A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
Indias Higher Defence Control Organisation
By R.V. Phadke *
It is reported that one of the Task Forces constituted following the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) will review Indias Higher Defence Control Organisation (HDCO) and suggest ways and means to integrate the three Service HQs with the Ministry of Defence (MOD). This is proposed to be done under the stewardship of Shri Arun Singh, the former Minister of State for Defence. The last time this issue had acquired some salience was in the aftermath of the sacking of the Naval Chief Adm. Vishnu Bhagwat in January 1999. It is well known that such reviews often take a long time and lose their importance with the change of governments. Further, their real purpose is often shrouded in the fog of governmental double-speak. Commenting on one such exercise, the constitution in 1884 of the Royal Commission under Lord Hartington; one retired Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) says, In truth, the Salisbury Government, as is the case with most British governments to this day, continued to see improved economic management as more important than naval and military efficiency. It is always claimed that the economies imposed will not in any way weaken the Services ability to fulfil their primary roles, but this is rarely the case. 1
Indian media has shown a heightened interest in military matters following the Kargil conflict and it is but natural, therefore, that the public will keenly watch the progress of such Committees or Task Forces. The specific issues on the agenda of this particular committee are not precisely known, but at least some of them are likely to have already been deliberated upon by the Committee on Defence Expenditure (CDE) which was also headed by the same person, Shri Arun Singh, but in different circumstances. The UK model of HDCO is reportedly the most preferred model.
This paper aims to analyse the salient issues that are likely to be addressed by the Arun Singh Task Force (ARTF) and the experience of the several reviews of the HDCO in the UK over the last century. It is also aimed at highlighting the real problems that the Indian military apparatus has supposedly been facing in the last fifty-three years since independence.
One of the major peculiarities of the Indian HDCO has been that the three Service HQs have always remained outside the government with the MOD providing the interface between the two. It is not as if the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (the COSC), or for that matter, the individual Service Chief does not have direct access to the Defence Minister or indeed the Prime Minister. But more often than not, this option is used only in the rarest of circumstances and it is the Defence Secretary that deals with the political leadership on a routine basis. There are historical reasons for it. During the British period when the Commander-in-Chief was the supreme head of all the three services, it was he who coordinated all the major work connected with the requirements of the three services. Ordinarily no proposal, which was not acceptable to him, could come to the Defence Department (the predecessor of the post-independence Ministry of Defence). Since he was also the Defence Member of the Governor Generals Council, his was the last word. "When on August 15, 1947 the C-in-C ceased to be the head of all the three services and their independent heads were appointed instead, the important business of coordinating and integrating the three services devolved on the MOD. Coordination does not mean merely piecing together the views of the three services. Quite often these views are likely to be divergent, for their requirements vary as they depend on the different environments in which they operate. It was now for the ministry to advise on the relative emphasis to be given to the problems of the services and, on the adjustments necessary to produce a harmonised and uniform policy to the greatest possible extent. 2 It will thus be evident that right from its inception the MOD had reserved for itself the right to coordinate, in other words, sit on judgement on single or even joint service proposals. It must, however, be remembered that in the beginning the Service Headquarters approached the MOD not for any operational decisions, but only sought clarifications on the rules regarding service conditions, pay and allowances, pensions and other such administrative matters.
During the British period defence expenditure was never voted in the assembly as defence of India was considered part of British Imperial Defence. Although a number of senior civil servants had been appointed in the finance division of the Defence Department none had had any first hand experience of working in the Department of Defence which remained the exclusive preserve of the British officer. As a result, the only aspect of defence that the civil bureaucracy was relatively familiar with was controlling the purse strings and hence it was only natural for them to place great emphasis on budgeting from the very beginning. The role of playing the adjudicator on the various demands of the three services was thus tailor-made for the MOD and even fifty-three years later it is this role that the civil servant devotes his full attention to.
