Military & Aerospace

Need for Structural Changes in India’s Higher Defence Management
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Issue Vol. 30.1 Jan-Mar 2015 | Date : 02 Mar , 2015

The reality today is that India is facing the strategic environment of the 21st century with its higher defence structures largely as they were in the 1940s. This is a recipe for disaster. A continuation of such outdated structures are already affecting the culture of discipline and sacrifice so assiduously built up over decades, as the armed forces see themselves being downgraded and losing respect. Ossified structures tend to curb initiative, risk taking and integrity which have traditionally been the hallmark of the Indian Military. It is high time that the decades-old selfless and loyal service by the Indian military is given due recognition.

Long-term focus, intimate coordination, integration, cost-efficiency and the elimination of adhocism still seem to be alien concepts…

In over six decades since Independence, vast changes have occurred in the security environment within the country, in regions of immediate concern and at the global level. The last three decades have been of special importance, on account of the ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), the end of the Cold War, the global war on terrorism; the major turmoil and instability in Pakistan, the increasing belligerence and open show of strength by China, including the presence of the PLA in the Gilgit-Baltistan area and the globalisation of the Indian economy.

Since Independence, our defence forces have been engaged in active operations on a sustained basis with only short periods of peace. These challenges have helped them to earn a formidable reputation of a force that delivers, usually against heavy odds. Although our military is highly professional, conventional wisdom is that our higher defence structure is archaic with slow decision making and no formalised strategies at the national level. There are many reasons for this including a lack of vision and knowledge of security-related issues amongst the political leadership and the bureaucracy, antiquated procurement procedures and a costly defence research department whose output has not only been much below expectations but has also prevented the entry of private enterprise into the defence sector. Among other reasons are antipathy to change, narrow parochial interests, hesitancy to take risks at the senior leadership level and a status quo mentality amongst decision makers.

The result is that the overall structure of our defence management and the methods of doing business continue to be much the same as they were nearly seven decades ago. The phrase ‘Higher Defence Management’ usually conjures up images of only the military but this is not at all correct as Defence Management encompasses much more. No doubt, the Indian Military is a significant player in this endeavour but unless all the instruments of the nation are brought together, the concept of higher defence will remain incomplete.

All agencies and departments of the government, as well as many others have to be involved in some manner in ensuring that the national aims related to defence are achieved. Waging war and meeting warlike challenges today is a complex phenomenon and such complexities are likely to increase in future. The reasons include high technology, the nature of modern war, new and ever-changing threats and challenges, the sharp rise in the use of non-state actors by some nations and the reality of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of our potential adversaries. Consequently, integrated and holistic structures are not just desirable but imperative. Most nations have such structures but India seems to be out of sync in this respect.

Waging war and meeting warlike challenges today is a complex phenomenon and such complexities are likely to increase in future…

India is classified as a regional power today but it has the potential and aspires to play an even bigger role. We need to wield influence in the extended Southern Asian Region (as opposed to just the South Asian Region) and over time also influence events at the global level. India must also become an important pole in the future when a number of major powers replace the sole superpower, USA or at the minimum defuse its power. The creation and sustenance of an environment that nurtures these aspirations necessitates the development of what is now known as Comprehensive National Power (CNP). There are many ingredients that make up CNP but perhaps, the most important is a structure for Higher Defence that is able to take smart, well-reasoned and quick decisions, especially when the country is in crisis mode. This cannot be done if each instrument of the state works independently.

Since Independence, we have been stuck with the British legacy-based systems of planning and decision making which have failed to achieve any substantive gains. Long-term focus, intimate coordination, integration, cost-efficiency and the elimination of adhocism still seem to be alien concepts for us. Past efforts to rectify these weaknesses have been stymied by inertia, resistance to change, turf considerations all-round apathy, lack of knowledge of security strategies amongst the political leadership and the higher bureaucracy and a misplaced apprehension about the loyalty of the military. The armed forces too have not sought drastic changes but seem to have accepted the status quo. In many important issues, they have not acted emphatically, resulting in the government continuing with the status quo much to the detriment of the nation’s security.

A National Security Strategy should aim at the creation of national and international political conditions favourable to the protection or extension of vital national values against existing and potential adversaries. It is the fountainhead from which defence policies, military strategy and ultimately, the tools to implement defence policies are evolved. Defence strategy and higher direction of defence must constantly evolve through objective analyses of present and future needs.

Defence strategy and higher direction of defence must constantly evolve through objective analyses of present and future needs…

It is unfortunate that even after four full-fledged wars, one border war and a plethora of counter-insurgency operations, where the armed forces have distinguished themselves with their valour and sacrifices, India has been unable to evolve comprehensive strategies for optimally using the military and other components of national power. We continue to depend on ad hoc and bureaucratic structures for the higher management of defence.

Genesis of Our Higher Defence Structure

It was Lord Ismay (a Senior Staff Officer to the then Viceroy) who had initiated the concept of a higher defence system, which consisted of inter-locking committees meant to give full political control and yet ensure functional integration between the three services without bureaucratic control. The structure that was evolved and which still continues with some changes was based on a three–tier system. At the apex of this structure was the Cabinet Committee of Political Affairs (CCPA) which was later renamed as the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS). It consisted of the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, select Ministers, the Service Chiefs and the Defence Secretary in attendance at all meetings.

The second level was the Defence Minister’s Committee (DMC), chaired by the Defence Minister, with the Service Chiefs, Defence Secretary and Financial Adviser (Defence Services), better known as FA (DS), as members. It served as the top policy formulation organ in the MoD. However, it rarely met for decades and was later converted as the Morning Meeting of the Defence Minister thus further reducing its efficacy.

