Indian Army paratroopers in a joint exercise with the US military. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Indian Army is all set to create new formations to fight wars with Pakistan and China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The debate over the lack of cross-service cooperation in the Indian military was revived recently by a Lieutenant-General Satish Dua, who just retired as head of the Headquarters Integrated Defense Staff (HQ IDS).

Dua pointed out the drawbacks of the rotational appointment of the three armed-service chiefs as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). He also pointed out how service chiefs frequently disagree over key issues leading to logjams and inordinate delays in making decisions.

He awarded the existing “jointmanship” (jargon for integrated planning and application of military power at certain levels) 4 points on a scale of 10. At present, operational powers of the chairman of the COSC are limited to certain out-of-area contingencies only. Successive prime ministers have made statements about the need for integration of the armed forces, but follow-up corrective action has been missing.

The HQ IDS, created 17 years ago after the 1999 Kargil War as a part of the Ministry of Defense, has been kept separate. Meanwhile the MoD continues to be manned exclusively by generalist bureaucrats who have no training or experience in military operations.

The only joint commands to date are the Strategic Forces Command, which looks after India’s nuclear arsenal, and the Andaman and Nicobar Command that oversees the Strait of Malacca. Ironically, a full 71 years after India’s independence, the MoD claims this as a magnificent achievement. Joint commands for cyberspace, space and special operations have been proposed for several years but await approval by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India still does not have a national security strategy, in the absence of which defense procurements remain ad hoc. India has purchased 36 Rafale fighters from France costing US$9.5 billion, whereas the US Air Force is purchasing 141 Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighters for $11.5 billion.

The defense allocations over the past four years have been the lowest since 1962, when India received a drubbing from China.

Currently, the defense minister has to approach the finance minister for expenditure beyond $2 billion. The finance minister has the final word on the defense budget. This system is unlike that of the US, where operational requirements are reviewed by the Senate Armed Forces Committee, who then project the budget demanded to the US Congress.

In contrast, the last chairman of the Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defense, a veteran army general, was fired recently when the committee report to Parliament slammed the Defense Ministry for the dismally pathetic state of the armed forces and poor defense allocations adversely affecting national security. The MoD even prevailed upon the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) to delete certain paragraphs from its audit reports pertaining to serious deficiencies in border infrastructure and military equipment.

The defense secretary and not the defense minister is charged with the defense of India, while the army, navy and air force headquarters continue as “attached offices.” This implies that the MoD bureaucracy remains unaccountable and yet in extreme power as the military is kept from defense organizations and an official defense-industrial setup.

A bureaucrat can be posted to the MoD from any ministry, be it from the Ministry of Urban Development, Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Mines or any other. Clearly, experience – or the lack of it – doesn’t matter when it comes to defense issues.

After the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan, a government-appointed committee and follow-up Group of Ministers Committee headed by the deputy prime minister had strongly recommended the early appointment of a Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) as a single-point military adviser to the government. But years later a subsequent government watered the CDS down to a Permanent Chairman, COSC (PC, COSC).

The CCS note under which HQ IDS was established states: “As and when a CDS is appointed, he will have equal voting rights as service chiefs and in case of disagreement by two service chiefs, arbitration will be done by MoD.”

So the question of the CDS being the single-point military adviser to the government was killed even before the appointment was established.

In Britain, a debate over appointing a Chief of Defense Staff dragged on for 18 years before the political authority made the decision to force the issue. Ironically, no prime minister in India has been keen to do so because they are dependent on bureaucrats. And the latter are happy to keep the military divided, some perhaps because of cross-border links.

Going by present indications, the Indian government is in the process of appointing a PC, COSC as soon as the COSC approves it. The announcement may as well be before the coming general elections to draw electoral mileage from it.

The PC, COSC will have the same operational powers as the existing rotational chairman. He will hardly be the required single-point adviser and power for forging jointmanship in the military.

Yet the media will propagate this as a great stride in military reorganization. On a different level, the government is shouting itself hoarse abut technology and induction of artificial intelligence in the military, while the warfare capacity building in the army is being killed or stifled.

The irony for India is that China’s military reorganization is in the completion stage and military modernization is progressing rapidly. The responsibility for China’s borders with Myanmar, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan is under the People’s Liberation Army’s Western Theater Command, with all Border Divisions under it.

In the case of India, the Eastern, Central, Western and Northern Commands are responsible for the border with China.

Worse, large portions of India’s international borders are under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), and not the MoD. Incidentally, the Coast Guards defending India’s 7,500-kilometer coastline is under the MoD, not the MHA.

Required change to India’s defense setup doesn’t appear possible in the near future since the government isn’t inclined to rehash the higher defense organizations, particularly the MoD to begin with. This should make India’s adversaries extremely happy.

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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