The other notable characteristic of this dispensation has been the undue delays in decision-making, be it related to personnel or procurement issues. In so far as defence or operational planning was concerned there was little difficulty so long as the budgetary requirements were met in full. In short, the civilians in the MOD never really had to choose a weapon system or a strategic option. One good thing about the system, however, is that it has worked very well in a crisis with only one exception; the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. This is perhaps because the civilian bureaucracy has never really interfered with operations per se. Nor has there been any incentive for it to learn more about defence matters since all its members invariably revert to their parent cadres after a five-year tenure. To be fair, some have returned to fill higher level appointments and done a commendable job. Many knowledgeable and experienced military officers including Air Chief Marshal OP Mehra, a former Chief of the Air Staff have suggested longer tenures for civil servants in the MOD. 3
The Indian armed forces have fought four wars with Pakistan, one with China and have been almost continuously involved in Counter Insurgency Operations (CIO) for the better part of the last five decades. Barring the border war with China they have done well in every case despite the so-called deficiencies and other organisational problems. Even in the case of the 1962 debacle it was more a problem of personalities and undue political interference in military affairs rather than any organisational difficulties. It was failure of leadership, both political and military. One wonders why the sizeable air assets of the IAF were not used in the offensive role.
It is well known that during the recent Kargil conflict, there was complete cohesion between the Service Chiefs on the one hand and the political leadership on the other. It was quite common to see the Defence, Home, External Affairs, Finance and indeed the Prime Minister meeting with the Service Chiefs on almost a daily basis; sometimes for hours at a time. It would, therefore, not be incorrect to say that the present arrangement has not directly affected the fighting potential of the three services. There were indeed many mistakes and errors of judgement during war and peace, and in all fairness, many lessons were learnt but the area of operations has not been adversely affected by the present arrangement. But the experience in peacetime has been far from satisfactory, especially with regard to decisions on funding, procurement and personnel issues.
Delayed decisions have cost the country dear both in economic and military terms. Lack of goodwill between the bureaucracy and the military top brass and inter service rivalry have contributed their mite. Political disinterest and lack of transparency in matters related to national security and defence have also played their part. Inter service rivalry though, is common in almost all countries. In fact the US had to bring in the Goldwater-Nichols amendment in 1986 to ensure complete Jointness, despite the Joint Chiefs of Staff system having been in place since 1947. It should thus be reasonable to assume that the real problems of the Indian HDCO are essentially rooted in delayed decision-making in peacetime and the inability of the civilian decision maker to convince the Service Chiefs that their advice would indeed be given due importance.
Let us examine the three major proposals that have been doing the rounds of the military/strategic community for some time. These are:-
(a) Integration of the three Service Headquarters with the MOD.
(b) The creation of a Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) or a similar organisation.
(c) The formation of Joint Theatre Commands to replace the existing Single Service Commands which were created on geographical or functional basis.
Integration of the three services with the MOD certainly has much merit, as it is likely to drastically reduce avoidable duplication or even triplication. This is so because under the present dispensation, every proposal submitted for the consideration of the MOD, is first examined at the level of the service. HQs, then at the MOD and finally by the Defence Finance, or the Financial Advisor Defence Services FADS. Irrespective of the outlays involved, the procedure followed is the same and it often takes months if not years to get MOD approval. The case of the snow scooters for the troops in Siachen, bullet-proof vests for the soldiers fighting the insurgency in J&K, the delayed induction of the Jaguar Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft-DPSA and the AJT, the Advanced Jet Trainer are all well known. Such delays are particularly disturbing since in many cases the equipment demanded is as per authorised scales and is asked for merely as replacement. There is no doubt a need to streamline procurement and approval procedures with perhaps a statutory time limit on decisions. Further, some areas of revenue budget could well be delegated to the Service Chiefs, but in a democracy such an arrangement must have the necessary checks and balances. What is, however, most needed is the shedding of the auditor mentality that automatically presupposes that everyone is guilty of misuse or corruption unless proved innocent.
