Time to restructure the Indian armed forces

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 What is more likely is that the outdated structure will eat our armed forces inside out, through corruption, cronyism, indiscipline and inefficiency.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.

Copyright © 2012. Indian Express. All Rights Reserved

Making defence procurement uncontroversial

Fixing complex procurement rules and getting over our hypocrisy over middlemen

Sadly but unsurprisingly public debate over General V K Singh’s comments to the media is overwhelmingly concerned with personal motives, interests and conduct of the individuals involved. Given what has made it to the public domain is a fraction of a whole saga most “Why?” questions have no known answers, forcing people to impute motives and connect dots. Since everyone loves a good ‘scam’ we can expect the heat and decibel levels to go up in the coming days. [See a related post on “What to debate while debating in the dark.”]

The most important question though has answers that are not cloaked in secrecy but are in plain sight. That question is: Why are there endless controversies over defence procurement, for things ranging from frozen meat to coffins, from trucks to helicopters? Inability to make defence procurements uncontroversial is not merely a corruption-related issue. It is a national security issue. If all you need to do to slow down India’s military modernisation is a plausible scandal, everyone from India’s strategic adversaries to disgruntled equipment vendors have an inexpensive option to do us in.

So why, despite endless revisions of procurement policies and rules, despite putting personally incorruptible ministers in charge, despite the efforts of honourable general officers to clear things up, do we still have a situation where someone can allegedly walk up to the army chief’s office and offer him a bribe? [See Nitin Gokhale’s report]

The answer is because our defence procurement rules are too complex and we have made it illegal for those who can help navigate through these byzantine rules to operate openly. As I wrote in a 2007 op-ed in Mint:

Given their remarkable resilience, there has been no attempt towards examining why middlemen exist in the first place. Ironically, is this inability to come to terms with the fact that middlemen might play a useful economic role in a system with complex regulations has not prevented this government from further complicating regulations to keep them at bay. [Mint]

To make defence procurements uncontroversial then either we must simplify the procurement procedures or allow middlemen to operate under a regulatory framework. But why are procurement procedures complicated in the first place? That’s because we add too many objectives to a single purchase. Beyond whether a given purchase is effective, we are concerned about indigenisation, technology transfer, offsets and suchlike. At the same time we are frequently oblivious to the geopolitical implications of large purchases. My colleagues and I have argued in favour of liberalising the defence procurement regime so that the armed forces get the best bang for the buck. [See this Takshashila Discussion Document]

Others might disagree with the need to liberalise defence procurement and that argue that complex procurement rules are unavoidable. Even in this case, the policy on middlemen must still change. If rules are complex there will be those who can make money from navigating through them. That’s how lawyers, chartered accountants and travel agents make a living. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or immoral about middlemen, agents and lobbyists. It is our rules that make them so, driving underground a genuine economic activity.

Instead of prohibiting middlemen in defence procurement, a far better policy would be to create a regulatory framework under which they can operate legitimately. Agents could be required to declare their past and current affiliations, and disclose relevant family connections. Former defence officers and their civilian counterparts could be required to serve out a cooling off period before getting into the business. The policy objective ought to be to align—to the extent possible—the economic incentives of the middlemen to the organisational interests of the armed forces.

While there can be a genuine debate over the best approach to military modernisation—on what is the right balance between liberalisation, indigenisation, public and private sectors—it is hard to see how we can continue to justify the failed policy on middlemen. Unless you are blind to reality, blinkered by sanctimoniousness or bound by hypocrisy, it should be clear that the consequences of the anti-middleman mindset are eating into the moral fabric of our defence services.

Related Post: A military modernisation manifesto

A breach in the defence ministry?

It is too early to point fingers (especially without evidence)

Last year there was an eavesdropping controversy supposedly targeting the finance minister and his aides. It has now been reported—and denied—that the defence minister’s office might have been bugged. If it is indeed true that A K Antony’s conversations were being overhead, this is not a trifling matter. We still do not know what became of Pranab Mukherjee’s case. That obfuscation might have good reasons (in the public interest) and bad ones (in the partisan political interest). So it becomes all the more troubling to know that yet another important cabinet minister might have been targeted for eavesdropping.

While good journalism would investigate the matter, making allegations without evidence is dangerous. Most media reports somehow find it relevant to mention the recent controversy over the army chief’s date of birth in a report of suspected bugs in Mr Antony’s office. They insinuate a connection without any evidence.

