In December 2019, through a PMO-driven initiative, India announced major structural reforms in the Ministry of Defence, creating the post of the Chief of Defence Staff or CDS and the Department of Military Affairs or DMA. The CDS was to wear three hats: Permanent Chairman Chief of Staff Committee or PCOSC, Head of the DMA and act as the military adviser to the defence minister. The CDS was politically mandated the establishment of theatre/joint commands.
The CDS started off by forming various committees. Proposals for establishment of the Maritime Theatre Command and Air Defence Command were crystallised first. This is intriguing as the Maritime Theatre is one among other geographic theatres while the Air Defence Command is a supportive and subordinate functional entity for all theatres. The need for an Air Defence Command has been questioned for its structural incongruence. A piecemeal approach seems to have been preferred.
Eighteen months later, both proposals stand referred to a committee consisting of the head of the Integrated Defence Staff, the Vice-Chiefs of the three Services and representatives of home, law and finance ministries who will be other turf keepers now in play. It is most likely that stakeholders will continue to deploy siloed rationale rooted in parochialism to contest custody of organisational turf. Einstein famously remarked that “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”
A faulty approach
It seems the grave diggers of the Theatre Command System (TCS) have won this round and the political leadership has failed to discern the nature of the issues at stake and been overwhelmed by the gravitational pull of entrenched interests resisting reforms.
The attempt at reform seems to have followed a faulty approach, by trying to create the parts of the TCS without first crystallising the holistic structure. It seems to be leaning on a ‘learn as you go’ approach. Without first conceptualising the final structure and getting political approval, the incremental approach of creating sub-parts like the Air Defence Command and Maritime Theatre Command is quixotic. It mirrors the parable of the ‘Blind Men and the Elephant’. Each sees only a certain part and completely misses the big picture. The new committee would do just that and the MoD would be stuck progressively deeper in a hole it has dug for itself.
India’s national security ambience has no room for ineptitude by the MoD. Many threats are hovering and casting their shadow across India’s security landscape. Time is of the essence and the challenge of the reforms is daunting. Yet, it seems like business as usual for the MoD. The PMO that should be credited for pushing the reforms through, must intervene and not let the process of implementation kill the intended reforms.
The question is why and how should the intervention be undertaken?
Need an expert panel
It is apparent that the MoD cannot, by itself, resolve what are essentially turf battles between the three Services as also between the MoD and other ministries. The inter-ministerial and inter-agency coordination process is always the most challenging aspect of governance. In the case of national security, it is particularly difficult because political power is split between the ministries of defence, home, external affairs and finance. Normally, political heavyweights inhabit these ministries. Only the PMO can get them to support national security goals, especially if the effort entails conceding of turf. For the purposes of long-term reforms, like the present one, only the National Security Council (NSC), the think-tank of the government, is equipped to conceptualise the structure of the TCS and follow up on implementation by the concerned ministries.
The National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) is the forum for integrated thinking at the highest level. So, by not placing this issue before the NSCS, especially when the matter concerned overlaps the functions of multiple ministries and by leaving it for the MoD to do the thinking, the ministry has been saddled with a task it cannot fulfil. The ability to think without being encumbered by the drudgery of day-to-day affairs is a necessary condition to conceptualise the TCS. It cannot be undertaken by government officials who are already overwhelmed with their responsibilities.
The job of conceptualising and finalising the structural design of theatre commands should be done by a panel of experts who should carry out consultations with stakeholders and get the approval of the NSC. Once approved, the panel should pass on the blueprint to the MoD to prepare a cabinet note that must indicate costing details and the transition and implementation plan. When approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the ministries concerned should start implementation and the progress be monitored by the NSCS. The transition and implementation plan will require expertise to formulate and is a herculean task. The corporate world can be utilised as they have experience in transitioning to Strategic Business Units. The reasons for the PMO to intervene in the matter are compelling.
Who can be on this panel?
The PMO should constitute this panel of experts outside the government. It will be best done through the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) that exists as part of the NSCS. It was the first NSAB under the late K. Subrahmanyam that evolved India’s nuclear doctrine, which is one of India’s remarkable achievements and has remained unchanged for nearly three decades. What is required is to constitute an expert panel using the powers of the NSAB. Then selecting individuals with intellectual integrity that is coupled with experience in their specific fields. There is absolutely no dearth of such individuals. Importantly, since intra and inter-ministerial turf battles pervade the issue, it is necessary that the panel be headed by a politician with a military background.
Political skills are crucial to navigate the complex inter-Service and inter-ministerial issues. But political skills must be supplemented by a clear understanding of military and security aspects. In my previous article, I had voiced the need for a defence minister with a military background to manage the aspects of growing threats and the need for reform. The run-of-the-mill defence ministers have no time for contemplation on weighty issues; they have inadequate knowledge of military and security affairs and are also engaged in the rough and tumble of national politics. To expect that he/she will be able to sit in judgement over the outputs conceptualised by his officials and that too in a piecemeal manner is being unfair to any defence minister. No wonder that the present minister has done what is normal under such circumstances – nominate a committee. K. Subrahmanyam once famously described a committee as consisting of a group of people tasked to design a horse and normally ends up designing an ass.
The PMO must first find a politician with a military background and thereafter, constitute the panel after consultations with him. In my opinion, the ruling party has political stalwarts with credentials. Maj General B.C. Khanduri would easily top the list despite the rumours that he is out of favour within the party are true. The Bharatiya Janata Party must sink its internal differences and mobilise Maj Gen Khanduri’s considerable political and military experience in the larger interests of national security.
If the present approach of the MoD is allowed to run its course, Theatre Commands might be aborted or remain stillborn and worse, it might come to pass as part of a lesson learnt in a future war. To reiterate, the NSC decides structure, the CCS sanctions and the MoD and all other ministries implement. The reforms are now following a flawed pathway and seem derailed. The PMO must put it back on rails, especially since the reform is its brainchild.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Author of Theatre Command System-Takshashila Discussion Document and former military advisor, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)