The third level is the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) – a forum for the three Service Chiefs to discuss matters having a bearing on the activities of the Services and also to advise the Ministry. In theory, the COSC is the highest authority on military matters in the country. However, a major shortcoming of this body is that it exercises no real power. The Chairman COSC exercises command only over his own service and the three service Chiefs are individually responsible to the Defence Minister. In the COSC, formal equality prevails among the three Service Chiefs. Hence, no worthwhile decisions can be taken.

Wise and judicious employment of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ powers is ‘smart’ power…

There are other committees too like the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Defence Science Advisory Committee, the Joint Planning Committee, the Joint Training Committee and so on. For defense planning, two organisations – the Defence Coordination and Implementation Committee and the Defence Planning Staff were also formed. The first meets only on a need-based manner while the Defence Planning Staff was wound up within a few years.

We now come to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The MoD, manned exclusively by civil officials, is organised as four departments, viz., departments of defence, defence production, defence research and development and ex-servicemen’s welfare. Each department is headed by a Secretary. In addition, there is a Defence (Finance) division that deals with all matters having financial implications and performs an advisory role for the MoD.

The principal task of the MoD is to frame policy directions on defence and security related matters and communicate them for implementation to the Services headquarters, inter-Service organisations, production establishments and Research & Development organisations. It is required to ensure effective implementation of the Government’s policy directions and the execution of approved programmes within the allocated resources.

The last component of our higher defence structure is the Service headquarters. Following the re-designation of the Commanders-in-Chief of the three Services as Chiefs of Staff in 1955, the MoD acquired a status exclusive of the Chiefs and their headquarters. This resulted in the armed forces headquarters functioning as subordinate offices outside the framework of the central government, a framework unique to India that no other country has! The Service Headquarters are not part of the Government of India but have the lowly status of being only “attached offices”. The nomenclature was changed to “associate headquarters” in 2001, but it was only a change of phrase, devoid of anything substantive. The service headquarters continue to be somewhat akin to the Song and Drama Division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting or the National Centre for Integrated Pest Management of the Ministry of Agriculture which are also ‘attached offices’!

Military officers with domain knowledge must be inducted in senior appointments in the MoD…

The MoD wields all powers and being an integral part of the government, is part of the policy formulation process, but the Service headquarters have been deliberately kept out. Over the years, instead of shedding powers, the MoD has slowly but surely, assumed more powers unilaterally. This led an analyst to comment, “In no other major democracy are the armed forces given so insignificant a role in policy making as in India.” He had also added, “In no other country do they accept it with the docility they do in India!” A great pity on both counts.

Over the years, the committees either ceased functioning or their character was altered drastically. This eroded the role of Service Chiefs as professional military advisors to the government and at the same time precluded professional interaction between Services HQ and agencies outside the MoD. Resultantly, the armed forces became isolated from important subjects such as formulation of nuclear policy, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), military use of Space, disarmament initiatives, chemical weapons policies/treaties and missile technologies. The armed forces thus were totally sidelined from the decision making processes.

A few years ago, the MoD forced the Service headquarters to call themselves as Integrated Headquarters. It is a meaningless exercise in semantics as there is hardly any integration of the three Services, let alone with the MoD. Strangely enough, the Service headquarters did not object to this ‘paper exercise’. It has been wisely stated, “While too little control over the armed forces can lead to serious problems, too much control can also smother the military and make them ineffective in the long run.” India is a prime example of this.

A glaring anomaly in the security decision making structure is the absence of a military high command…

National Security Council

In 1999, a National Security Council (NSC) with a National Security Advisor (NSA) was created. There have been five incumbents so far for this appointment – three were retired diplomats and two, including the present incumbent are retired intelligence officers. All earlier incumbents were unable to discard the comfort zone of their bureaucratic approach and contributed little to the enhancement of security strategies of the nation. It is too early to pass any judgment on the present NSA. However, if he was involved in the highly desirable change in India’s stand vis-à-vis Pakistan in any manner, it is commendable.

The NSA has a Secretariat which is headed by a Deputy NSA. This appointment too has been held either by retired diplomats, bureaucrats or intelligence officers. The obvious specialists, the highly experienced military officers, continue to be conspicuous by their absence. Possibly, their frankness by calling a spade a spade and non-sycophantic approach makes them ineligible!! As far as the Secretariat is concerned, officers of various ranks hold senior, middle level and junior staff appointments but the military is represented only by a handful of mostly middle level officers. An ironical state of affairs, indeed!

The NSC and NSA work parallel to the CCS. Besides the apex six-member NSC headed by the Prime Minister, the NSC comprises a Strategic Policy Group (SPG), a National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and a Secretariat. The SPG, responsible for inter-ministerial coordination, is a bureaucratic body that comprises the Cabinet Secretary, three Service Chiefs and Secretaries of core ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Home, Finance, Atomic Energy and Space besides the heads of the Intelligence agencies and the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. One can well imagine how these worthies find the time to carry out their important task of inter-ministerial coordination! The NSAB consists mainly of a large body numbering nearly 20 of retired officials, of which only three are from the armed forces. Independent strategic thinking is somewhat absent in such a motley group resulting in the NSAB becoming yet another group with divergent views. Its only usefulness is that it can be blamed for carrying the can when plans go awry while the main players escape all accountability!

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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 Vijay Oberoi

The author is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS).

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One thought on “Need for Structural Changes in India’s Higher Defence Management

  1. Here our worthy Gen. Oberoi has raised many relevant aspects for restructuring the organisation structure and its impact on the efficiency and effectiveness for 21 st century Forces.

    I feel that drastic changes need not be made in the time tested system, but yes role of bureaucrats certainly needs to be reduced and officers from the services need to play a more direct role in decision making to make it a sensitive and result oriented exercise. PMO should have representation from the forces, with a proper system of checks and balances in place.

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