The second proposal, that of creating a CDS requires a totally different approach. What are the objectives of such a change? What benefits are likely to accrue if this system is adopted replacing the present COSC? The Russian and the Chinese models are obviously unsuitable, as their political systems are totally different from that of India. The US and the UK models have also evolved over a long period and with a vast reservoir of experience of the two World Wars. Both the countries have never faced a real threat to their homeland and have been great powers for the better part of modern history. Their strategic objectives have therefore been global, although in the case of Britain her overseas responsibilities have been continuously reducing over the past fifty years till these are now inextricably linked to those of the Atlantic Alliance. Even so, strategic debates in that country have mostly been between the protagonists of out-of-area operations and those advocating a purely NATO or European continental role. Britain, being a close ally of the US, has also to buttress the latters global role even if the rest of the world does not think so. Their defence, or more appropriately, military policies have thus been designed to provide significant autonomous national expeditionary capabilities in a global context. This has been specifically highlighted in the British Strategic Defence Review (SDR) published in July 1998. 4 Although some opinion makers in Britain have warned that in the long run this mission would be unaffordable at the present levels of defence spending. It will be readily evident that India is unlikely to develop a significant autonomous expeditionary) capability, at least in the foreseeable future. Indias military needs are the defence of her territory and more importantly deterrence against aggression. It is therefore important to define the type of war that India is most likely to fight in the foreseeable future. Barring the ongoing proxy war which is likely to continue demanding the utmost attention, India may have to face a sub-conventional, restricted border skirmish of the Kargil kind or even a limited conventional war under the shadow of nuclear weapons. Some limited expeditionary operations in the neighbourhood might well crop up at times, as in Sri Lanka in 1987, but these are likely to be few and far between. Will the CDS system provide some additional advantages in the likely future contingencies?
It is said that the CDS will be able to provide a single point of contact for distilled military advice to the political executive. Why the Chairman COSC is unable to do that under the present arrangement is not adequately spelt out. Some believe that given their preoccupation with running the Services, the Chiefs neither have the time nor the inclination to formulate future long-term strategy. It is, however, forgotten that in a climate of shrinking defence budgets there is not enough money to adequately fund the ongoing projects, leave aside build new capabilities for the future. To be fair, almost all cases of new equipment induction and modernisation were invariably initiated by the Service Chiefs and so also were the several organisational changes. In any case, based on its vast experience each Service will and should have its say in influencing future defence policy. The Service Chiefs have no doubt played their role as the planners of future military strategy and force structures. The process of collecting, collating and disseminating intelligence has also come in for much criticism. There is certainly a need to improve the equation and interaction between the military and civilian intelligence agencies. But it is somewhat unrealistic to imagine that merely placing a CDS over the three Single Service Chiefs would automatically take care of the present difficulties that plague the three services and the MOD.
Contrary to popular belief the developments in the UK have had their share of intense wrangling in the many processes of modifying the higher defence control organisation and have by no means provided a fully satisfactory solution. All the Chiefs of Staff of the post-Suez years must share some of the blame for not resisting more strongly Treasury insistence on only funding projects primarily for NATO purposes, says one former CDS. Even after the Falklands experience which once again proved the need for maintaining balanced forces, things did not change. No great bureaucracy like Whitehall welcomes the invalidation of its perceived wisdom, and it was all too easy to argue that the South Atlantic Campaign was an exceptional one-off affair. Great care must be taken not to draw false conclusions. 5 Such is the intensity of resistance of the finance departments to defence spending that even the UK accepted the rollover of underspends on capital equipment only in 1983. We are all familiar with the argument of the MOD that the services demand large sums of money, but invariably surrender huge amounts of unspent money at the end of each financial year.
All CDSs since Mountbattens day had been faced with a stream of financially driven Defence reviews. The fundamental principle on which the Ministry of Defence had been set up by Mountbatten in 1964 (earlier there were separate departments for each service) was the centralisation of policy and the decentralisation of management, although it was often difficult to define where one stopped and the other began. But there were two schools of thought as to how the staffs should be organised. The one which enjoyed most support, particularly amongst the service officers as opposed to the civil servants, saw the overall policy being the responsibility of the Centre while management rested with the Service Departments, the three environments Sea, Land and Air being treated as separate entities within the overall system. The opposing school favoured an organisation based on function rather than Service at all levels with greater centralisation and a weakening of the Service Departments. 6 There was no dearth of outside experts without direct responsibility, who were prepared to urge him (Michael Haseltine the last but one Reformer) to cut the service Chiefs down to size. 7
Worse was to follow. What with the demands for purple departments for personnel, equipment, supply, movement, barracks and so on the proposals centred on clipping the wings of the Single Service Chiefs by removing their Vice Chiefs. Under the Front-Line-First reforms of Malcolm Rifkind came the Permanent Joint Operations HQ at Northwood and the posts of the VCDS (Vice Chief of Defence Staff) and four DCDS (Deputy Chiefs of Defence Staff) the second PUS Permanent Under Secretary for defence with the Office of Management and Budget, CSA Chief Scientific Advisor and CDP Chief of Defence Procurement. This left a rather small policy role in the MOD for the individual Service Chiefs, whose boards could provide advice to the centre. The SDR of July 1998 has now suggested a Chief of Defence Logistics. The Chief of Joint Operations is likely to come on par with the Single Service Chiefs in matters of budget and with the formation of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force his responsibilities are likely to increase further. 8 There is also the possibility of a new Chief of Defence Personnel. With these developments, all that the Single Service Chiefs are required to deliver is fighting capability. They will henceforth be responsible only for training, discipline and ethos. The dimunition of the single service chiefs is thus complete.
