Cleaning the augean stables
PREDICTING the outcome of Lok Sabha elections is a risky endeavour. More often than not even psephologists get it wrong and so academics should tread with caution. Yet it appears highly unlikely that there will be a third term for the UPA coalition. This will most certainly bring to an end A.K. Antony’s tenure as India’s longest serving defence minister. And if one were to survey members of the Indian strategic community, the likely response to this development would be a collective sigh of relief.
Antony’s tenure has arguably witnessed the worst civil-military relations since the infamous, and irrepressible, Krishna Menon. While the latter got in trouble mainly because of his overbearing style of command, Antony’s flaw was of a different kind – he failed to take command of his ministry and, in military parlance, was asleep at the wheel. But the turn of events of the last few years also provides an opportunity for his successor as the stage has been set for a potential transformation of the Indian military. The question, of course, is – will the next defence minister be up for it?
A.K. Antony’s appointment as defence minister in 2006 seemingly came with only one clear political instruction – there should be no arms scandal on his watch. His well deserved reputation for personal probity made him an ideal candidate for the Congress party, which has been deeply scarred by the Bofors scandal. However, while Antony’s personal reputation remains unquestioned, the Ministry of Defence has been rocked by a number of corruption scandals, including the Adarsh housing scam, Tatra bribery allegations and the still-nascent, and politically explosive, Augusta Westland helicopter deal. None of them, of course, can be directly attributable to him, but an analysis of all these scandals indicate a common theme – the minister functions by not taking control of the situation. This, when combined with his other, better known quality – a track record of avoiding and delaying difficult decisions – makes for a debilitating mix.
If Antony was in any other ministry this might not have mattered, but the defence minister’s job is demanding and requires the correct mix of firmness, empathy and the ability to communicate clearly with the military. By most accounts, Antony possesses none of these qualities and nowhere does this become more apparent than his single biggest failing – allowing civil-military relations to deteriorate to unprecedented levels.
Even a cursory reading of civil-military relations in India will indicate that Pay Commissions are tricky affairs and require careful handling. This assumed salience from the time of the Third Pay Commission as a number of anomalies emerged between pay, emoluments and rank equivalence between civilian officials and military officers. Predictably, issues also arose during the Fourth and Fifth Pay Commissions and resolving them required some quiet political handling. In light of this, it should have been expected that similar problems might arise from the Sixth Pay Commission and inevitably when they did, the situation was grossly mishandled by A.K. Antony.
Rather than tackling the problem behind the scenes, the minister allowed it to fester until it became a public controversy with charges and countercharges. While many of the concerns raised by the military were eventually resolved, the bitterness only got exacerbated with subsequent controversies. The return of medals by veterans demanding one-rank-one-pension (cynically granted on the eve of elections) and the default policy of the defence ministry to judicially oppose every case of disabled soldiers, added to the divide between civilians and soldiers. These incidents reinforced the narrative of victimhood among the military community, which felt that its concerns were not only being ignored but, more alarmingly, that civilians bureaucrats were actively conspiring against them.
Finally, the tumultuous tenure of General V.K. Singh epitomised by the still controversial troop movement story advanced by The Indian Express placed unprecedented stress on civil-military relations. Regardless of who was at fault, or the veracity of the troop movement story, what was evident was an absence of trust and breakdown of relations between the military on the one side, and civilian bureaucrats and political leaders on the other. To a fault, the overwhelming view among analysts and former officials is that India’s civil-military relations are currently at their worst in living memory.
Abdication of leadership was also evident in the field of military diplomacy and strategic communication as the defence minister gave important multilateral engagements a miss, much to the frustration of the diplomatic community. It light of all these factors, it should not be surprising that the term ‘worst defence minister’ is increasingly been used in describing A.K. Antony’s tenure. Indicative of the anxiety surrounding his legacy, in an unprece-dented development the Ministry of Defence issued a politburo style press release on 5 March 2014, listing his ‘considerable’ achievements.1
It would, however, be an oversimplification, and unfair, if all these faults were to be ascribed exclusively to Antony. Many of these issues have been a long time coming and are indicative of deeper structural problems in India’s higher defence management. While discussed elsewhere, three of the most pressing challenges are described below.2
First, and perhaps one of the fundamental problems, has been the ‘us and them’ mentality that is generated under the existing pattern of interaction between the service headquarters and the Ministry of Defence. Under the existing governmental rules of business, the Service Headquarters function as ‘attached offices’ to the Ministry of Defence. In practice this results in the military approaching the ministry as supplicants. Adding to the frustration of the professional military, bureaucrats in the ministry often have little expertise and so their interaction often focuses more on the process of decision making than the outcome. Such a structural arrangement is divisive and breeds resentment.
To create a more collegial working atmosphere, many have suggested cross-posting of military officers to the ministry and thereby ‘integrating’ it. Those opposing such a measure warn about unintended consequences and argue that military officers in such posts may be unable to professionally challenge the diktats, often made on narrow personal or sectional interests, of more senior officers. Moreover, they cite a civilian dominated Ministry of Defence as a sine qua non of civilian control.
