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2019-08-17

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The Prime Minister’s announcement in his Independence Day address on Thursday, appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), is one that could have a far-reaching impact on the management of defence in India.

The issue of efficient management of the higher defence organisation came into sharp focus after the Kargil war in 1999, when the K. Subrahmanyam-headed task force was asked to examine questions about the anticipation and detection of Pakistani intrusions in Kargil and the military response. The strategic expert and his team highlighted the systemic issues bedevilling our national security structures, which included poor coordination and technological inadequacies.

On its recommendations, the Government tasked a Group of Ministers (GoM) in the early 2000s to undertake a review of national security management. Their recommendations covered intelligence, internal security, border management and defence. These resulted in an overhaul, which included the appointment of a National Security Adviser, a strengthening of intelligence coordination mechanisms, upgrading the technological capacity of security agencies, and sharpening institutional responses to traditional and emerging internal security challenges. Defence management was the one area in which the implementation of the GoM’s recommendations was disappointing.

The issues are well-known. The first is a pervasive sentiment in the armed forces that they are not formally involved in decision-making on defence planning and strategy. This perception is reinforced by the fact that the Service Headquarters are not within the Ministry of Defence; they are treated more like attached offices. This structure has led to cumbersome, opaque and antiquated decision-making processes, from administrative requirements to weapons acquisitions.

From an operational perspective, the concept of military conflict today extends beyond land, air and sea, into the domains of space, cyber, electronic and information. Effective defence preparedness requires a ‘jointness’ of the Indian Army, Indian Air Force and Indian Navy in incorporating these domains into their war-fighting strategies. It also requires a prioritisation of the weapons requirements of the forces and optimisation of their resource allocations based on a clearly defined national defence strategy.

The GoM had recommended better efficiency by integrating the armed forces headquarters into the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It had also pitched for the appointment of a CDS, who could promote an integrated approach to inter-service prioritisation and resource allocation as well as a pooling of common structures to avoid unnecessary redundancies. The CDS was to administer tri-service institutions such as the Andaman and Nicobar Command. In today’s context, his charge would also presumably include the recently established tri-service space and cyber agencies. He would provide coordinated military advice to the Defence Minister, incorporating the perspectives of the individual services. He would develop the national defence strategy, which itself should flow from a national security strategy that factors in traditional and non-traditional threats as well as internal security requirements and external strategic objectives. This would be in collaboration with the civilian defence leadership of the MoD.

All recommendations were accepted barring the one on the CDS. Opposition from sections of the armed forces and the bureaucracy and from a political party resulted in this last-minute decision. There was apprehension that a CDS would undermine of the authority of the three service chiefs over their forces. The establishment in many countries of theatre commands under the CDS reinforced this fear. The other concern was that an all-powerful CDS would distort the civil-military balance in our democracy.

This opposition was based on misperceptions and “turf” considerations. Many democracies have the institution of a CDS or its equivalent, with varying degrees of operational control over their armed forces. It has not diluted civilian control over their governance. Instead, it has meant greater participation of the military in defence decision-making alongside the civilian bureaucracy, enhancing the coherence and transparency of policies. In almost every case, the appointment of a CDS has been a top-down decision, to which the system has subsequently adjusted.

The role envisaged for a CDS in India is that of developing multi-domain military strategies, strengthening tri-service synergies and enabling perspective planning. It is only after achieving jointness in training, exercises and infrastructure that the feasibility of regional commands can be explored in the specific context of India’s geography and the nature of its internal and external threats. The CDS can contribute to rational defence acquisition decisions, preventing redundancy of capacities among the services and making best use of available financial resources.

While implementing this reform, we should also focus on the important objective of indigenisation. It is a shame that India is still among the top arms importers. This abject dependence on other countries, for weapons systems, components and even ammunitions, does not befit an aspiring great power. There must be procedures and practices to ensure that every acquisition is structured in a way as to strengthen our indigenous technological capacities, in turn aiding defence self-reliance.

A corollary of the appointment of a CDS is integration of his establishment into the MoD without which he cannot meaningfully fulfil the role assigned to him. Eventually, the three Service headquarters would also need to be suitably integrated into the Ministry. It would require changing their current functional structure as well as amending the existing rules of business of the government. This was envisaged by the GoM, but when a decision on the CDS was deferred, action on it lost steam.

In his announcement on the CDS, the Prime Minister mentioned past reports on defence reforms, the transforming nature of military conflict, the impact of technology and the need for modernisation, coordination and jointness. This leads to hope that the GoM recommendations of 2001 will be implemented. If carried out objectively, undistorted by turf considerations, this long-awaited reform would soothe frictions in civil-military relations and bring greater efficiency, transparency and accountability into decision-making on defence matters.

P.S. Raghavan is Chairman, National Security Advisory Board. The views expressed are personal

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