Originally Published 2012-07-03 00:00:00 Published on Jul 03, 2012
While the defence of our motherland is the mandate of the toiling soldier, that soldier too needs to be shielded from unjust onslaughts. The defender must be defended. If we ignore this fundamental truth, we will do so at our own peril.
Military matters deserve special care
Now that the dust has settled and the new Army Chief is in place, it is time to ensure that a sense of déjà vu does not prevail. The momentum generated by the recent happenings would indeed not be wasted if it leads to our seriously addressing the country’s core military concerns.

The office of the Army Chief plays a crucial role in the defence of the country, a role not confined just to times of war. This office represents national military continuity and goes with high standards of integrity. However much the power of military may be constitutionally constrained, in times of peace the Chief is critical to matters of strategy, military organisation and planning, weapon policies and eventually national security. The Chiefs in India have a dual responsibility - they are effectively the Commanders-in-Chief of their respective Services, and they also perform staff functions as part of the government.

Even if as individuals they are rarely perceived as public figures, they yet command a special niche in the public imagination. Indeed, it is fitting that the Chiefs consciously avoid engaging in public debates, as controversy only jeopardises their non-political public service role. However, this convention also presupposes that the political authority will speak for them and on their behalf and explain the position as well as uphold the reputation of the Chiefs.

Viewed from this prism, the recent public disclosures of the outgoing Army Chief may be questioned. It is regrettable that issues that could have been resolved within the government had to go to court. That said, we do need to examine the compulsions that led to this extreme situation. The Defence Minister, to his credit, did indeed repose trust in the Army Chief, refusing to play into the hands of vested interests that went to the ridiculous extent of insinuating suggestions of an "army coup", etc. Yet, the leakage of the Chief’s letter to the Prime Minister was a serious breach of security as were the allegations of corruption in defence deals. These must be investigated thoroughly and those found guilty punished.

In India, civil-military relations are predicated upon a peculiar establishment: while the Services are responsible for operational planning and employment, vital tools of defence preparedness in terms of financial control vest with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The inevitable casualty is accountability. The two sides see each other more as sparring adversaries in a typical "us vs them" syndrome. The recent controversy may have served to highlight this divide; hence my belief that hopefully some systemic solutions will evolve to cure the malaise.

Indeed, the establishment has always backed the armed forces in times of crisis - be it the 1962 debacle or the 1999 Kargil war. That said, it is a case of "too little, too late". A comprehensive action plan to achieve a state of constant defence preparedness is lacking. Alongside, the Integrated Defence HQ created to bring in synergy is still headless. Unlike most modern armed forces, we don’t have a Chief of Defence Staff. There is a need for more meaningful integration between the MoD and the three Services. These are imperatives of modern defence and can no longer be overlooked. It is hoped that the Naresh Chandra Task Force which has been assigned the duty of reviewing the national security apparatus finds feasible ways to create an efficient higher defence management structure.

Also on the agenda are crucial issues with regard to human resource management, including the shortage of 13,000 officers. The crippling operational gaps and modernisation delays are critical. These essentially flow out of organisational infirmities and an inadequate decision-making matrix. It is ironical that the world’s third largest economy with a sound industrial base still imports 70 per cent of its arms and equipment. Going by current estimates, the bottom line requirement of the armed forces to fill the gap is approximately $ 154 billion, with the Army requiring $ 68 billion out of it. Going by this year’s capital equipment procurement budget of $ 12.85 billion, theoretically (at current price levels), it will take us another 12 years to fill the operational shortfall. Even if we suppose that the funds are available, there is no way that we can practically achieve it. This is because the required equipment is not available off the shelf. Supply entails long gestation periods and then it too is hostage to inter-governmental dynamics (including technology denial). The recently reported spurt in defence procurement has to be seen in this context.

The solution eventually lies in the inevitable indigenisation of the defence industry. The 70:30 ratio between import and indigenous production has to be reversed. The Task Force on Self-Reliance and Modernisation in Defence is working on arms procurement reforms which include measures to make our military expenditure more economically sustainable.

Our new Army Chief, along with the other two Service Chiefs, will need to pursue these issues with the government as also address in-house matters. With rumours about competing lobbies, factional feuds and corruption going around, there is bound to be disenchantment in the rank and file. General Bikram Singh has started off on a progressive note and given an assurance about not looking back. He is known to be fair, even handed, firm but large hearted - a man with broad shoulders who has a proven record of leading from the front and by personal example.

Needless to say, well-informed public and political opinion will be crucial. The media must avoid sensationalism, politicisation, TRP-based hype and the perpetuation of half-baked rumours. In the ultimate analysis - while the defence of our motherland is the mandate of the toiling soldier, that soldier too needs to be shielded from unjust onslaughts. The defender must be defended. If we ignore this fundamental truth, we will do so at our own peril.

(The writer, a retired Lt-General, is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

Courtesy: The Tribune

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