The controversies around the army chief are symptoms of a deeper malaise
(This is the unedited draft of today’s op-ed in Indian Express)
Like the metaphorical iceberg, what is visible to us in the ongoing controversy involving the army chief and the defence ministry is just the small fraction floating above the line. Much of the public debate has been occupied by trivial issues like his date of birth or scandalous matters like corruption in defence procurement. While the service tenure of an individual officer is of little relevance to national security, corruption among the top brass most certainly is.
What lies below the line is bigger, more dangerous and invisible to the naked eye: the controversies triggered by General V K Singh are manifestations of an organisational structure and culture that is in dire need for change.
Actually, it has been in dire need for change for decades. Ten years ago, the Vajpayee government constituted a committee of experts to study India’s war effort in Kargil. That committee, chaired by the late K Subrahmanyam noted that “an objective assessment of the last 52 years will show that the country is lucky to have scraped through various national security threats without too much damage, except in 1962. The country can no longer afford such an ad hoc functioning.” It proposed a slew of important reforms, few of which have been implemented in spirit. The UPA government instituted another committee under Naresh Chandra last year which is in final stages of submitted its report. We have all the reports. We just don’t have the reforms.
India is facing the strategic environment of the twenty-first century with its armed forces structured largely as they were during the Second World War. The reduced likelihood of a big conventional war—thanks to nuclear deterrence—means that our complacency in not restructuring the armed forces is unlikely to punished in the battlefields that easily. What is more likely is that the outdated structure will eat our armed forces inside out, through corruption, cronyism, indiscipline and inefficiency. Ossified structures seldom reward initiative, risk taking and integrity.
Unfortunately, these have begun affecting the Indian armed forces. Quotas in all but names have emerged for everything from gallantry awards to promotions. While in principle the government can appoint the best man for the job, in practice it is seniority that determines who becomes the army chief. Lower down the hierarchy informal rules determine the speed at which officers in various combat arms are promoted. Not even the comptroller and auditor general can fathom the notional loss to the nation in terms of wasted talent and human capital. What is fathomable is that despite setting aside a defence budget to make India the world’s biggest arms importer, the army chief has complained of shortages in the most basic of warfighting material.
We cannot allow this to go on. We must change the way our armed forces are structured. We must change how our service personnel are trained, equipped and promoted. We must change now.
Such a change can only come from the top — it must be driven by the Union Cabinet with the Prime Minister’s imprimatur. The current moment opens a window of opportunity to carry out transformational change. The doubts and uncertainties created among the higher levels of the army due to the question of General V K Singh’s birth date cannot be left unresolved. There is a risk that it will create deep divisions within the echelons of the army, especially if the losers in this round of the army’s ‘office politics’ feel victimised. Shaking up the organisation is a one good way to put it in order.
As K Subrahmanyam had consistently argued, India needs a Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and theatre commanders. We should adapt the US model to our specific context. Instead of the army, navy and air force operating separately in their own independent commands, we should reorganized them into five theatre commands (Northern, Western, Southern, Eastern and Expeditionary). Brigadier-equivalents must serve outside their respective services in order to qualify for command positions in the combined joint commands.
The roles of military advisors, service chiefs and theatre commanders must be separated. This allows us to balance seniority, experience and talent by placing the right person in the right job.
We also need to rebalance the civil-military relationship. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, as the principal military advisor to the government, must report directly to the Prime Minister and carry ex-officio cabinet rank. This will ensure that the chief executive has direct access to military advice without upsetting civilian supremacy over the armed forces.
Obviously, restructuring the armed forces is not a miracle cure to the problems that plague our defence policy. However, it is the first step. The rest will follow. In the coming months, everyone involved will find it tempting to rejig the procurement process some more, order a few enquiries, appoint another high-level commission and set aside more money for flashy new equipment. That would exactly the kind of ad hoc functioning that the Kargil Review Committee warned that the country can no longer afford. Not least because the armed forces are at great risk of losing in the battleground of public trust.
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