India Today’s, Sandeep Unnithan goes a step further. “The needle of suspicion,” he writes using the passive voice, “has been pointed at the army. Sources say it is possible that the MI (military intelligence) team stumbled upon the bug planted by another team”. We do not know who these ‘sources’ are? We do not know why they think the MI team should ‘stumble’ upon a bug instead of ‘finding’ it as part of their professional routine?

He then says “Defence Ministry officials believe that the Army was snooping on phone conversations around South Block.” This is better. We know that it is defence ministry officials who are making these allegations, although we do not know if it is a gossiping clerk or a top official leaking information to the media in the public interest. It could be anyone.

Mr Unnithan then goes on to provide evidence that the Army has equipment that can listen in to phone conversations. But there’s a, well, bug in his story. If the Army has “off-the-air” interceptors and “passive cellular surveillance systems” why would it need to plant a bug in Mr Antony’s office? Intercepting cellphones does not require planting of bugs in the defence minister’s office. If we presume that the Army already has the ability to tap fixed line telephones, then why would they need plant a bug at all? Also it’s not only the Army that has these devices. There were at least 73,000 such passive interception devices in government and private hands last year.

The bug might have been placed to eavesdrop into offline conversations. In which case, the whole story of the Army’s surveillance equipment and ‘shadowy’ military intelligence divisions is as irrelevant or relevant as any other explanation. The needle of suspicion has many directions to point at. At this point we just do not know.

There is no doubt that recent events have increased mutual mistrust and antagonism between the civilian and uniformed defence officials. So suspicions and conspiracy theories are to be expected. Journalists have an important responsibility to ensure that these are not unduly stoked by the manner of their reportage.

On NDTV: How should we appoint top military leaders?

The real issue is not legal or administrative. It’s about how we appoint our top military ranks

(Watch the whole show on NDTV’s website)

In a previous post I argued that there is too little in the public domain on the matter of General V K Singh’s date of birth issue. Given this, the only point I made in the show was that we can no longer accept a system where the senior-most lieutenant-general automatically becomes the army chief. That the ‘seniority principle’ is not only flawed in itself, but, as this episode shows, can be manipulated. In closing I draw attention to the need to update and implement the recommendations of the Kargil Committee Report.

What to debate when you are debating in the dark

The General’s birthday lawsuit is a red herring

Much is being said and written, often with great passion, about the controversy over General V K Singh’s age. [See Mint’s editorial, Manoj Joshi’s article in Mail Today and this report in the New York Times for a background.]

That it has taken the Indian Republic into hitherto uncharted territory is not in doubt. Without real political leadership and competent management of the behemoth called government, it is likely that matters will end up in court. That has happened. If the Supreme Court decides on the issue (or whatever it decides, including referring it to the Armed Forces Tribunal), a legal precedent would be set. Now, both unwritten norms and legal precedents can be decorous and inexpensive ways for organisations to function. But the transition from norms to legal precedents often gets complicated, ugly and dirty. It is a test for the Indian system, and on the face of it, there is no reason to believe that it will fail.

On the public debate itself, the fact is that very little about what happens behind the closed walls of the army headquarters and the defence ministry is in the public domain. Few people outside the defence establishment, and some of those within, know what the real motivations of the various parties involved are. The phrase “those who know, won’t talk; and those who talk don’t know”, is relevant to this case. So we end up with gossip, speculative commentary or an opportunity for people to unleash their own biases and take potshots at their favourite targets.

Does this information asymmetry mean we don’t debate the matter at all? Far from it. It merely means that the issue must be framed in a manner so as to hold to account those in government who ought to know the facts and are accountable to us. In this case, the Defence Minister. What was A K Antony doing all this while and why? That is the governance issue here. The army chief’s age is itself an procedural, administrative or legal matter, but for purposes of overall governance, it is a red herring. The incompetence, inability or unwillingness of the Defence Minister and the Cabinet Committee on Security, and through collective responsibility—the Prime Minister and his Cabinet—to handle this matter before it blew up is the question that we both can and should debate.

Can a government that manages an administrative matter in so cavalier a manner be trusted to manage matters relating to national defence any more effectively?

