In convening the Review, the MoD has treaded a path of wisdom and it needs to be congratulated on this initiative. But to ensure that the path is not lost to wilderness, it needs to be considered that reduction in defence expenditure is actually linked to modernisation and re-structuring of the military institution – from which emerge innovative war strategies to secure victory in a cost-effective manner; reduction in manpower and the tapping of dual-use infrastructure follows thereafter, it is not the other way around. As stated, these matters are in the grips of the Government.
Committee of Experts
Recently, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has set up a Committee of Experts with a mandate to “Recommend Measures to Enhance Combat Capability and Rebalance Defence Expenditure of the Armed Forces”. The Committee is charged with the following:
- To review training, administrative and logistics establishments vis-à-vis what is described as “best practices under Indian conditions”, the purpose being to optimise manpower in the defence forces and increase ‘teeth to tail’ ratio.
- Suggest “redeployment, repositioning and restructuring of manpower and resources” to improve combat capability.
- Suggest integration of civil infrastructure and resources into the logistic system of the defence forces in war and peace to “avoid duplication and reduce expenditure”.
- Suggest measures to “correct the bias of defence budget towards revenue expenditure”.
Headed by a noted senior soldier-scholar, Lt Gen D B Shekatker, the Committee of Experts had been given three months’ time to submit its recommendations and specify a road-map to manage the transition in a time-bound manner.
This is indeed a path-breaking initiative from the Government. Therefore, at an early stage itself, this initiative calls for discussion on two counts:
- The Government’s welcome break from misplaced orthodoxy.
- Considerations regarding the purpose and efficacy of the proposed ‘expert review’
Break Away from Orthodoxy
Military re-structuring cannot be considered in isolation; the humungous defence establishment of non-combatant contributors plays a salient part in that endeavour…
Notably, this is the first instance in the past quarter of a century when such a review committee on the defence forces’ structure, to be chaired by a military professional, has been convened by the Government. In rare instances, when the Government did convene such committees, the chair had been reserved for civilians who, though highly knowledgeable, were far from possessing any reckonable military experience. Possibly other than Major General Hanumant Singhji’s appointment by Jawaharlal Nehru to study the security aspects of the North East Frontier Agency in the mid-1950s, there is really no such instance that comes to mind. Even during the military build-up phase after the 1962 debacle, almost all restructuring work was done ‘in-house’ within the Ministry by serving military officers and defence bureaucrats, and backed up by the wisdom of the Defence Minister Chavan. Informal guidance had also been sought from some military veterans and British and American military brass and accepted when found workable. But then, those World War II generation officials had some insight of higher military management which is not the case in today’s bureaucracy.
Later, as evidenced from the constitution of such committees – referred to, for example, as the Arun Singh, K Subramanyam, Vohra and Naresh Chandra Committees – the MoD seemed to believe that Studies and Reviews were better conducted under the supervision of civilians who, having experience of the governing system, could be considered to have accessed automatic wisdom on higher nuances of military management. The indifference of successive governments to native military thinking, and viewing the military institution as a bayonet, tank and gun-wielding force, little more than a stronger version of ‘lathi’ wielders, might have been the cause of that notion. That was so that professional opinion was confined to what a military member or two in such committees in session could be allowed to suggest. The advantage was that the committee would have a semblance of military representation and yet have the option of smothering its opinion, when not in conformity, within the confabulations of the committee.
Disparage of ‘Military Necessity’
In any case, such study and review committees had been convened at the convenience of the Government as and when it had been compelled to attend to management log-jams, but not at the asking of the military institution. The idea in the MoD seemed to be to divert, postpone or minimise the imperatives of dealing with any unprecedented matter, as indeed it happens when governance is focused on election-cycle pantomime rather than substantive national uplift. Thus exasperated no end by the nonchalance with issues raised from time to time, the three services, on their own initiative, had undertaken many studies related to military modernisation, training, re-structuring, personnel management and logistics. It was so that many far-reaching studies had been carried out at the services levels since the 1990s, General V.K Singh’s transformational study being one of these. But unlike the practice followed in advanced nations, these studies had not been formally endorsed or accepted by the Government, though certain recommendations had been met in increments.