Commenting on the British experience, the former CDS adds that, the British MODs Office of Management and Budget is seen as adopting bureaucratic solutions that are long on political and economic appeal, but short on military judgement and value. He feels that, one requirement stands out above all others in the working of the Defence decision-making system and that is the need for balance. Balance between the politically desirable and the militarily practicable, or vice versa; balance between the needs of the three services, operating together; although in the three very different environments; and balance between central policy makers, who as the old adage puts it, know less and less about more and more, and the experts in naval, land and air warfare, who have the opposite skills of knowing more and more about less and less, but are vital in deciding what is practicable in war and peace. 9 The reason for this long quote from the writings of a former British CDS is to highlight the serious problems that may arise if an alien solution is foisted upon our system.
Let us now briefly look at the opposite view, that of the PUS. According to Sir Christopher France, former Permanent Under Secretary in the British MOD, the objectives of these reforms were as follows:
(a) Strong central control over policy, planning and resource allocation coupled with maximum degree of management to the individual Services and executive organisations.
(b) Competition between various suppliers to the three Services,
(c) Much greater personal accountability.
(d) More clearly defined objectives,
(e) Timely review of performance.
In short, the aim was to provide more for less, and at the same time make the MOD and the Services, answerable for the way we have done things and for what we have done them. The guiding principle was that policy, resource allocation and setting of priorities must be the exclusive responsibility of the Central Staff, while individual Service Staffs were left to manage their own services within the framework set by the Central Staff. It has been claimed that the key to the success of the reform was that the Services were persuaded of the logic of the division between a policy oriented Central Staff and management oriented Service Staffs. The military manpower was to concentrate on core activities, focusing on achieving outputs rather than on the process. Some of the other benefits were said to have been the achievement of a more cooperative relationship with the industry, a willingness to consider alternative ways of doing things and the creation of a framework for private sector investment in defence. The reforms are said to have effected a 40 percent reduction in civilian and military jobs in twenty years since 1980 to the end of the century.
But while commenting on the success of the system, Sir Christopher warns, Any system of this sort must recognise the genuine differences between the Services and their legitimate interests. The Services must feel that they have an opportunity to influence the central processes. The processes of consultation and information must be open. Ultimately, however, decisions on the central issues of policy and resources must be taken by the Central Staffs and where the advice of individual Services is rejected, it must be for reasons that are openly stated. 10 He accepts that such processes are essentially disruptive as they strike at the fundamental loyalties of the individual members of the services. There is, therefore, a need to put these proposals to wider debates and discussions so that those who have to ultimately make them successful are indeed convinced of the benefits that are likely to accrue.
In their quest to achieve jointness the advocates of change should not forget that the responsibility for military planning must never be divorced from the responsibility for execution, and that for plans or policy, from management. The successive defence reforms in Britain have tended to strengthen the Centre at the expense of the Service Departments. The Chiefs in their collective capacity have been reduced to a subordinate advisory level with the triumvirate of the CDS, the PUS and the CSA advising the government. It will be interesting to note that in the actual conduct of the Gulf War, which was largely an American affair, the British Service Chiefs were confined to planning and organising the deployment of British forces while the CDS alone advised the government. Warns the former CDS, that if such a centralising trend continues they could soon become Commanders-in-Chief outside Whitehall, or even Chief Personnel Officers of their own Service. 11 The Chiefs have always been, individually the Chief Executives of their own Service and, collectively the professional advisors to the government. They epitomise the hopes and fears of their own Service and must continue to be the inspiring role models to the younger members of the fraternity.
