November 26, 2013

Shutting his ears to change

Manoj Joshi   |   Mail Today  |   New Delhi, November 22, 2013 | UPDATED 09:16 IST

In July 2011, the government of India set up a task force to examine the processes and procedures related to national security in India and come up with recommendations to fix the problems and plug any gaps that emerged. Chaired by former Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra, the task force's aim was to deepen the reforms in the national security system begun by the group of ministers (GOM) in 2001.

In May 2012, the committee submitted its report to prime minister Manmohan Singh who turned it over to the National Security Council Secretariat for processing its recommendations and presenting them to the Cabinet Committee on Security. This writer was a member of the task force, but has had little or no official information on its status since then. But the bureaucratic grapevine suggests that the report is on its way to meet the fate of other similar endeavours: get shelved.


The reason for this is plain: The Ministry of Defence thinks there is no need for change, leave alone, horror of horrors, an overhaul. At first sight this may appear to be counter-intuitive, after all the sorry state of our defence modernisation is an open secret. Last year, the serving Chief of Army Staff wrote a letter to the Prime Minister pointing to shortages of vital equipment. The Air Force chief regularly bemoans the declining numbers of his combat force and the delays in the Navy's submarine and shipbuilding programmes are no secret.

The goal of the civilian part of the ministry appears to be singularly focused on how to retain its power and privileges. For this reason, the only public information of the Chandra Committee recommendations came through a leak of a portion of the report by the MoD itself. Their grouse, according to the media leaks, was apparent - they did not want changes in the way the system is run. Inefficient, incompetent, and wasteful, yes, but the command ought to rest firmly in the inexpert hands of the IAS fraternity. The Chandra Committee, on the other hand, was suggesting reforms - first of the manner in which the armed forces were run, and secondly, of how the ministry itself was functioning. In the case of the armed forces, following the GOM report of 2001, the committee suggested a chief of defence staff (CDS) like figure, a permanent chairman to the chiefs of staff committee, to promote integrated planning and organisations in the armed forces, as well as an expert defence bureaucracy to staff the MoD by cross-posting military officers to key bureaucratic positions.

These were minimalist suggestions, but vital. Most armed forces in the world operate on an integrated principle where planning an execution of combat operations is done through joint planning and command. That is why the GOM of 2001 recommended the beginnings of tri-service organisations and a CDS to head them.

The need for joint planning is crucial given the exponential rise in the cost of weapons systems. Currently, each service puts up its own demands and the Ministry of Defence has little or no expertise to prioritise them. The Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) or five year defence plans have little integrity.

Take for example the case of the Mountain Strike Corps which has been approved by the government recently. It will require capital expenditure of Rs.90,000 crore (plus another Rs.30,000 crore for ancillary units), yet it does not figure in the 2012-2027 LTIPP which was approved with great fanfare last year. To get a perspective on this, consider that in the period 2009-10 to 2013-14, which includes the period of high economic growth the country spent something like Rs.300,000 crore in capital acquisitions.


The Army, of course, is not the only claimant here. The really capital intensive services are the Air Force and the Navy whose need for modernisation is dire. India needs new combat jets, submarines, ships, transport aircraft, artillery guns, helicopters and a host of other equipment in the next ten years. But what should be the priority? At present, there is simply no machinery to do this since each service feels its needs are the most important and the MoD lacks any expertise to pronounce on the issue.

But the MoD does not want another senior military figure because they think that the Defence Secretary and his IAS colleagues will be somehow diminished. Well, considering the current state of India's defence setup, they ought to have already been indicted for gross incompetence.


In view of this, the National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon had pushed for the setting up of the Naresh Chandra Committee. Another group headed by Ravindra Gupta, was simultaneously asked to to look at the issue of defence manufacturing and indigenisation. But after the committees, comprised mostly of former government and military officials, had done their work they find that there are no takers within the government for their advice.

But that should not surprise. Bureaucratic resistance to reform is a given whenever there is talk of reform. What does surprise, however, is the spinelessness of the UPA II ministers who tamely allowed their bureaucrats to manipulate them into a paralysis. As long as P Chidambaram was there, the Home Ministry was supportive of reform, but with Sushilkumar Shinde at the helm, the donothing school prevails.

As for the Defence Ministry, the less said the better. AK Antony is happiest when he does not have to take any decisions whatsoever. This clearly suits his bureaucrats who have so far successfully blocked the passage of the Naresh Chandra Committee report to the Cabinet Committee on Security. Whether the CCS itself has the political gumption to tell the babus where to get off or not, remains to be seen if and when the report reaches them. But going by the record of the UPA II, there is not much hope. As for the PM, he has now given up on his political colleagues and is totally dependent on bureaucratic advice. It is not too difficult to guess what that advice is: Do nothing, there's nothing broke and there is nothing that needs fixing.

The problem is that not that the national security system is not broke, but that it is rapidly hollowing out from within.

- The writer a Contributing Editor of Mail Today was a member of the Naresh Chandra Committee and is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF, New Delhi.

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