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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Joint opinion piece on defence decision making, in 'The Tribune', authored by General VP Malik and Maj Navdeep Singh

General VP Malik and I attempt to address issues related to the decision-making process in the defence establishment, in "The Tribune". The unabridged version is as below:

Defence Decision-Making Process:
Time for Change

General VP Malik
(Former Chief of the Army Staff)

Major Navdeep Singh
(Advocate, Punjab & Haryana High Court)

Decision-making process of the defence establishment with its myriad complexities has always remained a vexed issue. It has been a cause of alienation with people in uniform, court cases, delays in acquisitions and procurements, lack of integration & jointness, and several other aspects of national security.

This opinion piece does not break much new ground but the aim is to emphasise the need for our political leaders to debate and decide on this issue promptly, and to that end, this attempts to work as a catalyst.

Under the Rules for Allocation and Transaction of Business framed in 1961 the defence services have absolutely no role or powers ascribed to them. The Defence Secretary is allocated responsibilities for “Defence of India” and ancillary facets during war with the “Armed Forces of the Union” and the three Services Headquarters subordinately designated as “Attached Offices of the Department of Defence”.

The professional heads of the three services charged with the command of the armed forces, and responsibility of national defence as well as conduct of war, neither have been accorded a status nor granted any powers in the edifice of the Government of India. By default, the Defence Secretary is thus tasked with the “Defence of India”.

The obvious reason is that for many years after independence, there was deep-rooted suspicion, fuelled by happenings in the neighbourhood, as to whether the military in India would continue to remain in barracks under the control of the cabinet or would take to adventurism. Although the defence services have remained staunchly loyal to the Constitution and acquitted themselves admirably in peace and conflict, certain vested interests have not allowed obliteration of that suspicion. As a result, the military has been kept in a box, not allowed to participate in the policy or decision-making loop.

Our political establishment, hence, despite the vastly changed strategic environment, nature of conflicts, and the imperative need to consult defence chiefs directly on such issues, has been deprived of this facilitation. Some Defence Ministers like Jaswant Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, and Prime Ministers like Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, met the service chiefs more often than others. But the institutionalised system and the defence decision-making process was never resolved.

Over a period of time, certain changes have been incorporated. Limited financial powers have been delegated to the defence services and the file movement system also minimally altered. But these changes remain cosmetic. The spirit and substance of the integration of the Ministry of Defence including decision-making have not been altered. The nomenclatures may have changed from “Army Headquarters” to “Integrated Headquarters of Ministry of Defence (Army)” but within the Ministry itself, the old terminology and processes continue to be followed. Even today, despite the manifesto of the ruling party calling for “ensuring greater participation of Armed Forces in the decision-making process”, not much seems to have moved towards resolution.

While the inherent suspicion towards the military waned with time, the pretext of ‘checks and balances’ gained momentum for keeping the defence services out of actual decision-making. Needless to state, the requirement of such checks and balances is entirely vital and no single entity, the military included, can be provided a free run without scrutiny or without being counter-questioned on its proposals. But the question remains as to whether a counter-balance as at present, wherein decisions of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) are allowed to be commented upon in the form of file noting initiated by junior non-specialist civilian employees should continue, or whether a collegiate system be instituted at the apex level wherein collective defence related recommendations or decisions can be taken subject to the approval of the political executive.

The system currently followed, besides causing suspicion and distrust, often results in delays and sometimes imbalanced decisions. While this is not to say that the decisions of the military should be allowed to prevail without question, we only suggest that the conclusions should be based upon collective deliberations with collation of proper views of all stakeholders on an equal footing before they are put up to the political authority for sanction.

It is also a matter of concern that in some spheres where powers have been delegated, the system is being rendered infructuous with too much leeway being displayed by military authorities. To take an easily understandable example, powers to determine disability benefits of officers have been conferred upon military authorities and appellate committees. However, even after processing such proposals in consonance with the rules and after due affirmation by executive, legal and medical authorities, the same are abandoned by the senior military authorities based upon objections by junior finance officers whose duty is only to calculate expected financial outgo and not comment upon the merit of the subject.

One solution that comes to our mind is instituting a format such as the “Defence Board”. Within that, a judicious mix of senior military and civil officers could debate proposals and then reach a consensus which can then be put up for approval of the Minister. The Defence Board is not an alien concept among democracies. The United Kingdom has a Chief of Defence Staff for its strategic and operational needs as a single point military consultant. Additionally, it follows a Board system chaired by the Defence Minister (Secretary of State for Defence) with members from civil and defence services and also non-executive board members.

Closer home, the decision-making for the Railways via the Railway Board is featured in the Rules of Business. The decision-making process of the Board is headed by the Railways Minister and comprises a healthy mix of members from different cadres and technical streams under a Chairman from the Railways.

India has a large strength of defence services involved not only in operational and strategic matters related to external defence but also in its internal security and disaster relief and many other types of aid to civil authorities during peace. Like other democratic nations, our defence forces have their own ethos, culture, human relations issues- discipline, human rights, welfare, morale and other functional requirements. In these days of information technology and rapid socio-political changes, we cannot have a system where the affected parties or the end-users are not consulted adequately, or where decisions are taken, based on faulty inputs by non-experts through one-way file notes. The correct system would require a face-to-face real time collegiate discussion before decisions are made.

“Defence of India” involves not just the military but almost all other institutions of the government; even its citizenry. However, our Constitution requires the military to work under ‘political control’ and not ‘bureaucratic control’ under the rules framed decades ago in a different geo & socio-political milieu.

As in all democratic nations, our military has an important role to play in building and protecting the nation. Being treated as a redundant appendage in governance militates against the basic grain of a democracy and also hampers execution of its modern day role.

It is a fervent hope that the political environment would rise and find a juste milieu ensuring an equal voice for all stakeholders with the ultimate decision-making power vested with the political executive as laid down in our Constitution.