The Chiefs are often accused of being parochial in their approach to defence planning, but let it not be forgotten that the professional advice given by the Committee is based not only upon the background and personal views of the three Single Service Chiefs but more importantly upon the vast accumulated experience of the Army, Navy and Air Force of which they are the professional heads and for whose morale, operational efficiency and well-being they are individually responsible in peace and war. 12 It should thus be clear that whatever the changes that we may introduce, the unique position of the Chiefs must be protected. Defence cannot be run purely on corporate logic and ethos even if at first glance such approaches appear to make economic sense. And finally there is always the danger of the authority of the Chiefs and even that of the CDS being usurped by those who do not have a clue of the military and worse still, have no responsibility direct or otherwise.
The third proposal, that of creating Joint Theatre Commands, will prove extremely costly if not downright pernicious. There are several reasons for that. First the proposal appears to originate from the misplaced belief that when placed under command personnel of all the three services will perform better. As brought out earlier, India is not required to develop a significant autonomous expeditionary capability in the near term. It is, therefore, a moot point if there is indeed a need to create Theatre Commands that would naturally entail distribution of scarce military resources in penny packets. The air force straddles the other two environments, namely the land and the sea. It is, therefore, always in great demand. There is also a widespread impression, in all the armies and the navies of the world, that the air forces fight their own battles to the detriment of joint-service requirements. It is, however, essential to understand that operations in conjunction with the army and the navy are only one facet of air power employment, albeit an important one. What most people forget is that the primary mission of any air force is to gain command of the air by neutralising the enemys air power assets. This mission is not merely to facilitate its own operations but, more importantly, the war on land and at sea. Distributing scarce air assets to several theatre commanders would result in grossly reducing the overall combat potential of the air force. For example, when the primary air force tasks of air defence, interdiction and strike are catered for, there will remain little to distribute to each individual theatre commander. But even the earmarked forces now under command may not be fully utilised, and depending on the vagaries of war a substantial proportion of these minuscule forces will be sitting on ground waiting for their Commanders to release them, or will be drilling holes in the skies flying Combat Air Patrols. This is so because every theatre would not naturally experience the same operational intensity. Surely, that is not the best way to employ air power. The process of replacing the present structure that is based on functional and geographical responsibilities will present immense problems as it will need the establishment of a genuine understanding and a rapport between the commanders and the senior staff of the three services, a laborious and time consuming process at the best of times. There may also be very serious problems of maintaining a balance between the three services. Given the present problems of recruitment and retention in all the three services, it is important to ensure that each officer and enlisted man or women perceives his or her chances of career progression as reasonably equitable. There is also no scope for increasing the overall strength of the armed forces. The government would naturally like to keep the numbers to the barest minimum or effect economies where possible. We should ensure that in any future dispensation prospects of career progression remain fair and equitable, if morale of the Service as a whole is to be maintained at a high level. For too long, we have tended to wish away these problems. Strangely, we have always acknowledged the problems of recruitment and retention in the more risky pursuits of the military, but have done little to redress them.
Although India has a subcontinental expanse it is possible to switch forces from one end to the other in a matter of hours. Given the ongoing revolution in communications and information technology, the senior commanders of all the three services are only seconds away from each other. Through video conferencing they can speak to each other face-to-face in real time and constantly remain in touch, so to say. But it will take a long time before the naval and army commanders acquire the necessary skills for the correct employment of air power; skills that are the result of lifelong training and education. To be fair, it will also be equally difficult for the air force Theatre Commander to correctly deploy his naval and land forces without ever having been trained in infantry, armour or naval warfare. The result, most definitely, will be an avoidable degradation of our overall combat efficiency and potential, not its enhancement. Is that what we want?
