A case for genuine defence reforms
A decade after the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) submitted its recommendations not much has changed. The report had argued that India’s defence structures are woefully outdated and need to be modernised in a purposeful, determined manner. Yet, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the way India organises, equips, manages, employs and rewards its armed forces has remains largely the same as Lord Mountbatten’s staff officer had recommended in the 1940s. Big-ticket arms purchases, development of indigenous weapon systems, new procurement policies and a token change in the form of a integrated defence headquarters might provide political, bureaucratic and military leaders with talking points on military modernisation, but they fall short even by the standards of the 2002 KRC report.
The emerging strategic environment
In the meantime, India’s strategic environment has undergone radical change. First, the rapidly changing military balance along the Himalayan border has raised India’s vulnerability to geopolitical coercion. Nuclear deterrence makes a direct conflict with China unlikely, but the psychological effect of a greatly modernised People’s Liberation Army on the Indian public mind cannot be ignored.
To its west, India has to contend with proxy war through ostensibly ‘non-state actors’ under a nuclear overhang. The use of the sea by terrorists who carried out the 26/11 attack on Mumbai showed that the proxy war is no longer limited to land. With the proliferation of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, the ongoing proxy war might well enter into the aerial domain. Cyberspace is already a battleground.
The recent political upheaval in the Maldives was a reminder to New Delhi that it has an important role in the maintenance of a favourable political & security order in and around the Indian Ocean, from East Africa and the Persian Gulf, to South-East Asia and the Western Pacific Ocean.
The shifting international balance of power is bound to raise the demand for India to project power in theatres such as East Asia, Central Asia and Africa.
Societies around the world have already become radically networked, with profound consequences on the way armed forces conduct operations and use force. Indeed the very concept of ‘victory’ in war may have already been redefined.
India’s strategic environment has changed not merely in the geopolitical sense. Its nature itself has changed. India’s national interests have an increasing global footprint, making geoeconomics far more important in our strategic calculus. As K Subrahmanyam noted in an interview with this magazine in May 2008, knowledge is the currency of power in the twenty-first century.
Each one of these by itself is a profound development requiring a substantial review of how it affects the way India manages its armed forces. In reality, these developments are all simultaneously under way, calling for urgent attention to military reforms. The UPA government instituted a high-level task force headed by Naresh Chandra last year to review and update the Kargil Committee Report. It is unclear if the UPA government intends to move forward on a major defence reform agenda.
What must change?
A doctrine on using force.
India’s lacks doctrinal clarity on the use of force. Apart from defending the country’s territorial integrity it is unclear when, why and how India will use military force. We need this doctrine now as India’s armed forces will need to operate away from its borders and for purposes other than defending them.
Such a doctrine is actualised by a policy on overseas military deployments. Articulating the doctrine and policy prepares public opinion for a future military deployments. More importantly, it allows the armed forces to develop strategies, tactics and capacity to achieve the policy objectives set out by government. Without a policy, the armed forces might be called upon to perform roles without being prepared for them.
Defence economics. If India is able to sustain high economic growth, more resources will be available for national defence. Even if defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP stays at current levels, a fundamental economic review of the defence budget is bound to release additional resources. To achieve this, reforms in the defence budgeting process–essentially employing economic reasoning across the board–are necessary.
The projected demographic and economic shifts suggest that the armed forces will not be able to sustain a labour-intensive organisation. This calls for increasing capital intensity. It is not merely about high-technology weapons systems—it is about equipping every serviceman and woman to carry out operational functions effectively, efficiently and with lowest risk to life. Knowledge intensity, similarly, involves equipping service personnel with mindsets and skills to continuously improve their effectiveness.
Theatre commands. The strategic environment leaves little doubt that India needs combined-services theatre commands. Subrahmanyam had consistently argued that India needs a Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and theatre commanders, drawing from the US model but adapted to India’s circumstances. The three services could be reorganised to create five theatre commands (Northern, Western, Southern, Eastern and Expeditionary). The roles of military advisors, service chiefs and theatre commanders must be separated, with the last selected on the basis of merit from any of the three services.
There are two important success factors. First, restructuring the armed forces must be accompanied by rebalancing 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. Second, brigadier-equivalents must serve in appointments outside their respective services in order to qualify for command positions in the combined joint commands.
New capacity. The armed forces must invest in new capacity specifically to address low-intensity warfare against state- and non-state actors. Currently, they adapt existing capacity to address lower-grade threats. For instance, the Indian Navy uses its modern frigates against Somalian pirates who are frequently equipped with nothing more than assault rifles and rocket launchers. This is a sub-optimal use of resources even when outcomes are satisfactory.
In a restructured armed forces, every theatre command must have a certain degree of expeditionary capacity requisite to its mandate and area of interest. In addition, a dedicated Expeditionary Command is required, allowing India to deploy, supply and operate in the extended neighbourhood.
Going beyond traditional warfighting roles, the armed forces need to invest in capacity to establish basic governance–law & order, electricity, water supply, schools, hospitals–in the final stages of counter-insurgency operations, at home as well as abroad. This is an often neglected gap, addressing which will provide the Indian armed forces with a competitive edge.
Information warriors. Today’s armed forces operate in an era of information abundance using strategies designed for the earlier era of information scarcity. Information control and rationing no longer work in modern conflicts. Military commanders must be able to operate in contexts where there are multiple sources and channels of information flow, achieve victory in war without losing the battle for the narrative. Citizens today are far more aware of their rights, far more concerned about fellow human beings and far more informed about the world. This means small mistakes in the information domain can be catastrophic with respect to the political objectives of war.
Press Start “An objective assessment of the last 52 years,” the KRC report says, “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.” The public discourse on military modernisation currently revolves around procurement delays, purchase scandals and issues of pay and status. The innumerable controversies in these areas divert political attention from the far more important task of setting the ball rolling on genuine defence reforms. Change need not be swift, but it has to be purposeful.