In defence, the twin transformations

The country’s political leadership took a leap in reimagining the military. But it must pay attention to structural issues
Implementing branch and root reforms will require partnering with reformist officers to usher in the institutional and managerial arrangements to best match India’s security challenges (Hindustan Times)
Implementing branch and root reforms will require partnering with reformist officers to usher in the institutional and managerial arrangements to best match India’s security challenges (Hindustan Times)
Updated on Nov 21, 2021 08:09 PM IST
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ByAnit Mukherjee

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his traditional Diwali visit to the frontline troops, made an impassioned plea for change, while arguing that modes of warfare are currently in transition. Indeed, after decades of somewhat circular and tiresome debates, India’s military establishment seems to be hurtling through rapid change.

This has been made possible primarily through the creation of the offices of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and that of the department of military affairs (DMA). The latter, in particular, opens up the possibility of a transformation of the ministry of defence which, institutionally, has been a moribund organisation designed for a bygone era. These twin simultaneous transformations, of the defence ministry and military headquarters, are long overdue.

However, to be truly effective, the military needs to cut down on certain existing structures and reimagine its approach to human resource management. In turn, the civilian bureaucracy needs reforms to usher in greater expertise and explore other creative measures to enhance both military effectiveness and fiscal efficiency. Unfortunately, thus far, there is very little indication that such deep-rooted changes are being imagined by either the military or civilian bureaucracies. Therefore, politicians, who have been singularly responsible for ongoing reforms, need to focus on initiating deep-rooted, organisational change.

There are several queries, some of critical importance to India’s military power, that arise from the current attempt at defence reform.

The first, and unsurprisingly, the most contentious one, is that of establishing joint commands. As is well known, the military commands of all three services are geographically dispersed even though they may share roughly similar operating environments. At a recent event, the CDS, General Bipin Rawat, detailed the proposed solution — “17 single-service commands that currently exist would be combined into just four geographical commands”.

That appears logically sound. However, there is need for greater clarity on command and control. For instance, would these commands follow the American model wherein they report directly to the defence minister and the CDS functions as the chief military adviser? Or as in the British system, is there a need for a permanent joint headquarters with a greater operational role for the CDS? Some argue that India’s case is sui generis and it will adopt its own approach, but the principles of joint structures with clear lines of command and control are universal. These apply to all large militaries — American, British, Chinese, and Russian. There is, therefore, a need for greater clarity on the operational lines of command for these proposed joint commands.

A related query is on the rationalisation of existing structures. To begin with, one must question whether the services will need separate military commands. Indeed, Colonel Vivek Chadha, who recently wrote an authoritative book on joint commands titled Integration of the Indian Armed Forces: The Way Ahead, tells me that “for theater commands to function effectively, it is imperative to optimise and where necessary cut down on existing structures. The most logical reduction is for the services to lose their command headquarters.”

Retaining command headquarters, with newly established joint commands, therefore, defies logical sense. Unless, of course, the dominant interest is to retain senior officer billets.

The focus, so far, seems to mainly be on institutional reforms; however, a critical, if less talked about, element is human resource development. Simply put, how does the military prepare mid- and senior-level officers for posts in these newly created joint organisations? By tradition, and in its incentive structures, thus far, military officers have been imbued with a single service approach. It would be unfair to expect such officers to, with a proverbial flip of the switch, suddenly understand and embrace joint war-fighting or even hold positions in the necessarily bureaucratic DMA.

Once again, mirroring the experience of other countries, civilian leaders need to step in to change military promotion and officer management policies. More specifically, there is a need to incentivise tenures in joint organisations and usher in a process of greater specialisation within the otherwise generalist officer cadre. In addition, there is a need to fashion creative policies to better utilise officers who do not clear promotion boards, an unavoidable feature of the steeply pyramidical military structures.

In tandem with these changes, there is a need to think through the changes necessary on the civilian side of the ministry of defence. So far, the plaintive, if futile, cry among reformists was the need to usher in greater civilian expertise within the ministry. However, with the creation of DMA, an organisation without equal in any other democracy, we are in uncharted territory as to the true purpose, and function of the civilian component in the ministry. While this is currently under debate, it is worthwhile considering whether the office of the defence minister needs to be augmented to allow for an independent assessment of issues if, say, there is a disagreement between the services, the defence secretary and the CDS. It is unclear if such a measure is currently under consideration.

India’s political establishment deserves significant credit for the twin transformations currently underway — both within the military and in the ministry. Indeed, it has displayed bold leadership in pushing through measures such as the recent corporatisation of the ordnance factories. However, implementing branch and root reform will require partnering with reformist officers to usher in the necessary institutional and managerial arrangements to best match India’s security challenges.

Anit Mukherjee is an associate professor at RSIS, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and a non-resident fellow at Centre for Social and Economic Progress

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021