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Defence Reforms: A Priority and Challenge for The Government
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Brig Narender Kumar (Retd.)
Senior Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

Defence Minister Mr Manohar Parrikar has hinted that defence reforms are on the card and government is likely to take a decision in the next few months. It is a positive sign to link strategic planning with development of capabilities. Not withstanding the above, there seems to be a little ambiguity in the statement made by the Defence Minster about defence reforms. He has indicated restructuring of defence forces but remained quiet on restructuring of the Higher Defence Organisation (HDO) and integration of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with the service headquarters. Whereas defence reforms in a holistic manner, would require putting a HDO in place, reform and integration of MOD with service headquarters, defence acquisition reforms and finally restructuring of defence forces, focus only on restructuring of defence forces will only be a cosmetic surgery and a job half done.

In defence reforms global trends suggest shrinking bureaucratic overheads, right-sizing the DoD with integration of military and civil bureaucracy, implementing consistent use of performance-based logistics, involving defence forces in decision making process, focused and planned capability development and bringing professionals in managing the department of defence. A reform agenda should be aimed at cutting bureaucratic delay in functioning, making available resources and adding both capacity and capabilities to address some of the Armed Forces’ most serious strategic shortfalls.[1]

It is a global phenomenon that excessive bureaucracy slows down the capacity of the services to respond to security challenges, building capabilities, modernisation of armed forces and decision matrix.  Because interconnected and asymmetric threats warrant rapid reaction and response, speed is absolutely critical in decision-making in future wars. Time has come for the MoD to evaluate the basic minimum requirement to cut out excess flab in a systematic manner that minimizes use of civilian work force to enhance operational performance.

The structuring of MoD should be such that there are no firewalls between the political leadership and armed forces. Engagement and transparency should be a priority and that can only be brought out if there is accountability, responsibility and direct interaction. The current system has many bottlenecks with the MOD acting as firewall between political leadership and Armed Forces. Similarly the Defence Secretary is responsible for defence of the country but not accountable to equip and build capacity.

What does the nation want from its Armed Forces? A military that can protect the nation, defend vital national interests and be prepared to deal with the threats, existing and those that may emerge in future. Therefore, MoD should evaluate whether the military is able to perform these tasks and if not then develop capabilities to maintain minimum threshold of operational preparedness. The most critical task of MoD should be to improve the capacity and capabilities of the Armed Forces to accomplish the most critical responsibility of guarding the nation.

Why Defence Reforms?

The question comes up why defence reforms at this stage? A simple explanation is that India’s defence structure is based on the World War II model that was a legacy of the British Indian Army and was suitable to deal with purely conventional threats. Today the character of warfare has changed; threats and challenges are diverse and continuously evolving. Threats are kinetic and non-kinetic, traditional and non-traditional, cyber, information, CBRN, space and asymmetric in nature. Nations are at perpetual war, declared or undeclared. There is a need to carryout audit and evaluation of the security threats and emerging contours of conflict to assess if the existing security structure is adequate or need reorientation. The answer certainly is that MoD has neither changed structurally nor built capabilities and capacities to deal with the threats that are not conventional in nature. Conflict in West Asia is a benchmark event that needs careful study by military as well as policy makers to understand the changing nature and character of warfare. Hybrid war has now taken a centre stage where conventional, irregular, non-state actors and criminals operate in the same strategic space as allies and adversaries. India has dealt with such threats with regulars and that is primarily due to lack of capability building. The mismatch is due to fatigued and tired ideology and obsolete colonial structure and mindset. Modern wars are likely to be swift, lethal and battle space will be land, sea, air, space, cyber and cognitive domain. In light of the above, reforms ideally should be holistic in nature and any efforts without restructuring the HDO, MoD, Intelligence and Armed Forces at best can be defined as cosmetic and incremental in nature. The statement of the Defence Minister suggests that reforms will either be forced down, or will take everyone on board. Whatever decision the government makes, reforms should be holistic and in line with the contemporary trends to make the military capable and credible.

Objectives of Defence Reforms.

