The challenge begins now: CDS is off to a blistering start. But serious reform to integrate armed forces requires painful decisions

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The appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff by the Modi government is probably the most significant military reform in five decades, and General Bipin Rawat has got off to a brisk start.

 

His declaration that India may soon have two to five geographical “theatre commands”, integrating weapons and personnel of army, air force and navy, as well as a joint Air Defence Command, is an ambitious one. Several working groups within service headquarters are working feverishly on implementing this idea and the public enunciation of these goals has added a sense of urgency.

Those who have studied economic reforms know that seldom has India undertaken paradigmatic shifts at a governmental system level unless pushed by a deep crisis that renders current systems simply untenable. And so it is with defence.

The urgency and the positive winds of change in the newly revamped ministry of defence with its new department of military affairs, that the CDS heads, cloak the single most fundamental challenge now facing India’s military. India may be the fourth largest defence spender in the world and the defence budget gets the highest allocation of all ministries. Yet this year, for the first time, the standing army will be spending more on pensions (38.1%) than on salaries for its serving soldiers and civilian employees (37.5%) or what it can spend on modernisation (8.8%).CDS-EDIT

The defence ministry overall, a PRS analysis shows, will be spending almost as much on pensions (28.4%) as it will on salaries (30.2%), leaving less than half of our defence spending for other tasks. The current system is clearly unsustainable and radical change of the kind that the CDS is talking about is a necessity.

At a time when the fiscal deficit is ballooning and government expenditures are stretched, there is simply no money for expansion unless it can be found by a major internal reboot of the way India has traditionally organised its soldiering.

At a strategic level, China has conducted similar reforms in the last decade. Under President Xi Jinping, China not only almost doubled its military spending but completely reformed its military organisation. Much like the United States after its landmark 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, China in February 2016 reorganised its army, navy and air force into five “theatre commands”.

Its western command based in Chengdu is focused on India and South Asia, for example; its southern one based in Guangzhou is more maritime-focused on the South China Sea. This means that, like in American theatre commands, all soldiers, sailors and air personnel in these commands report to a single joint commander. These theatre commands came up in tandem with the new Strategic Support Force focused on cyber-space and electronic warfare.

In that sense, India’s military reforms are long overdue. The current structure of 19 military commands: (7 of the army, 7 in the air force, 3 naval commands and 2 joint commands) is simply too unwieldy. As Vijai Singh Rana has pointed out, “None of these are co-located and their geographical zones of responsibilities have little commonality… In contrast, the US which has a global role has a total of nine combatant commands that include three functional combatant commands: Special Operations Command, Strategic Command and Transportation Command; and six geographic combatant commands – Africa Command, Central Command, European Command, Northern Command, Pacific Command, and Southern Command.”

In that sense, ideas like a new Peninsula Command (merging the two eastern and western naval commands) or separate ones for China, Kashmir and Pakistan are good ones to cut the flab and create a leaner force.

Importantly, Xi undertook China’s reforms in tandem with a pledge to reduce Chinese defence forces by 300,000 soldiers. In the Indian case, the salaries and pensions bill includes the cost of about 4 lakh civilian employees in the defence services. For reducing soldiering costs, one option is to start side-posting soldiers to central armed police and other police forces after a few years (which is strongly opposed by these forces).

Another option, as an MoD committee of experts had recommended in 2015, is to expand short service commissions in tandem with a smaller core cadre. A version of this can be adapted, as lawyer Navdeep Singh suggests, to a system where a large number of soldiers are retired after shorter service – say 10 years – and get pensions as part of the national contributory scheme while a smaller core receives regular pensions. This will greatly reduce costs.

Yet, such measures will require larger policy changes that the CDS currently has no control over. The devil lies in the detail. The proposed joint Air Defence Command, combining the army, navy and air force’s anti-aircraft weapons and personnel is a good idea. It can be restructured on the model of the Special Forces Command, under the CDS.

Clearly, the new department of military affairs which has been carved into the ministry of defence, has a lot riding on it. Yet, as military scholar Anit Mukherjee says, the way it has been structured, no other democracy has “any institutional structure of this sort”. It may have to deliver much more than what it has actually been empowered with.

Either way, difficult choices will have to be made. The real hard work of internal military reform begins now.





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