Unfortunately, like a broken record, the debate has remained struck between these two arguments. In other democracies these very same issues have been grappled with, and resolved with varying degrees of success, and India now needs to emulate best practices. However, doing so will require a detailed study of other countries’ administrative structures, rules of government, and so on. Most analysts on either side of the debate appear unwilling to do this and instead fall back upon their strident positions.
Another set of problems emerge from the operating culture and autonomy afforded to the service headquarters. As argued by Srinath Raghavan, among the consequences of the 1962 India-China war was an unspoken agreement wherein civilians largely stayed away from matters which were considered within the military’s domain.3 This has resulted in a large degree of autonomy to the military over issues such as doctrine formulation, force structuring, professional military education and promotion policies (up to a certain rank). This ordinarily would not have been problematic except for the breakdown in the principal staff officer concept in the service headquarters.
As described to me by a former Air Marshal, the job of the principal staff officers at senior levels is to ‘protect the chief from himself.’ This is primarily because in practice, especially within the army, policies have been known to change rapidly from one chief to another. This has been made possible by a gradual decrease in the power of principal staff officers and is a result of the chief being both commander-in-chief and chief of staff. Such an arrangement is probably unique among democracies and results in personality driven changes – some on petty grounds favouring personal affiliations, regiments and arms. Besides rapid changes in policy, it also means that proposals are often not dispassionately evaluated and challenged.
Both these factors, in turn, result in an ‘absent dialogue’ that best characterizes the entire defence effort in India. Such a term can possibly be used to describe every activity involving interaction between civilians and military officials including nuclear strategy, conventional war plans, defence planning and even aspects of military sociology. Verghese Koithara memorably described this as a ‘depthless interaction.’4 Indeed, this interaction is currently characterized with the worst of agency problems like shirking and information asymmetries. This becomes most apparent when analyzing India’s military modernization.
The story of military modernization in India over the last decade is marked by a number of seeming contradictions. Defence Minister Antony continued to espouse the age-old, and largely unsuccessful, mantra of self-reliance while India emerged as the largest arms importer in the world. Paradoxically this occurred while the ministry, responding to allegations of corruption, blacklisted the largest number of firms. Though the government publicly announced that it would welcome private sector participation in the defence industry, its policies not only continued to discriminate against them, but instead favoured state owned enterprises.
In addition, the ministry turned down the demand of the industry, supported by most analysts and the Commerce Ministry, to raise the limit of foreign direct investment above 26%. As a result of all this, military officers continue to complain that domestic research and production agencies are not responsive to its demands. The size of the Indian market attracted global attention from arms manufacturers, while the decision-making process witnessed a considerable slowdown even on critically needed systems like artillery modernization (Bofors being the last acquisition made around three decades ago).
Despite these continuing problems, record levels of spending have gradually increased the capabilities of the armed forces. The army, unimaginatively, has responded to an increased threat from China along the land border by raising a mountain corps and thereby asking for an additional 80,000 troops. The air force has acquired significant airlift capabilities by inducting the US made C-17 and C-130 J, and force multipliers like the Phalcon Airborne warning and control system (AWACS) and mid-air refuelling capabilities. Negotiations are still ongoing for a $13 billion deal with the French for the Raphael aircraft under the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) programme. The Navy has acquired the P-8i Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft, the much delayed Russian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya along with naval variants of the Mig 29 and the Scorpene submarine.
Acquiring such capabilities no doubt is a plus, but also raises important questions. First, are all these acquisitions part of an overall strategic plan or are they ad hoc, piecemeal platform acquisitions made by the services? And if it is the former, then who gives strategic guidance and in what form? Second, who carries out the critical function of inter-services prioritization and are the trade-off decisions and their implications communicated to political leaders? Third, what role do sectional interests and lobbies play in these force expansion and modernization decisions? For instance, is the army’s decision to increase troops militarily the most effective solution or is it also driven by sectional interests like the ‘infantry lobby’? This question assumes salience especially since changes in promotion policies, under the controversial pro-rata policy, incentivizes an expanded troops and officer strength.
Finally, are the three services embracing technological developments or are they more focused on preserving their traditional roles and mission? So far the evidence in support of the former is thin and, hence, it is not yet clear if there are road maps for the development and operational deployment of drones, missiles, cyber and nanotechnology. Revealingly, civilians appear to have little role, or even desire, to influence this debate.
In sum, trends in military modernization over the last decade indicate that the military has considerable autonomy in choosing and recommending platforms and acquisitions. The Ministry of Defence lacks the capacity, in terms of expertise, to make informed decisions regarding inter-services prioritization and strategic planning and, therefore, decisions are seemingly made in an ad hoc basis. Sometimes this results in absurd and logic-defying decisions. Hence, for instance, in attempting to resolve a long-standing inter-service dispute, the ministry justified the induction of 22 Apache attack helicopters in the air force, while simultaneously ruling that all future inductions will be for the army ‘because the procurement deal was an "ongoing" one, which did not fall into category of "future" acquisitions.’5 Put another way, the ministry accepted the army’s logic, but allowed the decision to be made on the basis of its own filing procedures making a distinction between ‘ongoing’ and ‘future’ programmes!
