Towards integration in defence

The Armed Forces have recently put out a joint doctrine, their second in 10 years, the first having been promulgated in 2007. This document has been variously described as ordinary, devoid of substance, innocent of realities and unrelated to the country’s strategic needs by many commentators, including a former navy chief who, as member of two high-level groups in 2001 and 2011, had been party to measures recommended to streamline the three Services to one common purpose. This writer was a member of the first of these. Nearly two decades after that exercise, it is time to review the whys of what was said, and even more important, the wherefores.

It was a Task Force on Higher Defence Management led by former minister Arun Singh which steered the 2001 work that led to comprehensive recommendations by a Group of Ministers (GOM) chaired by then Deputy PM LK Advani. The GOM itself arose from a report of the Kargil Committee, constituted following that conflict. Casting a wide net, it suggested that our Armed Forces, as structured, operated in compartments, when the need of the hour was for integrated mechanisms which had been put in place by almost every other modern counterpart. To this purpose, but not for it alone, a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was recommended who would be the principal military advisor to the government and oversee joint operational functioning of the three wings.

However, instead of following this logic, as in the United States and UK and many other countries, the task force preferred to make him responsible for policy and planning, creating two unified commands for starters, one in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the other, as a strategic command; these could be expanded upon with experience gained.

This left the more visible and important element of operations to individual Service Chiefs and only ensured that the prevailing situation would continue; that is exactly what has happened. In 2011 another committee headed by a former cabinet secretary, Naresh Chandra, was constituted.  It made its own set of suggestions, but in regard to unified command and control, went in a direction which was neither here nor there. It changed the nomenclature of the CDS to Chairman, Chiefs of Staff, without assigning to him any meaningful responsibility — no national security strategy from which military strategies (joint or otherwise) should flow, no single-point military advice to the political authority and no integration other than that which can only pass as cosmetic. 

From left: Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba and Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat. Integration of the three Services does not seem feasible for now
In retrospect, the stress on unification and integration was an idea whose time had not yet come.  It can hardly be argued that things have not happened as desired because the powers that be are ignorant of the issues. If two NDA governments and two of the UPA have been unable to put the jigsaw together, there must be some good reason and it is necessary to look at the matter afresh. India is still a largely continental country and threats to its territorial integrity, such as they are or have been, have always emanated from across its land  borders; to this should be added those arising from terrorism, either sponsored from outside or internal.

This clearly calls for land-based responses of various kinds, supported by the use of air power where necessary. The sea figures only notionally in this activity. Yes, in recent decades, especially, the last two, recognition of the potential to exploit           maritime power — where we have strengths — towards the larger strategic objectives has                grown exponentially but issues at sea still do not threaten our territorial integrity to that same extent. So, even as we should seek to enhance our maritime prowess and recognise its strategic potential, we should not overlook the seminal role that land power will continue to play in our security concerns.

It is not anyone’s contention that this implies that the three wings of the military should not have synergistic management in higher defence or operate in water-tight compartments. We do need a single-point military advisor who must be an army person in the foreseeable future, and that authority should oversee operational functions, leaving force development and planning to the individual services. We could also have some army-air force unified commands especially in the northern sectors. We should integrate military headquarters with the ministry of defence more meaningfully than just in name and we should streamline our defence acquisitions, which we are somehow finding difficult to do, and include both public and private sectors in this process. But we must recognise that recommendations made by two very knowledgeable and experienced groups have not been able to satisfactorily resolve the peculiarities of the Indian context and, therefore, the optimal concept of full integration is not feasible for some time to come. 

The sum of Rs 2.74 lakh crore that we will spend this year on defence preparedness is not something to be scoffed at. It must give value for money not just in numbers and types of ships or aircraft or guns or tanks, but in the quality of management that their exploitation must involve. From all accounts, our existing structures do not allow us to do so and need to be revisited. 

Only a “top down” approach which could be rammed down achieved results in other countries; there is no way in which it can be done differently here. Let the national security advisor or any other person enjoying credibility with the top leadership head a very small team of three or four people and let there be “diktats” linked with time frames for implementation. We have the demonetisation model before us — an order was issued at the highest level, and thereafter execution was ensured through continuous monitoring and time-bound action.

Finally, all this will also not be useful if there is no overriding larger strategy. This need not be in tomes of literature; two pages of bullet point formulation will suffice. Until we go about this business with single-minded focus, unconvincing papers like the joint doctrine will be all that we will get. 

The writer was member of the Arun Singh Task Force on Higher Defence Management. He has also served in the National Security Advisory Board


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