Pakistan’s ‘second’ nuclear arsenal

My talk at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi

Earlier this month, I presented my analysis of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal at CLAWS. A summary of the talk and discussion is up at their website. Excerpt:

Pakistan is worried for its nuclear safety and the US view on its nuclear programme. The second nuclear arsenal would be outside the ambit of its regular arsenal and could be brought into play if any attempt is made to take out its regular arsenal by any agency distrustful of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads.

Possible existence of a second nuclear arsenal increases the risk for the US and also imposes an asymmetric threat to India. Such an arsenal will fuel an arms race in the Middle East especially in view of the Saudi-Pak nuclear convergence and cooperation with respect to growth of Iran’s nuclear capability. India for its part must disabuse all concerned that it is in a nuclear arms race and promote stability in the region. Perhaps if India can act as an interlocutor between Iran and the USA and bring about a rapprochement between the two countries, it could promote strategic stability in the region and prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. [Shah Alam/CLAWS]

Related posts: Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear capacity? The arms race in the Middle East; Not our problem; and, MUD not MAD

What are they smoking in the Pentagon?

The things Mullen & Petraeus will believe

Bob Woodward’s book casts the top uniformed leadership of the US armed forces in very poor light. Going by this report in the New York Times today, you’ll have to agree that Mr Woodward was not far off the mark.

Consider these two consecutive sentences:

For now, there are no signs that Cold Start is more than a theory, and analysts say there is no significant shift of new troops or equipment to the border.

But American military officials and diplomats worry that even the existence of the strategy in any form could encourage Pakistan to make rapid improvements in its nuclear arsenal. [NYT]

Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus (and their civilian colleague, Richard Holbrooke) want to warn the Indian government against committing thoughtcrime. They offer the incredible argument that the very notion that India will respond to Pakistani terrorism with a military attack scares the Pakistani army and hence must not even be thought of.

These gentlemen can’t be serious.

Little wonder then that President Obama is unlikely to bring this up during his India trip. That it was previously discussed—with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying unambiguously such a doctrine is not government policy—is in itself a sign of the credulity and, yes, incompetence currently reigning at the top levels of the US armed forces.

Sushant & I have previously argued that India should do an Operation Markarap to scotch one excuse the Pakistani army has offered to the United States to obfuscate the real reasons for its foot-dragging. But if some US officials believe that India must be persuaded to stop thinking about its defence strategies, then there are few polite ways to tell them what to do.

Related Links: Polaris explains the Cold Start thing and Walter Ladwig has a good academic paper on the topic.

The Blocked Sewage Pipe Theory of military dictatorships

It’s all downhill for Kayani now

You would be foolish to think that you can rub off the entire top echelon of the Pakistani army’s general staff on the wrong side and get on with life as usual. Look at the last two power transitions in that country—Nawaz Sharif was ousted because he made the cardinal mistake of being less than respectful in his treatment of General Jehangir Karamat and then General Musharraf. In his turn, General Musharraf was ultimately pushed out because the army hierarchy had had enough of him. The rigidly hierarchical pyramid that is the Pakistani army is at once highly competitive at a peer level and unappreciative of anything that disrupts upward movement. Those who mess with the dynamic end up paying a dear price for it.

It doesn’t need you to be particularly astute to figure this out. But the trappings of power, headiness of perceived victories and public sycophancy by US officials militates against the exercise of good sense. Then fall, Caesar. It’s General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s turn now.

General Kayani might have secured a three-year extension but in doing so, he has ensured that as many as 24 lieutenant-generals—the entire lot of them—will not stand a chance to become army chief, unless something untoward happens to the overstaying incumbent. There are around 170 major-generals many of who will be affected too. That makes for quite a lot of disgruntled officers who would wish ill of their boss.

A general who gets an extension is like a blockage in a sewage pipe. If the blockage is not cleared, the pipe will burst. There’s always more sewage, pressure builds up relentlessly and no one wants the sewage pipe to burst. Not even US officials. So it is the blockage that is cleared.

General Kayani played a masterful hand so far. He would have done well to hang up his boots in November. Alas, power and hubris got the better of him. It’s downhill for him now. The dagger-sharpeners of Rawalpindi will see increased custom in the coming months.

What triggered the Lahore massacre?

Bigotry was an unlikely trigger

“How can anyone blame a Muslim,” the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked rhetorically in a landmark 1993 judgement, “if he loses control of himself on hearing, reading or seeing such blasphemous material as has been produced (by the Ahmadis).”