Acknowledging problems in national security structures in July 2011, the government announced the creation of what is commonly known as the Naresh Chandra Committee on Defence Reforms. This rejuvenated a stalled debate on institutional restructuring. After a year of deliberations the committee submitted its report. But after nearly two years of deliberations the government rejected its main recommendation and implemented pro forma reforms.6 An assessment of the defence reforms process reveals some fundamental insights both about the committee and Antony’s tenure.7 First, the committee was flawed in its composition and functioning. The committee was composed of 14 members of whom only five had experience of working in the defence ministry or following its activities. This would not have been problematic had the committee functioned as a research unit, but instead the committee merely accepted depositions and briefings from numerous agencies.
More egregiously, it did not peruse previous reform committee reports like the 1990 Arun Singh led Committee on Defence Expenditure. Intrinsically suffering from information asymmetries, the committee relied exclusively on what it was being told and moreover did not consult civilian experts. In turn, the briefing by different agencies seems to have been shaped by self-serving arguments. Moreover, it is as yet unclear how the service headquarters came up with its recommendations. Hence, for instance, were the recommendations arrived at after wide-ranging consultations or did they represent the opinion, and just an opinion, of selected stakeholders? This is a crucial but underappreciated point as within the military there is no focus or study of defence reforms in school of instruction or institutes that deal with professional military education.
Perhaps the biggest failing of the committee was in its unwillingness or inability to consult with political parties. As is well known, the government’s official position for its refusal to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff, which was the central recommendation of the 2001 Group of Ministers report, was because it was seeking the consensus of political parties. Appallingly this effort eluded two tenures of the UPA coalition. The Naresh Chandra Committee deliberated upon this issue and recommended the appointment of the Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff. Significantly, after some debate, the three services accepted this recommendation. However, in December 2013, Antony opposed this proposal and expressed the need to build political consensus.8 Knowing the history, the failure of the committee to canvas the views of political parties must count among its biggest shortcomings.
How then should we evaluate the Naresh Chandra Committee? The report remains classified and it cannot be judged unless it is made public; however, it appears as if the committee was ‘front loaded to fail’. According to one account, the Naresh Chanda Committee was set up on the recommendation of the Prime Minister’s Office and did not have the full backing of the defence minister or the Ministry of Defence. The low priority attached to this committee was confirmed when it was constituted without any political personalities, involving only former and therefore less influential, bureaucrats.
By contrast, in matters that it attaches importance to, the UPA government has been quick to appoint an Empowered Groups of Ministers. A.K. Antony, therefore, outmanoeuvred the military reformists, even though the push for reform came from the PMO. Such a development is in line with a political assessment that this period has witnessed the weakest prime minister in independent India. However, this account is incomplete without calling to attention that Antony’s reluctance to accept the post of Chief of Defence Staff or Permanent Chairman Chief of Staff probably stems from Sonia Gandhi’s aversion to such a post.9
Almost all assessments of problems in India’s national security inevitably conclude with a call for political action to overcome entrenched bureaucratic interests. But ill-informed political action can probably be as, if not more, harmful. The debate on defence reforms has thrown up a number of interesting ideas and set the stage for a real transformation in national security. To do so the next government must place in the public domain the three main reports on national security – the 1990 Committee on Defence Expenditure, the 2001 Arun Singh report that in turn informed the Group of Ministers Report, and the Naresh Chandra Committee Report. After a public debate the government should form a politician-led empowered group of ministers to address identified shortcomings. But the question ultimately remains – will the members of India’s next Cabinet Committee on Security be up to this task or will they, like the current members, ‘fail to deliver’.
1. See Press Information Bureau, ‘Shri A.K. Antony as Defence Minister – A Look Back’, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease. aspx?relid=104490
2. For an argument of the necessity for defence reforms in India, see Anit Mukherjee, ‘Facing Future Challenges: Defence Reforms in India’, RUSI Journal 156(5), October 2011.
3. Srinath Raghavan, ‘Civil-Military Relations in India: The China Crisis and After’, Journal of Strategic Studies 32(1), pp. 172-174.
4. See Verghese Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces. Routledge, New Delhi, 2012, p. 184.
5. See Rajat Pandit, ‘IAF, Not Army, Will Get Apache Attack Helicopters: Govt’, The Times of India, 2 April 2013.
6. See the editorial, ‘Sounding the Retreat’, DNA, 6 May 2014.
7. This section relies on interviews with two members of the Naresh Chandra Committee and with officials in the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). To speak frankly they all requested anonymity.
8. See Ajai Shukla, ‘A.K. Antony’s Intellectual Dishonesty’, Business Standard, 9 Dec. 2013.
9. For more about this see Manoj Joshi, ‘The Unending Quest to Reform India’s National Security System’, RSIS Policy Report, March 2014, p. 8.