As the year 2016 drew to a raucous close, memories of the Pathankot strike by militants on January 2, 2016 sound like an echo from the distant past. So much has happened since then but several critical issues related to defence, at best, continue to be “work-in-progress” at the end of the year.
Apart from the deterioration in relations with Pakistan, growing pomposity of China, a perceptible shift in Russia’s stance vis-a-vis India, and other developments in the region and beyond, there are at least three broad areas in which the pot only kept brewing during the past year.
The first of these is in the area of higher defence management in which the primary focus remained on issues like appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and integration of the Services Headquarters (SHQs) with the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Appointment of the CDS is perceived by many as the panacea for all sorts of problems besetting the defence establishment in India. Contrary to the expectation of CDS becoming a reality in 2016, the sluggish pace at which this issue moved during the year only ended up reinforcing the perception that the government is either unable or unwilling, or at best lacks a sense of urgency, to take the step.
These perceptions prevented a dispassionate public discourse on how this step, if and when taken, will actually pan out. It is important to think it through because the experience of setting up of Headquarters of Integrated Defence Staff shows that mere creation of an institution is no guarantee that the objectives for which it is set up will be achieved. This also applies to the idea of integrating SHQs with MoD.
The second important area in which there was no turnaround is the area of civil-military relations (CMR). Even at the risk of opening the Pandora’s Box, the point must be made that a lot of this has to do with perception rather than reality but then there is no denying that perceptions have always mattered in inter-personal relationships.
If anything, recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission have queered the pitch further. Implementation of the recommendations posed a major challenge which continues to dog the establishment as the year drew to a close.
The government’s decision on implementation of one-rank-one-pension might have quelled growing unrest in the ranks of the retired but it would be naive to believe that it has made a dent on the negative perceptions about the civilian bureaucracy.
Two recent developments have exacerbated the problem. The action taken against the former Chief of Air Staff (COAS) has drawn sharp reactions. The unprecedented arrest of a former chief is largely being seen as inexplicable, if not unwarranted.
While the point at issue, on which the courts will have to rule, is the personal culpability of the former chief, negative perceptions are bound to grow if immediate action is not taken against politicians and/or bureaucrats allegedly involved in the scam. A strong indication on action in this regard was given by the Defence Minister when he spoke on the subject in parliament in May of last year.
The latest issue to stir the embers is the selection of the next Chief of Army Staff where the government deviated from the generally followed principle of seniority in appointment to the highest posts in the military establishment. This was met with much opprobrium, more so because it was evidently not taken into account while announcing the surprise move that any supersession in promotion, especially at the highest levels, is demeaning to those who get superseded.
The third area in which there were mixed developments is the area of force modernisation. The year started on a somewhat disappointing note because, contrary to expectations, there was not much of a hike in defence allocation in the Union budget.
Based on the recommendations of a committee of experts, set up belatedly by the government in 2015, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) came out with a revised Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP), albeit in two instalments. The latest iteration does contain some interesting new provisions but it will take a couple of years, if not more, before the impact of the new provisions manifests itself.
Many issues related to the defence acquisitions and promotion of the domestic defence industry remained ‘under consideration’ of the ministry or various committees set up by it. These include restructuring of the defence procurement organisation and, more importantly, adoption of the strategic partnership model.
As in previous years, since the ‘Make’ procedure was introduced in 2005 by MoD to promote indigenous design and development, no contract was signed for any ‘Make’ project during the year.
Lastly, the old bugbear of inordinate delays in concluding acquisition contracts continued to hold sway throughout the year, notwithstanding signing of a few big ticket contracts, mostly with US companies. Decision-making has been the bane of all defence acquisitions in the past. The developments in 2016 did little to dispel this impression.
Having crossed the half way mark of its five-year tenure, all this should be a matter of some concern to the government. With each passing year, the possibility of reforms in the management of defence keeps becoming more distant. Or, so it appears. It is now over to 2017.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.