Frank O’Donnell a Lecturer at Strategic Studies at the University of Plymouth wrote that Indian national security policymaking has traditionally suffered from a lack of central strategic planning: an organised process, fully integrating civilian and military defence institutions, that set long-term defence objectives. He further wrote that defence policy development largely consists of a combination of procurement wish lists submitted separately by the three military services, alongside intermittent initiatives principally formulated by the Prime Minister. [2] In the current security structure the PMO, Defence Minister and NSA have no intimate military advice available to take decisions on critical issues as well as routine functions, as a result the decision are often delayed or at times taken in a way that may not be in the best interest of the nation.  Another major pitfall is that in the absence of integration of MoD with the service headquarters, bureaucrats at MoD arbitrarily pick and choose projects without looking into criticality of the projects. Therefore, it is long overdue that each level of policy makers and executioners are made accountable and seamlessly integrated without any firewalls in between. Objectives of reforms are to fix accountability, responsibility, capabilities and an institutional mechanism to review and monitor the progress of reforms.  Reforms also seek to provide better understanding, seamless functioning of all layers of defence and security structure, optimum utilisation of budget, procurement process, levels of defence preparedness to increase their operational availability and reduce the delays in making decisions. Some of the fundamental objectives of defence reforms are as under:-

  • Improved Accountability of HDO and MoD. Accountability of HDO and MoD should be fixed to lay down minimum threshold of capabilities that military is required to possess and delivery of force for future by a timeline. This will make HDO and MoD accountable to push modernisation and restructuring of forces based on threats and vulnerabilities. This step will lead to institutionalised decision making.
  • Improved Defence Planning. Ad hoc measures may have worked till now for defence planning, but complex nature of threats and challenges would certainly be difficult to handle by such planning process. Defence planning is a matter of operational research and net assessment that would need integrated approach at HDO, MoD and service Headquarters level.
  • Linking Strategic Planning and Capability Development. Capability building is not the responsibility of the service headquarters alone, it needs a wholesome government approach. Thus strategic planning and capability development should be linked.
  • Forecasting and Planning of Major Acquisitions. Forecasting in military planning is a vital function of the perspective plans division. This is a pure military science based on intelligence inputs, net assessment, evaluation of capabilities of adversaries’ and own residual military capabilities. Once the forecasting is made it would lay down the minimum capabilities required to deal with threats that may emerge in a given timeframe.    
  • Capability Development for Future. Endeavour should be to ensure that the nation is fully capable of dealing with a threat before it manifests. Therefore, it needs intimate monitoring of projects to avoid slippages. This aspect needs close monitoring by HDO and MoD.
  • Procurement and Sustenance of Defence Production. Projects cannot be planned without time and budget caps. The policy of perform or perish needs to be enforced. The idea should be to strengthen domestic production of niche technologies, but if after a due timeframe DRDO/ OFB fail to deliver, it should be a priority for the government to  build capabilities through procurement ex trade.
  • Restructuring of Defence Forces. Future wars will not be like the last war. Future wars are likely to be integrated and asymmetric in character. It will be technologically driven and simultaneity will be achieved in time and space. The best way to deal with hybrid and conventional threats is to put in place integrated theatre command structures.


If we look at the overall objectives and capability development, the role of bureaucracy is shrinking and role of professionals is increasing manifold. Capability development, forecasting, intimate professional advice is in the realm of military professionals, where role of civilian bureaucracy is reducing. That is the reason most contemporary armies are shifting towards professionalism and discarding bureaucracy as the interface between government and military headquarters.

The Defence Minster has shown the courage to put defence reforms in place. He should start defence reforms from top rather than from bottom. Without reforming or restructuring the HDO and MoD the exercise will end up being cosmetic with no substantial gain. It should not end up like the reforms implemented post the Kargil Review Committee recommendations – neither here nor there.


[1] James Jay Carafano, Defence Reform by the Numbers: Four Crucial Priorities for the Next Administration, The Heritage Foundation, March 23, 2015.

[2]Frank O’Donnell, Indian Defence Reforms: Institutionalizing Clarity and Cohesion in Security Planning, Foreign Policy & Security, November 16, 2015


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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