Government’s New Defence Initiative: Committee of Experts
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Issue Vol. 31.4 Oct-Dec 2016 | Date : 19 Jan , 2017

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.

Political Insight

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.
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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.

About the Author

Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee

former Commandant Officers Training Academy, Chennai.

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