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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

#3418, 27 June 2011

Firdaus Ahmed

Mr Naresh Saxena, former defence secretary, cabinet secretary and ambassador to the US, is to lead a task force on the next steps in defence sector reforms. His team comprising former chiefs, bureaucrats, military technologists and strategists is to begin work in mid-July and complete its report in six months.

Commentators will be undoubtedly rush to inform the deliberations, leading to strategic commentary that is likely to get both parochial and ugly as the monsoon proceeds. In particular, the face-off between the army and air force will be open to exploitation by status-quoist parties out to derail any substantial movement. The key issues anticipated to figure in the Saxena task force report are the appointment of the CDS, whether this figure would have command or staff responsibilities, integration of the service HQs with the ministry, integration of theatre commands; professionalization of the defence ministry bureaucrats; jointness and higher military education etc. The very constitution of the task force suggests its necessity; ten years since the last bout of post Kargil reforms.

Specifically, the Saxena committee would need to have a determined perspective on how the nation wishes to deploy its military instrument: for compellence, deterrence or defence. That would in turn be a function of what balance India envisages between the strategic choices: ‘sama, bheda, danda, dana’. Defining the latter could be suggested to the government, since the former cannot be done without this prior definition. Once the issue of strategic doctrine is settled, the restructuring necessary to operationalize the doctrine becomes easier. However, the consequences of the restructuring may be missing in the debate. This article, mindful of possible consequences in terms of the ‘security dilemma’, seeks to point out additional necessary measures even as the reforms are proceeded with.

That the reforms are intended to enhance India’s military capability is certain. The logic is that this is necessary to cope with India’s rising power indices, its perception of regional and global responsibilities and security threats. In this logic, the security situation has changed with the rise of China and the possibility of a ‘two front’ situation for India. India may be taking measures to enhance its security, but it must be noted that these measures would enhance the perception of threat of its neighbours, even though India, in its logic, is merely being responsive to prior moves of its neighbours. The upshot is an in-built interactive mutual threat spiral known in theory as the ‘security dilemma’.

India needs to be mindful of its neighbours’ reaction which would ratchet up the threat India itself perceives. India could choose to be complacent about this, believing that higher preparedness brought about by the reforms would enable it to cope better with higher threat levels. Despite this, the recommendation here is that even as India proceeds with the necessary and perhaps long overdue reforms, it needs simultaneously to put into place measures to mitigate the consequence in terms of security dilemmas for both its neighbours and in turn itself.

How can this be done? The expectation is that the reforms would place India in a better position to engage its neighbours, specifically China and Pakistan, from a position of strength. This would be useful for Indian self-assurance and help deter the neighbours. The resulting engagement, for instance, border negotiations with China and the dialogue with Pakistan, would be more outcome-oriented. Materializing this expectation would however require ensuring that the power play in the background does not get ugly and affect the engagement.

It is equally possible that increased capability may result in India believing that it can do without the ‘give and take’ necessary for amicable solutions to outstanding problems. India must therefore alongside keep up the engagement structures and processes that are already at work on both fronts. Yet, these are not enough in the new post-reform circumstance. Additionally, a joint forum for strategic dialogue can be forged with both separately, that would mutually arrive at and implement conflict avoidance measures, confidence-building measures and over time, when greater trust is available, create security architecture conducive for cooperative security.

The advantage of this innovation would be in mitigating the security dilemma. Each state can be expected to respond materially and physically as necessary, since in the realist logic, capabilities are of consequence, not intent. However, the psychological effects of security-related movements by one on the other are amenable to amelioration in case dialogue is in place where concerns can be ventilated. Essentially, the forum could serve to present and explain respective strategic doctrines as non-threatening to the other side. For instance, China’s infrastructural developments in Tibet, presence in POK and water-related initiatives in the east have perhaps instigated the defence reforms in India. The forum could serve to bring future such concerns to each other’s attention. The idea is not to substitute reforms but to complement them.

India is likely to settle for deterrence with an offensive bias. Ensuring that it is not mistaken for compellence is the challenge.

Defence reforms: The next phase
The proposed second round of defence reforms will make the armed forces more utilisable. Nonetheless, this should not blind us to the questionable impulse behind the reforms, writes Firdaus Ahmed.

24 June 2011 - A high-level task force has been set up under former bureaucrat Naresh Saxena to take defence sector reforms forward. The remit is to review progress since the last bout of reforms were carried out pursuant to the report of the Kargil Review Committee in 2001.

This second round of reforms is timely, in the sense of a decade having elapsed since the last deep look at the defence sector. India, and the regional security situation, has moved on considerably and the outlook for the next decade also promises similar change. China is now the principal security concern, necessitating a change-over in defence from being Pakistan-centric. A changed manner of conduct of war has been on display over the past decade in the US military practices, made possible by organisational changes in the face of changing technology.

