Home/ Opinion / Defence reforms: time to execute the vision

In 1967, ahead of the fourth general election, the New Delhi correspondent for The Times (London), Neville Maxwell, emphatically concluded that “the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed... society is going to slip out of reach of an ordered structure of civil government and the army will be the only alternative source of authority and order". Maxwell, a sympathizer of the Chinese Maoist revolution, was never taken seriously in India and his prediction was proven wrong.

While many newly decolonised countries in Asia and Africa were successively falling into the hands of the army, India was helped by “coup proofing" (detailed in Steven Wilkinson’s brilliantly researched book Army and Nation) undertaken during prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure.

2015, however, is neither 1947 nor 1967. It is time to undo some of the measures that were taken in the early years of Independence to intensify inter-services rivalry and thus reduce the coordination between them. Today’s challenges require a coordinated armed force that can work in tandem in different spheres of planning, training, procurement and operations. It is in this context that the speech of Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered last week while presiding over the Combined Commanders Conference on board INS Vikramaditya, off the coast of Kochi, holds significance. Modi said: “We have been slow to reform the structures of our armed forces... we should promote jointness across every level of our armed forces. We wear different colours, but we serve the same cause and bear the same flag. Jointness at the top is a need that is long overdue."

A number of committees have gone into the necessity of a chief of defence staff (CDS) and Manohar Parrikar, the defence minister, has himself signalled the government’s intention to create such a post. The CDS will be a four-star general and serve as a single point of contact for the defence minister. He would be accorded a place above the three service chiefs in the pecking order. Little progress, however, has been made due to the infamous service-bureaucracy wrangling.

To be sure, the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had taken a major step by creating the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). But the three-star chief mandated for the IDS—the chiefs of the three services are four-star officers—lacked the institutional heft to achieve effective “jointness at the top". This NDA government should go the distance.

Modi also laid out a vision for India’s future and its place in the world. The neighbourhood continues to remain his top priority. The focus on Indian Ocean and articulation of a need for a maritime strategy was a long time coming from the leader of a country with a coastline exceeding 7,500km.

“India and China," Modi believes, “can engage constructively across the complexity of their relationship as two self-assured and confident nations."

At the same time, he is not harbouring any delusions of friendship with China. This is clear when he says, hinting at China, that major powers have increased their engagement in our land and maritime neighbourhood. From Maldives and Sri Lanka in the seas to Nepal and Bhutan in the mountains, India is working to safeguard its interests and relationships, he added. While geographic advantage and the partnership with the US places India in a better situation to deal with China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean, the yawning capability gap with China on the continental boundary remains a source of worry.

A conflict with a major power like China, if it were to happen, may extend well beyond the typical theatres into the domains of cyber, space, nuclear and covert capabilities. A CDS, in charge of the three services and the tri-services command at Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the strategic forces command and the upcoming cyber, aerospace and special operations command, therefore becomes all the more important.

Modi also talked about building domestic defence capabilities under the umbrella of ‘Make in India’. While some liberalization in the foreign direct investment policy has already been announced, a lot more needs to be done, especially on the regulatory front. For instance, creating a level playing field between the state-owned public sector units and the private firms will go a long way in boosting investments and innovation. A new defence procurement policy, currently being worked upon, is keenly awaited. Parrikar’s biggest challenge will be to lead India to becoming a major defence manufacturer.

To sum up: the vision is perfect, but Modi and Parrikar have their work cut out.

Should the post of chief of defence staff be created at the earliest? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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Updated: 22 Dec 2015, 11:01 PM IST
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