The question, therefore, is whether the Committee is competent to specify the range and scale of mechanisation and its funding…
So far, Governments have assiduously avoided participating or according formal cognizance to the reviews undertaken by the Service Headquarters. The bureaucracy in the MoD, made up of occasionally installed incumbents who led the defence ministers by the nose, and the latter who had been happy to let the former ride the tiger, both seemed to hold the view that the military brass, given to incessant ‘wants’ of what was seen as ‘war toys’ and ‘games’ of structural revisions, were better kept at an arms’ length. Actually, the military leadership was disparaged as to be ‘uncompromising’ in making ‘adjustments’ over their requirements and so rescue the Governments in their ‘political and fiscal compulsions’, and therefore, the state’s association with such reviews was considered to carry the danger of either having to concede or buy political embarrassment. Admittedly, there also had been instances of military brass making a spectacle of themselves in high-level confabulations, and that has been played up to perpetuate the amateurs’ stranglehold over matters military.
Obviously, extraordinary compulsions of military line of duty – the burden of having no scope for making ‘compromises’ with ‘ultimate’ success in meeting the state’s ‘ultimate’ mandate, and accordingly demanding potent wherewithal to be in readiness for ‘ultimate’ action at ‘ultimate’ cost – could not impress the mandarins of South Block. Having perused, but apparently not appreciated, various thinkers of military administration – Huntington, Waltz, Morgenthau, for example – these mandarins had been afflicted with a delusion of possessing ‘higher vision’ of a ‘larger picture’ in matters of national defence. Thus, given the Government’s distractions from the imperatives of defence preparedness, it was not unusual that the excellence of recommendations made by the services’ initiated studies and reviews were allowed to ‘gather dust’ with a few exceptions here and there being in evidence.
In view of its past record of refusing to touch the issue of military reforms with even a barge pole, this recent initiative to convene the Expert Committee, with a military professional in chair, is a welcome change indeed. The Defence Minister, possessing the logical mind of a trained engineer and an active political performer, appears to have broken free of the past trend when nonplussed ministers had to heed the counsel of an amateurish bureaucracy to run the Ministry, both trying their best to grope and stumble through the complexities of defence management, but yet too condescending to seek professional participation. It appears that the Minister has a knack of questioning blind orthodoxy, and having obtained due counsel, makes his own informed and intelligent decisions. As it happened way back in other ministries, the MoD at long last seems to be guided by the political leadership. There is a prayer though: this observation may not turn out to be premature; may securing national defence be placed above political expediency; may this be the beginning of a new practice in the MoD, may the combined resistance from military and civil bureaucracy fail to stem progress. Amen!
We may now turn to the second topic of this discussion, that is, the purpose and efficacy of the expert review.
Blind Spots in the Charter
The Services Headquarters, remaining excluded from apex level decision making and enforcement authority, can hardly be expected to lead that process…
A hard-nosed analysis as to what the Committee of Experts might set out to accomplish, reveals many blind spots. Let us examine these spots in sequence, with a hope that these would be eventually cleaned up.
Setting the Stage for ‘Best Practices’
For one, there are many highly professional reports and recommendations of similarly constituted Committees lying, either ignored or partially acted upon, with the MoD and the Service Headquarters – some blocked by minor or major hurdle, some by individual prejudices, and some just pended due to preoccupation with the routine and mundane. The fate of such reports had actually been sealed by the basic reason that these failed to account for the realities and compulsions of prevailing political, procedural and human dispensations, and thus landed up offering idealist but impractical ideas into a contentious environment. It would, therefore, be more meaningful if the Committee first compiles relevant reports and recommendations, and revises or repudiates these against current circumstances. The Committee would then be in a position to consider the issue in its entirety, carry out fresh appreciations and analyses, and ask think-tanks to contribute. Thus armed, the Committee could offer its comments and recommendations to the Government, and follow up to fulfil the Terms of Reference, the “best practices under Indian conditions” as spelt out in the Committee’s charter, by suggesting practically implementable courses of action.
