Tinkering, but no reorganisation
Defence, the most vital but neglected sword arm of the government, receives its package of reforms in fits and starts. The latest, the Lt Gen Shekatkar Committee report, though ad hoc, is welcome. In view of giant spendings in salaries and pension due to OROP (Seventh Pay Commission will increase the burden), it was necessary to cut flab and enhance tooth-to-tail ratio, so that monies could be found for modernisation. The Army consumes 72 per cent, and the Navy and Air Force nearly 50 per cent of their budgets for salaries, pensions, and upkeep. The defence budget, which accounts for 1.62 per cent of the GDP for the current fiscal, is the lowest since 1962, the year of the Himalayan debacle. The Shekatkar Committee was tasked with enhancing combat potential and rebalancing expenditure.
The 560-page report submitted by the 11-member committee must be lauded even as the Defence Ministry cherry-picked 120 of the committee’s 200 recommendations, but approved only 90 for implementation over two years. A saving of Rs 25,000 crore is expected, which the committee has insisted must be redeployed to enhance combat readiness and not merged in the General Budget. In the 1990s, Army Chief Gen VP Malik voluntarily reduced army manpower by 50,000 personnel, yielding a saving of Rs 500 crore, which was intended to boost modernisation. That money never made it to the Army budget.
The most serious attempt at defence reforms was the Kargil Review Committee report in 2001, with the Group of Ministers’ 340 recommendations. Most were implemented, except pivotal ones like integration and jointness of services, cross-deployment of civilians in military structures and vice versa, and the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff/Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff. The fundamentals of Higher Defence Organisation are therefore still conspicuously missing. Both the civilian bureaucracy and the military are deeply suspicious of each other, preferring status quo, with the Defence Secretary acting as de facto CDS, and Service Chiefs enjoying autonomy.
The unfounded fear of a military coup, following the one in Pakistan in 1958, led, in 1961, to the government relegating powers of services and vesting the responsibility for defence preparedness in the Defence Secretary. Former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar used to tell the Service Chiefs that he would be able to meet their requirements if Defence Secretary Mohan Kumar “would help overcome the bottlenecks”. The doyen of strategic thinking in India, late K Subrahmanyam, famously said: “Politicians enjoy power without any responsibility; bureaucrats wield power without any accountability; and military assumes responsibility without any direction”. Even now, the Shekatkar Committee has recommended a Permanent Chairman Chief of Staff as chief coordinator. This is not a forward-looking step. In the UK, the CDS system had to be politically enforced due to lack of consensus among services, and they haven’t regretted it.
The last tinkering with defence was the Naresh Chandra Task Force (NCTF), constituted in 2011, which was to “review existing processes, procedures and practices in the national security system and suggest means for strengthening national security apparatus”. It made 97 recommendations pertaining to the Defence Ministry, which relied on all, except two — no marks for guessing the two omitted: CDS and integration of Defence Ministry with mid-level military officers. The NCTF recommendations were stonewalled by the Defence Ministry, backed by Defence Minister AK Antony.
In 1991, the Arun Singh committee on Defence Expenditure did a belt-tightening exercise. Earlier, Arun Singh (the then de facto Defence Minister) had helped produce the first genuinely integrated Long-Term 15-year Defence Plan, which has since not been replicated.
There is no dearth of committees which have tinkered with defence reforms and whose recommendations have only sparsely been implemented. The Shekatkar Committee falls in this erratic group. Never has a holistic Strategic Defence and Security Review been attempted. The ruling class has convinced itself that there will be no war, so chalta hai.
The author, a former Major General, was founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff
- Gen Ashok Mehta
- Lt Gen Shekatkar Committee
- Seventh Pay Commission
- Arun Singh
- Manohar Parrikar
- Mohan Kumar
- Air Force
- VP Malik
- Kargil Review Committee (KRC)
- Naresh Chandra Task Force
- Defence Budget