A striking feature of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was the unusual prominence accorded to national security in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign. In 2014, the party’s election manifesto discussed security policy, but only towards the end. By contrast, the 2019 manifesto began with national security. Political scientists will debate the extent to which these issues shaped voters’ preferences, but the Narendra Modi government now has enormous political capital to bring about far-reaching reforms in defence — reforms that cannot be put off.
Indeed, the Modi government faces a string of daunting challenges from reforming the security architecture and structuring the armed forces to strengthening the defence industrial base and military readiness. Rhetorical fixes and institutional band-aids can no longer help.
Need for a Chief of Defence Staff
Let’s start with issues that are well recognised before considering those that have yet to register in policy debates. It is almost 20 years since the Kargil Review Committee set out its recommendations for national security reforms—recommendations that were broadly endorsed by a subsequent Group of Ministers and revisited by another committee in 2011. The most important yet thorny of these was creating the post of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as a single-point military adviser to the political leadership. The idea had met with resistance both from within the armed forces—the Air Force was not keen—and from political leaders that were averse to concentrating military authority in a single office.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term in office, it appeared that these concerns had been smoothed over. In the summer of 2015, then Defence Minister, the late Manohar Parrikar, publicly asserted that a “Chief Defence Staff is a must” and that he would come up with a proposal within three months. Three years on, Parrikar was still hoping to get this done. The problem, he observed, lay in ensuring that the CDS was linked with meaningful jointness among the three services.
In fact, the importance of creating integrated theatre commands had been emphasised all along. As a starting point, it was felt that supply and logistics functions could be integrated. But the Modi government failed to make any headway in the remainder of its tenure – partly owing to resistance from within the armed forces. It bears emphasising, however, that defence reforms of this scale have been pushed through in other democracies in the teeth of greater or lesser opposition from the military. Even the choice of the first CDS or equivalent has often been unpalatable to the services and their leadership. Lord Mountbatten was chosen as Britain’s first CDS because he was equally detested by all the three services. It is time the government moved decisively to create a fully-empowered CDS with a clear road map for integration of commands.
The strategic imperative of creating a solid defence industrial base is equally well recognised. Here, too, the first Modi government sounded the right notes. Speaking at the Aero India show in February 2015, Prime Minister said that defence manufacturing was “at the heart of the ‘Make in India’ programme” and that the country should aim to manufacture 70 per cent of military equipment domestically in the next five years. By the end of the term, the proposed defence manufacturing ecosystem had, along with ‘Make in India’, slipped out of sight. The only thing the BJP’s 2019 manifesto could talk about was manufacturing of AK-203 rifles in Amethi.
But this is as good a time as any to revive and push ahead the plans for a defence manufacturing base that includes private sector as well as public sector undertakings. If there is one area where industrial policy can work, it is defence. Emphasising this domain could fit well with the country’s larger requirements of economic renewal.
The fiscal challenge
The next priority for defence policy is to deal with the shrinking resources for military modernisation and the consequent need for structural change in the armed forces.
Following the grant of one-rank-one-pension and the implementation of the 7th Pay Commission, manpower costs of salary and pension now account for over 70 per cent of the defence budget. In the budget of 2018-19, the allocation for pensions grew at 27 per cent over the previous year, while capital expenditure rose only by 9 per cent. Given the real constraints on increasing the overall allocation for defence, capital expenditure for military modernisation is unlikely to increase in line with the requirements.
This fiscal challenge, however, is also an opportunity to rethink the fundamental structure of our armed forces, especially the balance between long-service and short-service components as well as manpower and technology. The services are reportedly considering how to prune manpower, but this should be part of a broader exercise that ideally should be led by a CDS.
Military education must
This brings us to the last major challenge: military readiness. Much of the discussion around this tends to focus on critical shortages of equipment and spares. But the real, long-term problem lies in professional military education, especially for officers.
Our training establishments impart narrow professional skills. They focus on preparing officers to command companies, battalions and brigades, or perform staff duties at various levels. There is practically no attempt to give the officers a sense of the larger contexts – strategic, political and international – in which the armed forces function. It is only at the highest training establishment, the National Defence College, that senior one-star officers get exposed to some of these issues. This is too little and too late.
This outmoded approach to training impacts the quality of human capital at all levels in the services. Yet, no government has paid serious attention to this. The fate of the long-heralded Indian National Defence University is symptomatic of the political leadership’s neglect of this crucial area.
The BJP’s mandate gives the Modi government an opportunity to place defence policy in the top tier of its priorities. It should seize this rare opportunity. The time for tarrying has passed.
The author is Professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University and a Senior Fellow at Carnegie India. Views are personal.