Hopes for Indian Defense Reform Fade
Image Credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

Hopes for Indian Defense Reform Fade


The rout of the ruling Congress party in four recent provincial elections, including one in the national capital of Delhi, has effectively put paid to any hopes that defense reforms will proceed any time soon in India.

Even at the best of times, the government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, now in the last six months of its second term, has been reluctant to alter the country’s defense management architecture.

Now, with the Congress party’s moral and political authority further weakened after the severe electoral setback, Singh and his status quoist Defense Minister AK Antony are likely to put recent recommendations by a veteran group of strategic thinkers and former government bureaucrats permanently in cold storage, despite a half-hearted attempt to kickstart the process a month ago.

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The Naresh Chandra Task Force on National Security, given the mission of recommending changes in national security apparatus, submitted its report in 2012. More than a year later, in October this year, the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC), comprising India’s three service chiefs, came up with a blueprint for implementing some of the main recommendations in the Task Force report and sent it to the Prime Minister’s Office for a final decision.

The expectation was that by early 2014, if not by end of this year, the prime minister would restructure India’s forces to meet the mounting challenges in India’s near abroad and extended neighborhood.

The recommendations are not radical. They include appointing a four-star permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff for a fixed tenure of two years; creating three more tri-service commands: Special Operations, Cyber and Aerospace; and reverting the Andaman Nicobar Command to the Indian Navy.

Creation of the three new commands was deemed necessary to generate more synergy among the three services, seen as largely working in separate verticals. Although the new commands may take some time to become operational, actually setting them up was considered doable in the short term. According to the available details, the proposed cyber command is to be headed by a three-star officer drawn from either of the three services by rotation, the special operations command is to be led by the army, while the aerospace command would be headed by an air force officer.

The task force proposed returning the Andaman Nicobar Command – considered India’s springboard into East Asia and the South China Sea – to the Navy after more than a decade of treating it as a tri-service command. In contrast, the status of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) – custodian of India’s nuclear arsenal – is to remain unaltered.

The biggest sticking point apparently is the appointment of a four-star general or equivalent ranked officer from the Air Force or the Navy, who would act as an interlocutor with the political executive. To be called Permanent Chairman, CoSC, this officer would be a substitute for a long pending demand for a full-fledged five-star Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) along the lines of those in the U.S., U.K. or Australia, to act as a single point military adviser to the government.

Since the appointment of a CDS has been a major bone of contention between the Army and the Indian Air Force – with past experience weighing heavily – successive governments have shied away from going down that road. Appointment of a permanent chairman is believed to be a step short of appointing a CDS.

Based on some of the occasional interaction that this author has had with members of the Task Force, before and after the submission of the report, one aspect is very clear: There was no consensus on the creation of the post of the Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), and this is what prompted the recommendation to appoint another four-star officer as permanent chairman of the CoSC.

Under the recommendation of the Naresh Chandra Task Force, the permanent chairman would have a fixed tenure of two years and would be rotated among the three services. The officer will be assisted by the existing Integrated Defense Staff (IDS), headed by a three-star officer from any of the three services.

Over the past decade, the IDS has evolved into a barely workable tri-services structure with more than 300 officers drawn from the three services trying to function as a cohesive unit tasked with evolving “jointness.” On the ground however, jointness or inter-operability has remained patchy, at best.

The new post, the Task Force is hoping, will also bring synergy in major acquisitions for all the three forces. Often, the three services have worked independently in procuring same set of equipment, duplicating work and creating separate infrastructure when synergy would have saved billions of rupees.

However, critics of the new system say the recommendation to appoint a permanent chairman is simply old wine in a new bottle. It is seen as a non-starter because the chairman will remain ever dependent on each of the services for its personnel requirements. Personnel from each service will be lobbyists for their respective chiefs. Yet another opportunity, these critics say, to reform has been lost. The National Security System does not have to depend on seeking lowest common multiple solutions. It does not have to seek to appease lobbies and turfs.

However, many of the other recommendations of the Naresh Chandra Task Force would bring much-needed vigor to the management of India’s defense forces, and improvements in civil-military relations. From what is known, the task force had also sought integration of the Service HQ and Ministry of Defense by allowing more cross-postings, suggested shifting the focus of India’s national security strategy from Pakistan to China, recommended better Intelligence Coordination among agencies, and proposed the creation of dedicated financial Institution for access to energy, rare earths and raw materials from across the world.

This new structure could have been a major step in breaking the status quo in the country’s higher defense management. However the establishment in New Delhi is loathe to embrace change. Given the uncertain political climate, overcoming this resistance seems a tall order.

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