as it seeks to rationalise its military assets to emerge as a more efficient fighting machine.

For decades, reports have revealed the fundamental inefficiencies embedded in our military structures and processes. But when it came to taking decisions, status quo was the preferred mode of operation. And it was all blamed on a lack of political will.

In the last few years, there has been a change and a slew of defence reforms have been brought in. More than at any other time in post-Independence India, there is a commitment to change the way the Indian defence forces are organised. While addressing the Combined Commanders Conference as far back as December 2015, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi underlined, “At a time when major powers are reducing their forces and rely more on technology, we are still constantly seeking to expand the size of our forces. Modernisation and expansion of forces at the same time is a difficult and unnecessary goal. We need forces that are agile, mobile and driven by technology, not just human valour.”

Also Read | India’s civilian leadership must step up

The government kept its side of the bargain. It ushered in a range of reforms, including by appointing India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and creating the department of military affairs (DMA). It gave a major push for indigenisation with a list of 101 defence items for which there is to be an import embargo.

Encouraging greater private sector participation has resulted in a visible shift in India’s profile as a defence exporter. In a significant move first mooted decades ago to reform the functioning of the 41 ordnance factories across the country, the government also undertook corporatisation of the Ordnance Factory Board. Other reforms have ranged from energising defence research and development to the speedier enhancement of border infrastructure and opening up the gates of the Indian armed forces for women more substantively.

These reforms have been undertaken at the time when the three services are also being asked to streamline their own structures and processes. The silo-driven approach to defence planning has resulted in the lack of an integrated view. The three services, as well as the civilian and defence agencies, are often seen to be working at cross purposes. Such an ad hoc approach has meant that more often than not, issues such as threat perception and force structure are not managed via a centralised and authoritative overview. Instead, individual services tend to be driving the agenda at their own levels.

Since efficiency is at a premium in resource allocation, the CDS is expected to guide the government on personnel issues, training, budgetary priorities for each service and even logistical requirements for the services. A key step that the CDS has to undertake is encouraging the establishment of Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs), which are essentially joint combatant commands. The CDS should push for this in consultation with the service chiefs, including the tri-service personnel within the CDS and the ministry of defence (MoD). They must be geared to guiding, constructing and planning.

Commanders of ITCs can bring about efficiency if they have operational and some budgetary control over the forces under their command.

One of the most vital changes that may come about, though, would be how the three arms of the Indian military operate with one another, not as individual services, but as the armed forces of the Union.

There has been some criticism of this integration process, with suggestions that it might perpetuate the dominance of the army and give it greater operational control. The recent controversy over some of the statements of senior defence officials seems to indicate that the road forward is likely to be tough.

Nowhere in the world have defence reforms come easily. Like all bureaucracies, the armed forces too have little incentive to change the status quo. The gold standard in defence reforms, the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 of the United States (US), came about not because there was a bottom-up clamouring for reforms. Instead, the US Congress imposed this legislation on a department of defense that was riven with inter-services rivalry and had no real interest in moving towards jointness on their own. And the result of this imposition was the emergence one of the most joint militaries in the world.

This landmark Act led to greater joint experience propelled by joint training and education.

It is fashionable to suggest that there is a civil-military divide in India, leading to sub-optimal defence outcomes. That may very well be true. But before that can be addressed, it is important for the three services to address their own internal divide. They need to understand each other better before they can expect the civilians to understand them. And for that, our defence personnel should be trained and educated better. For far too long, our officers are being trained in their own silos, making them unable to comprehend other services and their roles.

If there are any lessons to be learnt from the ongoing controversy on theatre commands, it is the urgent need for the military to introspect on how and why it got to a position where senior leaders in the services are unable to look at the nation’s challenges through a similar prism. At a time when the civilian leadership is determined to see the process of defence reforms through to its logical conclusion, it would be a pity if the problems inherent in the services end up derailing that process.

Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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