The second round has been prompted by aspects that have remained undone since - specifically the creation of the position of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), and integration of service headquarters into the ministry. Naresh Saxena is likely to encounter some debate around these two aspects.


Vast changes, turf battles

Politicians are not interested in seeing a concentration of military power in one office. The bureaucrats would prefer to play the role in its absence, since it helps play one service against the other. The services themselves have not evolved a consensus. The Air Force is against the idea. The Army appears to have distanced itself ever since General J J Singh, prior to retiring, said that even the Army could do without it.

While superficially the face-off is over turf, it is actually about deep doctrinal differences on how to fight wars. The Air Force sees a 'strategic' role for itself involving infrastructure busting, military attrition, etc. The Army thinks that the next war would require to be fought more jointly than the Air Force is willing to let on. The doctrinal dissonance requires adjudication that only an empowered CDS can provide. The way the Saxena task force inclines on this score will be critical to its recommendations.

That could also end up defining the remit of the CDS. Would his be an operational function or a staff function? The service chiefs currently combine the two roles in their person. They are loath to give up either and don't want their powers transferred upwards. Additionally, if the service chiefs are relegated to a staff function of creating, managing and provisioning respective services as part of an integrated ministry, the operational side would need to be handled by theatre commanders. This means that organisational restructuring would be very vast indeed.

The committee's role can only be recommendatory. Reforms of such a sweeping nature would require consensus in the political class as well. This may not be forthcoming. In India's evolutionary approach - as against a revolutionary one - grand sweeps are unlikely. Therefore, the task force faces a huge, possibly insurmountable challenge. Consequently, it may choose realistically to inch forward one step at a time.

As for the second task of integration into the ministry goes, this could be better done if and when the chiefs are willing to shed operational responsibilities. Currently, the command culture is so strong in the services that it would be impossible for an officer posted in an integrated ministry to sit in judgment on the service's case. This would be possible in case the chiefs become heads of staff, as their nomenclature suggests.

Anticipating the task force, the outline of reform that emerges then is an integration of service headquarters into the ministry in more than name. Service HQs are now called 'Integrated HQs' and several functions are now delegated to them, including financial. However, much of this is cosmetic, with bureaucrats sitting in judgment over service cases and - in the perception of the services - shutting them out of the policy loop.

Remedying this may require the chiefs to divest their operations function and become respective departmental heads. The operations function could be performed either by command headquarters reporting to an operationally empowered CDS, or by integrated theatre headquarters headed by a integrated Commander in Chief, for example C-in-C Western Front, or C-in-C Special Forces Command, etc. The current reforms may produce a half-way house, creating a CDS responsible for the nuclear dimension operationally and a staff function, so that the next step of integrating the sword arm in integrated commands can await the third bout of reform.

The moot question is: Would any of this make India more secure? This is the expectation. Military power would be made more usable and efficient. A rising power requires greater effort at self-protection and higher responsibilities to bear. The US $35 billion being set aside for defence purchases would be better utilised. A wieldy scalpel or scalable hammer means rationalising structures, doctrines and procedures. So upfront there is no problem with proceeding on course.

A colonial stance?

The problem is with the impulse behind the reform. In case self-defence was the sole motive, this would have been easy to concede. A case for dealing with a 'two-front' security threat would be persuasive, if the threat was manifest. It is debatable if this is so. Instead, the proposed 'reform', in this case, would make India more powerful, and in doing so it would make India appear a threat to its neighbours. If anything, it is this that would lead to the 'two-front' threat.

In other words, the effect of the reform would itself legitimise it. Since India would have the power and the reformed structures to use it, it would be seemingly secure; but assuredly at higher levels of threat. While what is needed now is to mend fences with alacrity, with more muscles there would be less need or inclination to do so.

Secondly, the reform would enable 'out-of-area' capability. A rising India has been asked to shoulder more global responsibility. This would be made possible by easily deployable capabilities, resulting from such reforms. The argument in favour of such a development is that India would need to protect its economy linked to resource bases elsewhere, and a stronger capability for projection of force is warranted, therefore. But this also implies lending its military to purposes that India itself would have in an earlier era labeled 'colonial'.

The government, being of a center-right orientation, has been open to accusations of being 'soft' on defence, particularly after persisting with the strategy of restraint in face of 26/11. Arraigned on multiple fronts, it has also suffered the indignity of witnessing its service chiefs' inapt interventions in the public debate on several occasions over recent past. Compensating for this, and admittedly sensibly also wanting to integrate the services into policymaking, it has perhaps embarked on the next generation of defence reform.

Such reforms being politically useful, the government would find it hard to side-step the recommendations once they are received. Going along would make India more nimble and able no doubt, but also place the country in greater harm's way. Political inability to be responsive to the vast reforms likely to be suggested would place the government once again in the awkward position of seeming 'weak' on defence: a case of doomed if you do and dead if you don't. Watch this space six months from now, when the call is due.