Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2014-05-19 05:48:24 Published on May 19, 2014
Across Asia, there is a great demand for India to play a more active role, one befitting its size and interests. But, whenever push comes to shove, we run up against two problems-first, our economy that lacks heft and second, our military which unable to play a role outside our borders.
Agenda for the new Govt: Reform and restructure the national security system
Among the low hanging fruit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government could pluck in a bid to transform the country, is to restructure and reform the Ministry of Defence and the national security system. This needs no additional expenditure or investment, but it does require tough political leadership, insight and determination. Twice in the last decade and a half—following the attack on Parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai attack of 2008-- India needed its armed forces to punish Pakistan for possible complicity in acts of terrorism against India. But on both occasions, they failed to rise to the occasion. This was not for the lack of any bravery or sense of duty, but simply because they were not ready.

The dysfunctional management and organisation of India's Ministry of Defence and its "attached offices"—the three services— were the primary cause of this. And today, nothing has changed. Another terrorist attack, and another attempt to punish Pakistan could come up with the same unsatisfactory and humiliating conclusion. This is leaving aside the more important challenge—ascendant China which is blatantly flexing its muscles in the South China Sea. Its last year's action in the Depsang Plains indicated that it was capable of springing surprise challenges in what is an otherwise quiet border.

If the incoming Modi government must have a robust foreign policy, it must be anchored on a strong national security system. The lack of such a linkage has led to the historical weaknesses of independent India that led to our defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, and the repeated acts of aggression by Pakistan against our country. Even today, India remains a weak military power, unable to project power beyond its frontiers. Indeed, it remains hard-pressed to defend its borders, and, if you take into account the Maoists, even its heartland.

The government does not lack for advice. Among the documents that the new government will have is a 178 page report with some 400 recommendations, broken up further into some 2,500 smaller actionable points relating to reforming the national security system. These recommendations were made by the Task Force on National Security set up by the UPA government in 2011, chaired by former Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra. However, from the outset, the Task Force faced resistance from the bureaucracies, in particular, that of the Ministry of Defence. In the end, with the aid of the "do nothing" Minister, A K Antony, the recommendations were put into deep freeze.

It needs to be pointed out that the task force was seen as a successor to the first National Democratic Alliance's Group of Ministers (GoM) who had come up with path-breaking reform proposals through a report in 2001. It was felt that after a decade, there was need to revisit the issue since key proposals, such as the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff, had fallen by the wayside. More important was the need to reorient the forces for the dramatic rise of China which became increasingly visible through the 2000s and even more apparent in the wake of the global economic crisis of 2008-2009.

The new government would be well advised to take up the recommendations of the NSTF at the earliest. Its recommendations are not partisan and on the key issue of the Chief of Defence Staff, it has suggested a compromise formula of a permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Yet, according to sources, the babus in the Ministry of Defence are dead set against this appointment. No doubt, the new government would like to put its own stamp on the reforms. But any expert committee is likely to come up with approximately the same set of proposals. So, it is a good idea to take up the Naresh Chandra Committee recommendations to start with and modify them in the coming years wherever desired. This way little time will be lost for a task which is extremely urgent.

The system needs to understand that if the Indian armed forces are going to fight a modern war, they need to do this in an integrated fashion. All modern armed forces have integrated planning and command systems under a Chief of Defence Staff like figure. Refusing to change will condemn us to have what is, at best, a parade ground military. Considering that the interim budget for defence is already Rs 2,24,000 crore, this is a rather extravagant choice for a poor country.

Associated with this is the Ministry of Defence refusal to set its house in order when it comes to Defence R&D and production. We have a huge defence industrial base in the form of 9 Defence Public Sector Units and 39 ordnance factories, yet, we import 70 per cent of our military hardware. The DRDO, for its part has over 50 laboratories. The DRDO, ordnance factories and defence public sector units are a dean of inefficiency and corruption. Examples of the sheer waste are many. The best known, perhaps, is that the Vehicle Factory Jabalpur gets sub-assemblies of Tata and Ashok Leyland trucks, assembles them and passes them on to the armed forces with their own mark-up and a logo saying "Vehicle Factory Jabalpur".

Another example is the Hindustan Shipyards Ltd in Vizag, a DPSU which has been doing a mid-life refit a Kilo-class submarine, INS Sindhukirti, for the past eight years, something that should have been completed in just three. Most observers think that the Sindhukirti is now a write-off, though the shipyard claims it will deliver it by 2015. There is need for a complete overhaul of the system and a large-scale entry of the private sector into defence R&D and industry. Indeed, India also needs large amounts of FDI into the defence industry. If the Indian defence industry is to be a viable enterprise, it will have to establish itself with a global perspective.

There is a great deal more that needs to be done to make the country's borders and coastline safer. Indeed, the biggest challenge that we confront is to have a police system which works. Law and order is a state subject and it is infamously known that state governments refuse to reform their police systems because they want to misuse the police to maintain their power and facilitate corruption. But without a police force that stresses integrity and efficiency, you really cannot fight the challenge of terrorism. There is only so much that the central intelligence organisations can do, the last mile link in any system that can prevent terrorist attack are the local police thanas and beat constables. Over time, efforts have been made to strengthen intelligence coordination and early warning systems through organisations such as the Multi Agency Centre (MAC). There is now need to go beyond MAC to the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC). But minus the contribution of the state-level police, we will be going nowhere.

Across Asia, there is a great demand for India to play a more active role, one befitting its size and interests. But, whenever push comes to shove, we run up against two problems—first, our economy that lacks heft and second, our military which unable to play a role outside our borders. In these circumstances, our foreign policy remains weak and reactive. Mr Modi would certainly like to change this state of affairs, but to do this, he must ensure that he has workable instruments at his command—a flourishing economy, a secure nation and a military which is organised and trained to fight and win wars.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and was a member of the National Security Task Force chaired by Mr Naresh Chandra)

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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