Tasking of the Committee
On tasking of the Committee, the following considerations arise:
- It is usual to expect that the Committee would have been made privy to, firstly, the state’s formal political mandate ordained upon its armed forces; secondly, the manner that the armed forces propose to fulfil that mandate; and thirdly, the extent to which the Government is ready to allow financial and procedural dispensations in order to support such proposals.
- Jointness among the services being somewhat tentative, for it to offer concrete proposals in fulfilment of the political mandate without duplication and inter-service turf-race, either the Committee would have to be duly empowered to assign tri-service as well as inter-services operational roles and arbitrate upon their differences, or the Integrated Defence Headquarters (IDS) would have to do so. In its present form, neither has the competence to do so. If the intent is for the MoD to undertake that task, then it would have to equip itself with the professional competence to do so.
- Military re-structuring cannot be considered in isolation; the humungous defence establishment of non-combatant contributors plays a salient part in that endeavour. In fact, as reports indicate, much of these establishments are unproductive, if not obstacles to military institution’s capability enhancement and cost-effectiveness. Unless these establishments too are restructured and pruned, the review would turn out to be another trite half-measure, if not dangerous to the nation’s defence capability.
- Finally, if the recommendations of the Committee are to be adjudged by a defence bureaucracy which remains uninitiated to military principles and practices, and a military bureaucracy whose liability is the reason for this Committee to be convened in the first place, then this exercise may turn out to be another compromise with inefficient and wasteful military management. Therefore, it may be preferable to decide upon the manner in which the recommendations of the Committee would be sanctified and implemented, if these expert reviews are to be saved from joining its preceding volumes.
The first step towards military modernisation, restructuring, jointness and capability enhancement must come from a truly military-dedicated MoD…
The Committee and its convener, the MoD, may consider the above issues before leaping into the restructuring of the armed forces.
Let us now delve deeper into possible incongruities in the Committee’s charter.
Optimisation of Manpower
Undoubtedly, this is a noble objective to stem the rising cost of engaging personnel and its subduing effect on military modernisation within affordable costs to the national exchequer. But the foremost consideration in this respect must be the expectations that national leadership have from the military institution. The MoD might have clearly spelt out these expectations to the Committee for it to proceed in right direction, though past experiences cautions against that hope. In any case, the basis for optimisation of manpower cannot be anything other than what the political mandate for the military institution implies.
Next, even with political mandate specified, optimisation of manpower would require, first of all, to opt for large scale automation of operational, tactical and logistics activities. Manpower may be reassigned or shed only after that undertaking is fully met. History being replete with instances when half-bargains have wreaked havoc upon national security; we would be wise to avoid the propensity of finding satisfaction in half-measures. The question, therefore, is whether the Committee is competent to specify the range and scale of mechanisation and its funding, and as to how the three interlinked schemes would be guided to run in synchronisation with regard to scope of mechanisation, its industrial and fiscal backing as well as manpower reduction. The significance of this question lies in the fact that – one, the hostile environment against nation’s military security has not abated and the nature and criticality of military tasks remain unchanged; and two, the failure of the state in upholding its ‘political directive’ and starving the military institution into ‘hollowness’, that breeds doubt in concerned military minds.
Finally, the key to optimisation of administrative and logistic manpower, as experienced in advanced militaries, is the guaranteed support that the military institution receives from civil establishments and infrastructure. These support measures could be in the form of repair and maintenance of hardware, medical and supply services, rail and road transportation, education, accommodation and mobilisation – the list is not comprehensive. For such outsourced support to be fail-proof in times of war and peace, there must be accountability – to the military hierarchy, sanctified by watertight laws and rules enacted under Acts of Parliament, and enforced under special provisions.
