Reforming higher defence easier said than done

In a lucid column published in this newspaper on July 13 titled “Still marching in the past” journalist and editor, Shekhar Gupta, has commented on the existing higher defence command structure in our country. He has correctly stated that what we have in 2018 is little different to what we had six decades ago even as the needs have changed and that 19 individual commands for the three armed services are hardly conducive to integrated management of the battlefield which modern warfare dictates. These criticisms cannot be brushed aside easily even as we should analyse why things are as they are.

Until the mid-80s the Army, Navy and Air Force operated in their own secluded compartments with both planning and operations executed independently. We did fight several wars when all came into play but mainly through some informal interaction going by the name of coordination; not surprisingly, the Army’s position held sway. There were frequent differences and some were highlighted by late Air Chief Marshal P C Lal in his reminiscences of the 1971 war. In 1985, the government took note of these and constituted an integrated body called the defence planning staff (DPS) comprising equal numbers of quite senior officers from the three services and associated civilian advisers from the Scientific Wing and the Ministry of External Affairs; the last mentioned never joined the team. A distinguished vice-chief level officer headed the team as DGDPS. However, this body, which functioned under the rotational chairman, Chiefs of Staff did some basic work but had no say in operational matters. Even in the planning field, its instructions were to collate plans of the three services rather than to make integrated studies of their own. Sadly, it received little support from its own masters and the next several heads were all relatively junior three star officers or those headed for retirement. By the time Kargil came in 1999, this organisation had become toothless. 

Illustration by Ajaya Kumar Mohanty
Following the clear mistakes made in 1999, leave aside the gallantry and bravery of young soldiers on ground which led us to recapture all lost territory, the government constituted a Kargil Review Committee (KRC) headed by the well known Defence Analyst, the late K Subrahmanyam. The KRC pointed out several shortcomings in higher defence management, intelligence, internal security and border management and advised a thorough review of each. To his credit, PM Vajpayee acted swiftly and set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by no less a person than Deputy PM L K Advani and comprising the defence, finance, home and external affairs ministers. Four separate committees were set up by the GoM to look at the four sectors seen as weak by the KRC and former minister in the ministry of defence, Arun Singh, a known expert in that field, was selected to head the one looking at higher defence management. Interestingly and correctly, while all other groups comprised retired experts who had held pivotal positions whilst in service, the one under Arun Singh had all serving officers other than one; to quote Arun Singh, there was need for someone who did not have any vested interest.

Over four months and working at a hectic pace, Arun Singh produced his report to the GoM. During discussions, especially on integrated command and control in the armed forces, several differences were expressed, mainly by the Air Force. It was their view that independent operational control with some coordination had succeeded in the past and would do so in the future. The Navy and to some extent the Army, were more amenable to the concept of integrated commands. Ultimately, like in all such broad spectrum issues, Arun Singh had to accept a compromise solution. Individual commands would remain but two new integrated institutions would be created, namely, Andaman and Nicobar Command for the islands and Strategic Command to deal with nuclear issues. The DGDPS was restored to the vice-chief rank and re-named as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (CISC) and his staff was augmented considerably both in ranks and numbers but he continued to remain answerable to the rotational Chairman Chiefs of Staff. Arun Singh did recommend that this gentleman should be the principal military advisor and over and above the service chiefs and this advice was accepted by the GoM but has been kept in limbo for the last 17 years by political dispensations of different hues. In sum, therefore, the CISC is no different to what was created in 1985 but with a much larger bureaucratic structure. The two integrated commands have functioned, presumably with desired results though their heads are no longer tri-service but vesting with the Navy and Air Force respectively. Meanwhile there are suggestions for setting up some more commands, namely, cyber, special force operations et al. The existing 19 individual commands remain. 

Why is it that integrated commands for military operations are unnecessary in India when they are the norm in almost every major country in the world is a question that may well be asked. One reason is that in India, not just its politicians but also its military, think of ‘threats’, which are short-term, rather than ‘interests’ which are longer-term. Since threats are essentially on land, the service that has responsibility (Army) must have command; others can only be supportive. Second, why tinker with a system that has delivered. Third, will a permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff be more assertive and, therefore, become a ‘problem’. Fourth, will it be wise to place operational command of forces under such a chairman. Fifth, will this not further dilute the already diminished stature of individual service chiefs. Answers to these are not easy and the ‘best’ solution is to let the status quo remain. Such reforms elsewhere have been enforced through ‘top down’ political direction and mostly against the wishes of the military hierarchy but it is unlikely that this can be done in India where resistance to change is the ethos. So, any assessment that the present system is archaic is right but hopes that it can be redeemed anytime soon are optimistic. 

The author has served as director general, defence planning staff, and was a member of the Arun Singh Committee on higher defence management post retirement