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CDS – A shining future for Indian defence or business as usual ? Part 1

Updated: Feb 17

A few days ago I was exercising at the gym with my headphones tuned into Raisina Dialogues. EAM S Jaishankar was speaking and was his usual eloquent, superbly clear and purposeful self. But when he said a major plank of his foreign policy is India being a Net Security Provider in the Indo Pacific, I was taken aback, lost focus on my dumbell presses and almost injured myself.

I was surprised at the EAM's comment because the Indian Navy is rapidly losing its capabilities while the Chinese Navy (PLAN) is growing by leaps and bounds. Indian Navy has virtually no Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters, no minesweepers and has only a handful of submarines. Soon we will be in no position to be a net security provider. The IAF's qualitative and quantitative edge over PAF has significantly eroded over the years with the force having just 29-30 fighter squadrons against a minimum of 40 needed. The Army is in somewhat better shape but still far from ideal. We have virtually no Cyber Warfare and Info Warfare capabilities.

In this scenario comes what is billed as the most significant defence reform since 1947: creation of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff or CDS. Many commentators present it as the silver bullet that will address most if not all of India's defence problems. But will it ?

In this two-part series on the CDS, we will examine the main problems in higher defence management, analyse the structure of the CDS, assess its efficacy, identify problems and make recommendations to ensure the CDS functions effectively.

Four consequences of bureaucratic control of India's Defence:

National security policy and control of armed forces is rightly vested in the elected government by the constitution. However this control is not exercised by the elected and accountable government – Raksha Mantri and Prime Minister, but by unelected, unaccountable and unsuitable bureaucrats.

This has four consequences:

  • Severe equipment gaps in critical areas as seen earlier

  • Day-to-day functioning of armed forces is compromised

  • Armed forces morale is low and officer recruitment is difficult leading to officer shortages because armed forces officers are treated like second-class citizens by bureaucracy

  • Trust in government is eroded and good work/good intentions of the Prime Minister and Raksha Mantri is undone

RM and PM are unaware of these issues because they get advice only from the bureaucrats who are the source of the problem.

The heart of the problem:

Unlike anywhere else in the world, the Raksha Mantralaya and many parts of military service delivery and administration in India is run by a plethora of different civil services. These include IAS, IDS (Indian Defence Service), IDES (Indian Defence Estates Service), IDAS (Indian Defence Accounts Service), MES/IDSE (Indian Defensive Service of Engineers) etc officers who have no interest, passion or expertise for national security issues. Sadly they also have no empathy and concern for the nation’s soldiers.

This leads to them applying completely unsuitable frameworks borrowed from their experience as revenue collectors, license givers and civil administrators to a highly dynamic domain defined by high technology, complex multi-dimensional threats, life and death decisions and highly complex equipment, logistics and procurement issues.

Naturally this has consequences :

  1. 5 Year Defence plans are not funded – Armed forces make perspective plans called LTIPP (Long Term Integrated Perspective Plans) which are then translated into 5-year equipping plans and approved by the highest body of the government - the CCS (Cabinet Committee for Security). But these are just paper exercises as budgetary support for the plan comes from the annual budget. So these 5 year plans are meaningless even after CCS approval because they are not funded. And CCS approval carries no weight because all funding decisions will be decided by exigencies of annual budget.

  2. Procurement process – There is an 11-step procurement process from AON (Acceptance of Necessity) to signing of contract. This process is simply not functioning and the issues are well known so I will not elaborate here. Key issue is that a non-domain expert and non-caring bureaucrat needs to approve every level. And our enemies can sabotage at any level by asking a question or raising an objection. The system is designed to stop procurement, not support it. It is well known that the much vaunted Strategic Partnership Policy which was to keep select projects for the Indian private sector has been a non starter. Private sector has been elbowed out by the DPSUs. And it is well know that, despite some islands of excellence, OFB is largely an ocean of incompetence. Around 20% of ammunition made by OFB is rejected as unsafe every year.

  3. Higher Defence Management – There are 5 Secy level officers in Raksha Mantralaya. They are technically equal to COAS and are from IAS/IDS + 1 from DRDO. They run the ministry, control information flow to RM and are the main advisers. Shri Parrikar and Shri Fernandez tried to break their stranglehold and instil some empathy for armed forces. For example, Shri Parrikar discovered $ 3 billion lying in a forgotten account. He also ordered Raksha Mantralaya to stop fighting court cases against veterans where lower courts had already decided in their favour – there were 1000s of cases where the entire might of the government was being used against veterans. He found cases where Indian firms exported shoes to western armies but were not allowed to supply to Indian army. Shri Fernandez famously asked bureaucrats to go to Siachen when they refused to sanction heating stoves for the army in Siachen.

  4. Armed Forces are losing faith in Modi govt due to bureaucracy – Despite efforts by Modi government, IAS/IDS/IDAS lobby has destroyed all the good work. MES (IDSE) civil officer status has been made higher than the army officers they report to and so they refuse to attend station commander's conferences. Recently TA/DA of officers proceeding on official duty was cancelled because of shortage of funds. This created a lot of pain and bad blood. NFU is another issue which is causing a lot of heartburn. And of course the withdrawal of tax exemption on disability pension, a privilege that has been around for 90 years, has really hurt the sentiments of the forces. On many parameters the armed forces are now below even the CAPFs in terms of benefits.

The 80/20 rule and CDS:

Time tested wisdom tells us that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Let's see how this works in national defence.

To the issues we discussed earlier let us add one more - Jointness. There is a lot of talk about Jointness but as we have seen most of the problems plaguing defence stem from bureaucratic control of higher defence management. Bureaucratic control is 80% of the problem but national discourse focuses on 20% of the problem – Jointness. Possibly because no one wants to take on the Sir Humphreys !

Be that as it may, the CDS is certainly the biggest defence reform since independence.

The role of the CDS can be broken up into two main parts. Firstly, he will be Principal Military Advisor to government, Permanent Chair of Chiefs of Staff Committee, and of course the Chief of Defence Staff. The primary role will be advice to the RM/PM/CCS and bringing about Jointness. He has also been tasked coming up with a plan to create theatre command in 3 years. This time bound objective is excellent and shows the seriousness of the government on Jointness. But as I demonstrated, this only 20% of the problem.

Therefore the CDS's second role as head of the Department of Military Affairs or DMA in the Ministry of Defence is far more interesting and important to analyse. This is where there is still a lot of ambiguity, rumours of deep resistance by the bureaucracy, concerns of further degradation of the Armed Forces and a lot of unanswered questions.

We will analyse all these issues in depth in Part 2 of the series. The author will also share some insights he has gained from a senior bureaucrat at the Ministry of Defence.

Till then, I wish you and your family a very happy Republic Day.

You can follow the author on twitter: https://twitter.com/Ak5985965


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