IDSA COMMENT

Ten Pointers for Transformation

December 20, 2011

The Indian Army is undergoing the process of transformation. A recently concluded study outlined the process and an exercise validated it. These will hereafter become the basis for what is considered a long awaited change.

A modest assessment of army’s transformational challenges could well be described as “arduously unique”. Amongst major armies of the world, the Indian Army is the only one fighting a proxy war, unleashed by an almost equally professional army with frenetic zeal and an imagined existential threat. It is also amongst the few nations and armies, which have repeatedly been forced to hear the nuclear sabre rattle from across the border. India is probably the only major nation, whose long land boundary with two nuclear powers, China and Pakistan, is disputed. The history of major wars with both only makes this reality worse. Finally, along with China, India has not only embarked on a path of economic, but also military transformation. This, if realised, would become one among the critical factors that will assist India achieve the ability to secure its national interests.

These realities provide a backdrop for future transformation. It also makes the challenge both daunting and momentous. At this stage, a few issues are worth flagging, even as the process is underway.

First, the defence forces have already lost considerable time in achieving an acceptable degree of integration. Individual service transformation will remain a myth, if the process undertaken ground up does not integrate every other war fighting organ that makes the body of national defence. Every service has outlined the importance of “jointmanship” and “integration” amongst their foremost key result areas. The process of transformation would test this intent and will remain a test bed for the ability of the nation to fight a synergized war in future.

Second, besides the three services and the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), the onus of ensuring that the creases are ironed out and gaps filled, will remain with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The process of transformation cannot become a fait accompli for controlling agencies and must be implemented based on their vision and shared desire. In order to ensure single-minded commitment to this task, a transformation cell staffed by retired service chiefs, former defence secretaries and heads of IDS could be constituted to oversee the planning and implementation process. They would also need to assess the progress made during similar previous attempts at transformation and the lessons that can be learnt from them. This would be invaluable for taking forward the present endeavour.

Third, procurement, which is a futuristic exercise in concept and implementation, will have to remain a subset of the process of integrated transformation. Even the possibility of the two moving on parallel, or worse divergent paths, is unthinkable and needs to be seriously considered at this stage. Once binding contracts are in place and simultaneous road maps are in the process of implementation, transformation will at best remain a catch phrase, with little to offer in terms of results and impact.

Fourth, transformation is more about the ability to change mindsets, rather than induction of modern hardware. It is this mental transformation, which will be a greater challenge for commanders. For an army, which rightfully takes pride in its functional efficiency on the basis of established procedures, the need to overhaul some of its existing systems, will test its flexibility and innovativeness.

Fifth, over two decades of proxy war and increasing emphasis on out of area contingencies (OOAC) require planners to look at additional responsibilities, besides conventional ones. Therefore, amongst the unenviable realities, probably the most difficult one requires India to not only prepare for a full spectrum capability, but also humanitarian operations beyond its shores in the foreseeable future.

Sixth, amongst major transforming armies in the world including USA, UK, China and India, it is only the two Asian powers that have the luxury of a fast growing economy, which can convert plans and desires into reality, without major budgetary constraints. This may not be the case in future when the next transformation is undertaken. Therefore, any leapfrogging action that has to be initiated and achieved must be undertaken now. The future may not be as considerate economically as the present.

Seventh, self critique has not really been amongst the greatest virtues of the services. It is time that this process is undertaken in complete earnest, if the existing speed breakers and potholes are to be evened out and the bumpy ride of the present has to transform into a smooth, seamless, unhindered and fluidic movement of the future. One of the most important components for a successful process of transformation is to recognise organisational, structural and human resource limitations and thereafter ensure corrections. This process of internal reform is not merely relevant to the army, but also other services, IDS, research establishments and the MoD.

Eighth, even as the process of transformation is undertaken, innovation and flexibility must remain key tools to ensure course correction as and when required. This will ensure the requisite ability to adapt to sudden changes in terms of threats, capabilities and unforeseen circumstances that may emerge. This must be accompanied by a defined roadmap, which can be assessed at every stage of implementation both in terms of time and results to ensure accountability. This will not only institutionalise the process, it will also make it immune to personality oriented shifts.

Ninth, the process of transformation of over 1.3 million members and associated systems is probably the largest restructuring exercise that any organ of the government has undertaken. While it is not to say that the services are incapable of implementing the shift, yet, it would be invaluable to bring into the process, lessons of modern management, which have been learnt from transformation of large corporate firms. While their challenges may be different, the essence of change to enable greater efficiency remains the same. This would also give an opportunity to the corporate world, to better understand the services and therefore, place them in a position of strength to partner in technology innovation, adoption and induction.

Tenth, the process of transformation must also include emerging and future challenges, which go beyond the immediate purview of defence forces, but remain a potent threat nevertheless. Cyber attacks and terror strikes in the hinterland may not be the primary responsibility of the army; however, they could affect the army both directly and indirectly. Therefore, structural changes, to deal with issues like security of army cantonments and the involvement of the army in internal security situations, need to be emphasised. Also, a reorientation of our focus in the cyber and space domains is needed to ensure adequate safeguards in the future.

It is evident that the ongoing exercise undertaken by the army cannot remain a service specific initiative and must become an all encompassing process to ensure transformation of at least the defence forces, if not all the security forces. It is also clear that the exercise must visualise and identify the nature of potential threats, even if the sources are difficult to pinpoint. This will help achieve capability based restructuring and equipping. The process must also include reform of the complete organisational chain, if desired goals have to be achieved.