Defence Ministry and services have to work in tandem, says policy expert

Illustration by Binay Sinha
Anit Mukherjee is an expert in defence reforms, counterinsurgency and India’s foreign and defence policies. His recently published book The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India, he explains how Indian politicians and bureaucrats have long been content with the formal and ritualistic exercise of civilian control, while the military continues to operate in institutional silos. In an interview to Aditi Phadnis, Mukherjee tells how the armed forces, politicians as well as the bureaucracy can work together by finding a remedy to this ‘us vs them’ approach. Edited Excerpts: 

For years now, tension has persisted between the armed forces and the bureaucracy, and lately, also between the political class and the armed forces. What has given rise to these tensions?

I think tensions between the military and the civilian bureaucracy has been a constant feature of civil-military relations in India. Lately however, especially during the time of defence minister A K Anthony, it was particularly adversarial. While the tenor is a little better under the Narendra Modi government, however, they too have had their share of controversies. These tensions are primarily due to four reasons. 

First, is that of institutional design. Unlike most western democracies, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in India is almost completely civilian staffed with very little military participation (other than as technical managers in the acquisition wings and very recently in the planning and international cooperation department). In turn, the military headquarters has very civilian employees. This creates an us-and-them approach and is not conducive of a collegial, mutually respectful relationship. Second, specially since the time of the Third Pay Commission in 1973, there has been some controversy or the other over pay, entitlements, equivalence (between civilians and the military) and veteran and disability benefits. Over time, and not entirely without reason, the military has lost faith in the ability of civilians to honestly arbitrate these disputes. 

Third, over time the prevailing narrative within the military is that they are under the control of the civilian bureaucracy and not that of politicians and that is at the root of all its problems. Most senior military officers, both implicitly and explicitly, allow this narrative to go unchallenged since it deflects attention. In fact, some of what is taught and discussed about civil-military relations in military academies is downright unhealthy to building respectful relations. Last, the current age of social media, instant opinions and vicious, sometimes incorrect, WhatsApp forwards have brought these tensions to the limelight. Often the social media magnifies these tensions more than what they maybe in practice. 

The armed forces argue that the system of weapons procurement is such that it is loaded against them (in power terms). The civilian bureaucracy believes the soldier’s lot is to fight in the field, not in the marketplace. How can India fix this problem? 

The notion that the military is a marginal player in weapons procurement is only partly true. The military makes the case for the weapons, frames the qualitative requirements (QR’s) — which is a critical part of the process, carries out field trials and, now, is even included in the contract negotiations process. Lately, as per reports, a lot of financial powers have been delegated to the services. 

Moreover, procurement decisions involve huge budgetary costs and, like in other democracies, is ultimately the prerogative of the civilian leadership. Having said all that, it is true that the military in India is not as embedded into the procurement process as in other western democracies and often suffers considerable delays. There is also a conflict of interest with MoD inherently inclined towards supporting public sector defence production units, despite charges of inefficiency. This government has been more supportive of the idea of private sector participation in the defence sector which, by creating competition and an eco-system, should be welcomed. The move to corporatise the ordnance factories, which is currently under consideration, is also a good development. There are other ideas under debate within the government, for instance on whether the director general (Acquisitions) should be a military officer or perhaps if procurement should be handled by an autonomous entity but we are not sure where we are going with this. Perhaps the government should, once again, set up a high level committee to examine this issue in its entirety.   

We now have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). But do we have jointness of the armed forces? How important is this to winning wars? To sharing resources?

While we shall shortly have a CDS — and this was such a necessary step and we should commend the political leadership for this — however, it is important to see how much they empower this office. To be truly effective, the CDS must not be just a glorified version of the chief of Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). Currently, the lack of jointness is among the biggest weaknesses in the Indian military — and has been problematic in all our past wars, including the 1999 Kargil war. Unfortunately, however, such historical case studies are generally not taught in our military academies. But besides effectiveness, jointness can also potentially save fiscal resources, an aspect that the services are reluctant to talk about.  

All this apart, it is important to keep in mind that appointing a CDS will not overnight lead to more jointness. Instead, what is required is for civilians (working with the CDS) to bring about an attitudinal shift within the services towards jointness. The best way to bring about such a shift is through professional military education (PME). In the US, this was done with the help of what is known as the Ike Skelton Committee Report, which was published in 1989. We need a similar approach in the Indian military. 

Additionally, currently officers sent to joint organisations like the Andaman and Nicobar Command or the IDS are almost treated as organisational outcasts. Just to illustrate, one should ask the question of how many army chiefs and army commanders (and their air force and naval counterparts) have served in a joint organisation over the last 20 years? I suspect the navy would have some but the other two services, I am willing to imagine, would have very little. I think it is to address issues like that the CDS in his first three months, in consultation with the civilian leadership, has to come up with action-oriented reform roadmap. In sum, therefore while the CDS is a welcome development but we still have a long way to go.

Like other branches in government, the armed forces have their share of gripes over promotion, retirement and chain of command. But lately these grievances have led to the dismissal of one Navy Chief (Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat), a celebrated promotion dispute leading to an Army Chief taking the government to court (General VK Singh) and a Naval Chief’s resignation, taking ‘responsibility’ for the quality of equipment (Admiral DK Joshi). It would be trivialising the incidents to call them tantrums. Yet, they have occurred. How can the country handle these problems maturely?

I am not sure we can create any structure that makes it completely immune to matters pertaining to personalities and temperaments. Other democracies have also had their fair share of controversies. For instance, in 2010, American General Stanley McChrystal had to resign following the publication of an article in Rolling Stone magazine and, in 2017 French General Pierre de Villiers resigned following a dispute with President Macron over spending cuts. But it is also not a coincidence that in India’s case, before each of the incidents which you mention, civil-military relations were highly problematic. Perhaps one approach, like I mentioned before, is to try to remedy the problem of institutional design between MoD and the service headquarters, which perpetuates an “us and them” sentiment. In addition, both civilians and the military officials need to be sensitised and properly informed of each other’s service conditions, and the role that they necessarily play. Hopefully that will lead to a mutually respectful relationship. 

Another intermediary has been added to the structure in the form of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) and the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). Where does this fit?

More than the NSAB that is an outside advisory group, a more interesting development has been the gradual strengthening of powers of the NSCS. I think giving a formal role to the NSCS, on par with the NITI Aayog, is a welcome development. Without such institutional and political support, as we know from past instances, the NSCS was not that important an entity. It is also important to keep in mind that NSCS type organisation is a relatively new experiment in parliamentary democracies. For instance, in the UK an NSC was established only in 2010 and in Japan it was created in 2013. This is therefore very much an experiment in progress and requires to be watched.  Returning however to the theme of civil-military dissonance, even within the NSCS there are tensions due to rank and seniority equivalence between civilians and the military. I also find it intriguing that although the NSCS has a post of a military advisor however, we have never appointed a military officer as a deputy national security advisor. Why, when officers from all other government services have held this post, have we been unable or unwilling to do so? I think the answer to this may lie, in part, to the civil-military schisms that characterise our government.  

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