The nation is emerging at last from a politico-bureaucratic set-up where the prevailing “mantra” for decades was “status quo” and change was to be abhorred even when it amounted to shooting one-self in the foot! A lot has started happening on many fronts since a new prime minister has taken over the reins of India.
Even on the moribund “security” front, winds of change have started blowing. Ministers are talking about modernisation and need to speed up acquisitions. A new innovation of one minister heading two most important ministries has flummoxed the traditionalists, but it has its advantages in speeding up decision-making, especially in the area of procurement. A new national security adviser has been appointed, but unless strategic muscle, in the form of advice from professionals in uniform, is made available by induction of a large number of military specialists at senior levels, we are likely to revert to business as usual. Foreign direct investment in the defence sector is also being liberalised.
All the above will come to naught if long-needed reforms in the higher defence structure of the nation are glossed over or are kept on the back burner, as has been the case in the last decade. Our past political leaders, instead of moving forward to make the military “joint” and consequently potent, unfortunately acquiesced to the agenda of the bureaucracy and failed to synergise Indian military. This must change.
The subject of joint endeavours is of great importance, not only for the defence forces of India, but also for all departments and agencies of the government dealing with security issues. So far, we have handled security issues in a compartmentalised manner and have not understood the potency that comes from being “joint”. Lack of awareness, an attitudinal problem, and the good old comfort of the status quo are obviously responsible.
Most professional militaries field joint forces, which are able to respond to contingencies across the conflict spectrum. We are one of the few exceptions. Therefore, it is important that our structures, our methods of doing business, and especially our thinking becomes “joint” at the earliest. It is only then that we would be able to deal proactively with the challenges of the coming decades. The starting point is to evolve suitable and relevant joint structures.
The present fragmented structure is resulting in inadequate employment, duplication, lack of synergy needed for winning, and lack of accountability. This must change. The armed forces, on account of their turf considerations, are unlikely to become “joint” on their own. Change will only come about when the political leadership takes over and lays down the law. Even in a country like the US, it was action by the political leadership in the shape of the Goldwater-Nichols Act that eventually brought in joint endeavours. Fortunately, our new pragmatic political leadership is already demonstrating the need to make the nation strong by ruthlessly replacing old shibboleths that have pulled down the nation.
Many excuses will still be made to forestall joint endeavours—like the myth of the military becoming inordinately powerful; that the present structures have largely worked in the past; and that the concept of “coordination” as existing is good enough. These are simply excuses for protection of turfs. If we continue in this mode even in the second decade of the 21st century, we are likely to suffer heavily in future wars and conflicts. It may be recalled that following the Kargil Conflict of 1999, a high-powered committee had recommended far-reaching reforms in the higher defence structure. Unfortunately, many important recommendations were whittled down by the bureaucracy and the then political leadership.
A major recommendation of the committee was diluted to such an extent that the integrated headquarters formed continues to be headless and impotent, as no Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been appointed even after 14 years. The antiquated Chiefs of Staff Committee that stands in has neither the teeth nor the inclination to take any strong and meaningful decisions. Unfortunately, this state of affairs has suited the principal actors, viz. the political leadership which was continuously bugged by the non-existent ghost of a military takeover by a cunning bureaucracy; the bureaucracy itself, who saw the CDS as threatening their lording over of the service headquarters; and one service that continues to pursue the “Lone Ranger Syndrome”, to the detriment of the security of the nation!
Independent experts are unanimous that the nation’s military must be restructured as an integrated whole, so that it can meet future challenges in the most forceful manner possible. The first action needed is to appoint a CDS at the earliest. This should be followed up by forming tri-service fully integrated commands that would supplement and strengthen the two existing joint commands and two more that are in the offing. All these additions require a full-fledged integrated headquarters headed by a CDS. This isn’t a new thought but one whose time has come.
The time for biting the bullet and taking the plunge is propitious. Fortunately, we now have a strong and bold prime minister, who is capable of acting in the best interest of the nation. In addition, by happenstance, the chiefs of the three services, two recently appointed and one already selected to take over in July-end, are of near equal seniority. This facilitates appointing the first CDS from the existing Commanders in Chief, who are senior to all the chiefs. This needs to be done before they too superannuate in less than two months. The present chief of Integrated Staff—who has been in the saddle for nearly a year, is highly competent and has the necessary vision—is ideally suited to be India’s first CDS.
The bottom line is that modern wars cannot be fought with the three services conducting operations independently, under the rubric of mere “coordination”, an obsolete concept, with organisations as old as nearly seven-eight decades. Waging war is a complex phenomenon; the factors include high technology, the nature of modern war, new threats and challenges and the reality of nuclear weapons in the arsenal of our potential adversaries. Consequently, a “joint force”, which acts in an integrated manner, is not just desirable but an imperative.
Go ahead, Mr. Prime Minister—bite the bullet, the nation expects it!
Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff.