Time for Structural Reforms, Modernisation

 In Civil-Military Relations, Democracy & Governance, National Security, TPF Analysis

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The Prime Minister’s announcement on independence day of his decision to appoint Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as the single-point military advisor to the CCS and the PM was received with great enthusiasm. The appointment of CDS, recommended in 2001 by the Kargil Review Committee and endorsed strongly by the Group of Ministers’ headed by the then Deputy Prime Minister Shri L K Advani has been long overdue. Like with every other decision with respect to military reforms, the CDS decision became a victim of bureaucratic manoeuvring, vindictiveness, engineered turf battles, and political indecisiveness. The process of setting up a tri-service integrated headquarters was, however, incorporated with a Vice Chief equivalent, CISC heading it. Major reforms such as integration of service headquarters, appointment of the CDS, and establishment of Indian Defence University – all remained in limbo or with just cosmetic changes. There is no doubt that the Indian military is in crying need of major structural reforms in tune with 21stcentury environment, technologies, strategies, and the primacy of joint operations in the conduct of war. The CDS is more than a single person’s appointment, it is an entire system.  Therefore, it needs to be accompanied by other major structural reforms.

 Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), the joint headquarters structure to assist the CDS is already in place. The current head, CISC, would become the VCDS. It has taken more than a decade for the IDS to establish a mature and optimised acquisition system and processes, develop Long-Term Integrated Perspective Plans, optimise the defence intelligence agency, and address joint operational and training systems. While significant expertise has evolved including coordination with multiple MOD agencies, the CISC has had to depend on the Chairman, COSC for major decisions. This was invariably subordinated to the Chairman’s priority for his role as the Chief of his Service. An integrated approach, driven by the CDS, should ensure speedy and optimal modernisation of individual services towards enhancing our joint warfare capability.

 Currently, Chiefs of respective services are responsible for operational capability, training, and the requisite modernisation plans. Acquisitions and modernisation plans were largely driven by individual service specific interests, and very often these ended up getting delayed or blocked by turf wars and prioritisation battles for share of the defence budget pie. This would change under the CDS, with operational decisions being driven by the CDS system while the Chiefs would be responsible for their service capability development, training, and maintenance in tune with joint strategies. This should speed up the modernisation process.

This year’s defence budget is barely above the subsistence level. A decade of stalled modernisation has brought all three services to their lowest levels of force structures and capabilities. The Indian Air Force is down to 32 squadrons, and is likely to go down 28 squadrons over the next five years as the older, overdue for phase out aircraft are finally laid off. It would take more than a decade for the IAF to get back to its authorised force strength of 42 squadrons provided its modernisation process is undertaken on a war-footing. If not it would be at least two decades for full recovery. The Army is no better, as a former VCOAS stated – 60% of its weapon systems are vintage. Army’s two major modernisation programs – TCS and BMS, intended to be through ‘make’ route, has been shelved after more than a decade of work with two consortiums of Indian majors. This is bound to have huge adverse impact on its modernisation efforts. One can’t blame the Army though. Repeated delays in routine procurements, and lack of accountability on development programs have cost the Army dearly. Notwithstanding some of the recent decisions such as the joint venture between Kalashnikov and the OFB for small arms manufacture, light-weight howitzer and the fast-track procurement of assault rifles and weaponry for special forces, Army’s overall capability for a two-front war is  of concern. The FICV project continues to be in a limbo. Army Chief’s restructuring efforts towards ‘Integrated Battle Groups’ is a welcome step and would help the cause of jointness.

Navy modernisation efforts are no better either. The progress of the Indian Aircraft Carrier continues in its slow pace. Very well laid out plans such as 30-year ship building and submarine-building programs have been approved years ago, if not decades ago. These have floundered for lack of timely budget allocation. Effectively the Navy continues to grapple with ageing ships, submarines and weapon systems.

Much of the modernisation that has accrued over the last 15 years has been largely due to procurements from the US, almost exclusively through the FMS route, that is government-to-government contracts. It does not speak well for all our sloganeering on ‘make in India’, and reflects the lack of a coherent national strategy. This is a domain the CDS will need to address.

In a recent announcement, the government indicated that it would allocate USD 130 billions over the next five to seven years for modernisation of the three services. The CDS will need to move beyond the current system of work in the IDS, as far as modernisation goes. Currently, the LTIPP is seen as a ‘Desired Capability’ document, which the government is happy to concur. There is no assurance of financial commitment, and so the plans remain wishful thinking. Big headlines are made whenever the DAC approves ‘Acceptance of Necessity’ for thousands of crores worth acquisitions. These turn out to be meaningless as the subsequent processes takes years, more than 50% AONs elapse, and less than 25% of approved AONs fructify into desired inductions. On an average the time taken from AON to contract signing has been about 9-10 years. The flaw lies in the mismatch between various aspects of indigenous development, ‘make in India’ manufacturing and huge import dependency versus the combat capability of the forces.

It is quite clear that various organs of the government, over the last 70 years, have failed to address effectively the need of a vibrant indigenous defence industry that is export oriented and reduces our forces’ import dependency. The CDS system, if evolved correctly, should integrate different aspects of  integrated operational philosophy, requisite force structures and combat capability with indigenous manufacturing, technology development, and a balanced, accountable, and efficient  acquisition process. The CDS must also be given enough power to take operational and financial decisions to ensure appropriate force structures for India’s defence. The bottom line, however, is to see the wisdom that an allocation of 1.35% of GDP is abysmally low to meet India’s defence needs in the 21stcentury.

This article was published earlier in Deccan Herald on 22 Sep 2019.

The author is the Founder-Chairman and President of The Peninsula Foundation. He is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are author’s own.

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