Thursday, July 11, 2013

Antony's term as defence minister has been mired in scandals and missed opportunities

A K Antony has been the longest serving defence minister of the country. Sadly, we cannot say that he has been the best. Brought in to signal the need for integrity in defence purchases, and to speed up the delayed modernisation of the armed forces, his term has been one of failure and missed opportunities.
The VIP helicopter scam represents only the tip of the iceberg of the corruption that continues to dog defence deals. 

Defence Minister A K Antony has earned a reputation for indecisiveness and over-caution
Defence Minister A K Antony

As for modernisation, the Antony term has seen a further slippage in the Scorpene submarine project and an inability of the Army to push through the urgently needed artillery modernisation, to name just two of the key projects that remain mired in delays fostered by the defence ministry.
Relations between the armed forces and the civilian bureaucracy remain poisonous and break out into periodic spats, the most spectacular one being the V K Singh age issue.
In such circumstances one would imagine that Antony would be an enthusiastic supporter of reform and restructuring of his ministry.
But far from it. He maintained a reputation for indecisiveness and caution and, according to news reports, he has tamely followed his bureaucracy to block the significant proposals made by the Naresh Chandra task force on defence reform.
This has manifested itself most clearly in the opposition of the ministry to the creation of the office of a permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (COSC). 

The committee which laboured for a year, comprised of former service and intelligence service chiefs and was chaired by a person who had himself been Defence and later Cabinet Secretary.
To term the recommendation of the committee on the permanent chair for the COSC as "unwarranted" can only be termed as self-defeating impertinence.
Actually, according to news reports, the MoD has declared that not only is there no need to appoint a permanent COSC chairman, there is no need for any reform anywhere, period.
In a way this sums up the arrogant self-certitude of the bureaucracy and hearkens to Lord Kelvin's famous 1900 statement that, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now."
Across the world, joint functioning or integration of the various arms of the services has been the trend since the time of World War I.

Modern war, it was soon realised, could not be fought by individual services efficiently. In the 1950s most countries appointed Chiefs of Defence Staff (CDS).
In India, the Group of Ministers which looked into defence reforms after the Kargil war suggested that a CDS post be created, along with the integration of the armed forces headquarters with the Ministry of Defence.

Scandal: The VIP helicopter scam represents only the tip of the iceberg of the corruption that continues to dog defence deals
Scandal: The VIP helicopter scam represents only the tip of the iceberg of the corruption that continues to dog defence deals

However, this was sabotaged by the bureaucracy which raised all manner of objections to the proposal. They did create a tri-service Integrated Defence Staff, but being headless, its influence has been sub-optimal.
Then, in an act of blatant chicanery, the babus relabelled the service headquarters as Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (Army/Navy/Air Force) and declared that integration had taken place.
They were able to do this by playing up to the fears of the politicians that the CDS would be a "super general" and so powerful that he could threaten the system with a coup.
Coming in a country where the last military coup probably took place in 185 BC when Pusyamitra Sunga overthrew the Mauryan dynasty, this is a bit rich.
Their actual concern, however, was that the new organisation would cut into the power that the civilian bureaucracy wields by manipulating the Transaction of Business Rules in its own favour, a power that is wielded in an inexpert, incompetent and corrupt manner. 

The Naresh Chandra Committee took all the contrarian views into account and by recommending a permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee emphasised that the new general would be a coordinator, rather than a commander.

In its view, there was an urgent need for a high ranking officer who would assist the government in drawing up a national security doctrine and national security strategy and provide single point advice on issues that concern more than one service.
The permanent Chairman COSC would also be the key functionary in the nuclear command chain. In the decade following the nuclear test of 1998, India has steadily built up its nuclear arsenal.
It will soon have a ballistic missile carrying submarine to anchor its arsenal, as well as long range missiles.
Developments in Pakistan and China suggest the need for a much tighter nuclear command chain than has been the case till now. 

Equally importantly, he would play a key role in integrating the three services, a process that needs to take place in the coming decades, if India is to have a credible military force.
Already, the cost of maintaining the armed forces has become hugely expensive. There is need to integrate the training, logistics, acquisition and some war-fighting functions of the three services to obtain the biggest bang for the buck.
This can only be done with a specialised institution which will focus on promoting that integration beginning with helping generate the annual, the five year and long term integrated plans for the three services.
There was a time when the smaller services-the Navy and Air Force-were leery of a figure like the Chief of Defence Staff.
But now they have realised the importance of the appointment and it is no surprise that in the briefings to the Naresh Chandra Committee, they strongly supported the creation of CDS-like figure because they accept that if India has to have a credible military posture in the coming decades, it needs such a figure.
It is simply not possible to go on with the haphazard coordination that the country has gone along with for so long to its own cost.
It is an unfortunate fact that India usually commits itself to reform after it is hit by a crisis. That is why the two periods of reform and restructuring followed the 1962 defeat at the hands of the Chinese and the Kargil war.
We don't know what the next crisis will be like, but you can be sure that if we do not change the way we do things in relation to our defence system, we will be the losers. And we will know who is responsible for it.
(The writer was a member of the National Security Task Force chaired by Naresh Chandra)
Mail Today June 24, 2013

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