Initial reactions to the terrorist attack on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore yesterday have focused on the official and popular bigotry against the heterodox sect in Pakistan. Intolerance towards the Ahmadi community is being seen as the explanation behind the massacre of worshippers, allegedly and by their own admission, by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and the ‘Punjab wing of al-Qaeda’.

While that narrative explains why the Ahmadis were targeted at all, it does not answer the important question of “why now?” Ahmadis have been victims of official discrimination, political violence and popular invective for as long as Pakistan has existed. ‘Sectarian’ terrorist groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) have not only been in existence for a long time but are political allies of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party that is in power in Punjab province.
Organisations like these had the capability and the motives to massacre Ahmadis all this while, but until yesterday, the violence was ‘below the radar’.

There is a need, therefore, to look beyond religious bigotry as the immediate cause of yesterday’s violence.

Tthe attacks could have been triggered by the allegation—by Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir—that the controversial Khaled Khawaja was, among others, working for the Ahmadis. Because Mr Mir’s words were widely publicised it is possible that hotheads in one or more of the militant groups decided to deliver a violent response. While this has happened in the past—as when a television personality’s anti-Ahmadi vitriol triggered a lynching—it was never on this scale.

If the Lahore attacks indicate that reactionary violence has escalated to this scale, then Pakistan is closer to the precipice that many people think. It is also unlikely. Instead, the scale of the attacks and the choice of the targets suggests that the Pakistani military establishment has once again, used terrorism to change the dynamics of its current situation. The large number of casualties will grab international attention. That the targets were Ahmadis will not play too badly with the domestic audience. But why?

The Pakistani military establishment uses terrorism essentially to create conditions that are favourable to its leadership and interests.

First, Taliban violence in Afghanistan primarily rises and falls with Washington’s moves away and towards Pakistan’s proxies there.

Second, terrorist attacks in Pakistan primarily rise and fall with Washington’s moves away and towards the Pakistani military establishment. Scaring the United States with the bogey of jihadis getting hold of nuclear weapons is an old, time-tested way for the army chief to be anointed with sash of indispensability. Escalating violence or triggering political crises also allow the military establishment to fend off US pressure to do things that it does not want to do.

Third, terrorist attacks in India primarily rise and fall with the Pakistani army’s need for an alibi to avoid fighting along the Durand Line. They are also connected with ensuring that the Pakistan army remains the real power in the country, regardless of what the civilian government wishes.

For the last several months, it appeared that General Kayani was having his way with the United States—with the London conference, strategic dialogue with the Obama administration, inflow of funds and so on. Compared to the violence of the previous year, things were relatively quiet in Pakistan…until Faisal Shahzad turned up and rocked the military establishment’s boat. Suddenly, not only was Hillary Clinton warning of dire consequences, but the US national security advisor and CIA chief personally put the Pakistan army on notice to move against militants in Waziristan. Meanwhile General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani is looking for ways not to retire on schedule.

As long as the United States keeps the pressure on the army to move into North Waziristan, there is a higher risk of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The risk increases to the extent that there is a lack of clarity as to whether General Kayani will stay on.

Has the Inter Jihadi League started?

A good chance that it has

In March, Sultan Amir “Colonel Imam” Tarar and Khaled Khawaja—men deeply mixed up in the Pakistani military-jihadi complex—were kidnapped. By the end of April, Mr Khawaja was found dead. This week the government of Pakistan’s Punjab province announced that Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the chief of the Pakistan army-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba, is in the crosshairs of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

In February 2009 this blog argued that conflict between jihadi groups aligned to different quarters within the military-jihadi complex is possible, and the question was one of timing. Again in October 2009, in a post on the coming fratricidal war among Pakistan’s jihadis, this blog suggested that:

Despite their principals in the military establishment being at loggerheads, the proxies themselves have so far not attacked each other. Shared ideology, old boy networks and management by the ISI on the one hand and by the al-Qaeda leadership on the other have prevented a large scale fratricidal war among the jihadis. While a hot conflict between the jihadi proxies of the GHQ and Gul & Co factions is unlikely, it is not impossible. If the management mechanisms come under stress, the jihadis could train their guns against each other. [The Acorn]

It’s hard to say for sure, but there is a chance that the playoffs in the Inter-Jihadi League may have begun in earnest.