Finally, the issue of Battlefield Strike, Reconnaissance and Airlift needs of the army and the navy also needs to be addressed. It is this issue that has perhaps been singularly responsible for the demand for a new dispensation. As stated earlier the solution is not to distribute air assets in penny-packets, but to evolve a viable and flexible joint plan of operations at the highest level that will automatically cater for every need through correct prioritisation. The air force has a vital role and stake in jointness and in developing a better understanding of the role of air power at inter service level; simply because everyone wants air support. Its record of the two years, 1965 and 1971, is proof of that assertion. In the 1965 Indo-Pak War, there were, no doubt, some procedural problems in inter-service communications and planning, but these were more than adequately addressed in the 1971 war. The notion that the air force will not be available to the beleaguered ground forces is not only false, but is also demoralising to the troops even in peacetime and will only undermine the national determination, to wage war.
To conclude, let it be said that while there is indeed an urgent need to remove the many anomalies that exist in our defence decision-making apparatus, we should beware of throwing the baby with the bath water. A reform for the sake of extending ones own empire cannot be justified in the guise of achieving higher efficiency. The foregoing has brought out that the present problems relate mainly to, the perceived inequitable distribution of the defence cake, peacetime management of resources, and the widespread tendency to call upon the armed forces at the eleventh hour. By continuously and conscientiously keeping the three Service Chiefs outside the pale of strategic decision-making, the system has generated much frustration among the services. There is a false hope that the new dispensation will be the best remedy. But the serviceman must beware that such exercises can and often do result in reducing the budgetary allocations for defence, and in the real power and authority being transferred to those who have traditionally never been held to account. While there is definitely some merit in bringing together the three services with the MOD; the creation of the CDS and the Joint Theatre Command proposals are fraught with real danger of the Single Service Chiefs gradually becoming redundant. It is often said that the treasury officials only know the cost of things rather than their real value to the nation. It is difficult to imagine that they can come up with the best defence solution without the valuable advice of the Single Service Chiefs. Even at the risk of sounding parochial, let it be said that the reforms will most definitely be at the cost of the Air Force, as the other two services have little to lose. But once the bug is let loose in the corridors of the armed forces headquarters it will be impossible to control it. It will not be long before it devours everything that we, the simple-minded servicemen have held dear for generations of valour and sacrifice.
It its epilogue, the KRC, Report states, there is both comfort and danger in clinging to any long established status quo. The report continues, Procrastination has cost the nation dear. The Committee strongly feels that the Kargil experience, the continuing proxy war and the prevailing nuclear environment justifying a thorough review of the national security system in its entirety. 13 But change for the sake of change may prove counter-productive. In a system such as ours it would be impossible to retrench surplus civilian manpower. The experience of numerous PSUs is all too well known. Our system does not permit any transparency least of all in matters of national security and defence. We have never nurtured or groomed talent and it may make the task of selecting the CDS and his likely successors extremely difficult. The MOD has traditionally never openly stated the reasons for rejecting the advice of the Chiefs or even the Chairman COSC. We have never sincerely looked at the private industry as a possible major player in defence production. The concept of value for money is not understood by the Indian mind, which is tuned to effecting short-term economies. The world over, civilian bureaucracies are loath to surrender power to the uniformed personnel even for management of the services. At present they not only control policy, planning and resources allocation, but also have a major and often decisive say in the management of individual services. Examples of such interference in areas that are legitimately the exclusive preserve of the Service HQs are legion. It will thus be unrealistic to imagine that restructuring the HDCO would automatically change the mindsets of those who wield power. While reviewing the effects of the oft quoted Goldwater-Nichols reforms package, Blackwell and Belchman, both members of the Project on Monitoring Defence Reorganisation undertaken in 1987 have this to day, Over the years, repeated efforts to reform the defence establishment and improve the quality of decisions and their implementation have resulted in larger and larger organisations, new layers of bureaucracy, and more and more complicated laws, regulations and procedures. The current wave of reforms must not meet the same fate. Measures taken to date to implement these proposals have set the new structures in place, but little progress has taken place in rooting out the structures and power relationship they were intended to replace. 14 While this paper might sound status-quo ist at first glance, it is in the overall security interest of the country that there is a need to first consult those who are to operate the system in the next decade before jumping to conclusions. It seems to be a case of correct diagnosis, but a totally wrong remedy.