Unless the above three issues are attended to, optimisation of manpower may remain a chimera.
Increasing ‘Teeth to Tail’ Ratio
An outdated notion in orthodox military minds, this term needs to be understood in its contemporary perspective. The moot point is as to how a military institution which aims to modernise with high technology weapons, equipment and communications, better protection, accommodation, health and medical support, manage with a shorter logistics tail? Would not each item of the much-desired ‘Infantry Soldier as a System’ itself require many more tradesmen to maintain? Indeed, to support lean and sharp teeth, modern militaries cannot do without higher proportion of combat support elements and rather long and fat logistics tails. Even if the idea is to depend on outsourcing for logistics support, we may remind ourselves of the failure of such schemes during the experimentation of the 1990s. The industry and civil infrastructure, therefore, have to be made accountable under strictly enforceable laws to ensure that they do not renege on contracts and agreements. Till the depth and degree of such provisions are specified by the MoD, the Committee would be handicapped in reviewing this matter along the right lines.
The short time stipulation of just three months to deal with such a vast and complex issue, that has defied resolution over the past three decades, belies the salience or seriousness of the expert review…
Let us now turn to the second listed charter.
Redeployment and Restructuring to Improve Combat Capability
Having practically seen no peace, the Indian military structure and its combat capabilities have evolved over uninterrupted decades of fighting since independence. Therefore, there is little to change in deployment, positioning and structure from what exists, unless the conditions under which national defence is to be secured are changed. Assuming that a clear political mandate for the armed forces has been spelt out, there are two aspects to improvement of the military institution’s combat capability and these are as follows:
- Purely military imperatives such as modernisation of war-waging capabilities and ‘jointness’ in operations and logistics; and,
- By invocation of ‘military lien’ upon the nation’s civilian institutions and establishments – legislative, judicial, diplomatic, bureaucratic, administrative, scientific, industrial, quasi-military, human resources and so on.
Among the military imperatives, restructuring of the headquarters and formations into joint organisations, modernisation of weapons, equipment and corresponding battle procedures, strengthening the Territorial Army and revamping of the military reserve liability, and many more provisions may be thought of. The restructuring actually begins with progress on these imperatives, which then makes it possible to discard manpower and obsolete elements while maintaining the required level of joint force-capability. In the fulfilment of these imperatives, however, the Committee’s recommendations may bear fruition only at the instance of the Government, which holds all the strings, to the exclusion of the Service Headquarters.
The point made here is that the first step towards military modernisation, restructuring, jointness and capability enhancement must come from a truly military-dedicated MoD. The Services Headquarters, remaining excluded from apex level decision making and enforcement authority, can hardly be expected to lead that process. The MoD may be wise to take cognizance.
Military Lien: Integration of Civil Infrastructure and Resources into Defence Logistics
In the second instance, reduction of defence expenditure while maintaining combat capability is achieved by the concept of ‘military lien’ upon the civil sector. To cite examples, many of the rear area responsibilities such as raising mobilisation units, transportation, engineering, medical and welfare, security and protection, could be taken on by the expanded civil administration and police forces in their stride, and nearly eight per cent medically unfit military personnel could be re-employed in the civil sector, and as it had been the practice earlier, thus releasing combat manpower from non-combat duties and reducing defence expenditure.
In fact, a major factor in integrating civil infrastructure into defence logistics and enhancing combat capability would be an improvement in the network of roads and railways, both being dual-role responsibilities of the civil sector. But to integrate with defence logistics, civil institutions have to commit to the recommendations of the expert review. Even thereafter, the measures have to be backed up with upgrade of laws, rules, bureaucratic procedures and most importantly, accountability of the civil ‘providers’ to the military hierarchy. In a dispensation wherein the military institution remains on the margins of decision making, it is a hard hope of the Government promulgating, or the civil sector responding, to such accountability.
In this context, disconcerting experiences with the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Defence Estates, Military Engineering Service, the Railways and various state administrations, which have over the years been freed of military accountability, are indicative. Integration of civil infrastructure, while keeping the military hierarchy away from requisite control over these institutions at the national and state levels, may be unthinkable unless there is drastic revision in the Government’s policy orientation.
The argument here is that the steering of military modernisation, right sizing, capability improvement and cost reduction is not in the hands of the armed forces; these are controlled by the civil sector – its bureaucracy, science and industry, budget control and personnel management. In other words, considering a purely military angle to revamp of the military institution would be a lame exercise. Unless the validity of the Expert Committee’s recommendations is honoured, with due accountability, by the rest of the nation’s defence establishment, the ‘expert review’ would meet the fate of its predecessors. The Government may consider that.
‘Bias’ Towards Revenue Expenditure
The stages of development in kinetic and electronic weaponry having more or less reached a plateau, the hardware of war-fighting will stagnate around current designs till new breakthrough is made into military science. Resultantly, the trend of budgeting in modern militaries has shifted from capital expenditure on acquisition of latest hardware to revenue expenditure on maintenance, replacement and product improvement of current inventories of war. Further, to bolster combat power, the thrust has shifted to combat support and logistics enhancements and upgrade of professionalism among the soldiery. Indeed, revenue expenditure today has assumed the centre stage in keeping modern militaries in the desired states of preparedness. Repudiation of ‘bias towards revenue budget’, therefore, needs to be carefully construed to avoid reinforcing a notion that has lost relevance to modern military funding.
Agreeably, in the case of Indian defence forces, salience of capital defence expenditure remains valid due to import dependence as well as massive voids in modernity and scales of military inventories. That however, leaves no scope to compromise on the centrality of revenue expenditure, including the cost of employing high quality personnel which the Government wishes to reduce to ‘manageable’ levels. Had this understanding prevailed in the post-1990 period, the debilitating state of ‘hollowness’ that cripples the Indian military institution could have been avoided and our enemies would have been less enthused. Unless the Committee and its convening authority recognise this caveat, the result would be detrimental to the intent.
Another Committee for the Army
There is another committee convened by the Chief of the Army Staff which aims at right-sizing the Indian Army through rationalisation of manpower. The Army’s larger strength and the burden of post-Seventh Pay Commission emoluments seem to have combined to trigger that purport – that is to reduce expenditure on pay and allowances and so boost capital expenditure for military modernisation. But rather than functioning as a know-all Army Standing Expert Committee just to cut down manpower – and so upstage those latent elements, utility of which manifest only under conditions of war, an experience that no currently serving officer has suffered – this committee would be wise to appreciate that the Army’s large manpower is determined by our political-diplomatic limitations, not by the limits of affordable emoluments. Therefore, rather than gnawing at each other to reduce few men here and there, the Army’s strength would be wisely and substantially reduced if the Government can master regional politics better.
Looking True and Deep
The short time stipulation of just three months to deal with such a vast and complex issue, that has defied resolution over the past three decades, belies the salience or seriousness of the expert review. If the intent is to put an already decided course of action through a final scrutiny by a knowledgeable body of professionals before its promulgation, then the time may be adequate, otherwise not.
In convening the Review, the MoD has treaded a path of wisdom and it needs to be congratulated on this initiative. But to ensure that the path is not lost in the wilderness, it needs to be considered that reduction in defence expenditure is actually linked to modernisation and re-structuring of the military institution – from which emerge innovative war strategies to secure victory in a cost-effective manner; reduction in manpower and the tapping of dual-use infrastructure follows thereafter, it is not the other way around. As stated, these matters are in the grips of the Government.
Nevertheless, a review of this nature is a welcome beginning from a Government which seems to be more appreciative of the nation’s defence issues. It is hoped that it would make the best of the situation to resolve the fundamental dichotomies in the management of national defence.