Making sense of security

To its credit, the task force has emphasised the need for IAS and other officers running the MoD being specially trained for the purpose

Although the much-awaited report of the task force on the much-needed reform of the national security system, submitted last week, is yet to be published, some of its contents have already found their way into the electronic media, even if desultorily. South Block would do well, therefore, to publish it at the earliest for a thorough public discussion on a subject of paramount importance.

As usually happens in such cases, the government will find it necessary to make some deletions for security reasons. But these should, please, be kept to the barest minimum.
Meanwhile, based on the information already telecast and some more available from other sources, let me discuss some of the salient features of the report of the task force, headed by Naresh Chandra, a former Cabinet secretary and former ambassador to the US. The task force was a sequel to the Kargil Review Committee Report and the action taken on it by a Group of Ministers (GoM) of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in 2001.
Consequently, it was the task force’s remit to examine the reforms that were then introduced, and suggest how to energise those that hadn’t worked, and to fill the gaps that had been left even then. The report has the virtue of being unanimous. However, given the breadth of the subject it covers and the report’s consequent length, only a limited number of its manifold findings can be discussed in available space.
Mercifully, someone has at long last taken a definitive view on the issue of having a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the concept of a “single-point military advice to the government”, as exists in other democracies. Here, it has been hanging fire endlessly because of bitter controversy surrounding it. The Kargil Review Committee was in favour of this institution and the GoM had endorsed it. However, at the last minute, Mr Vajpayee — after consulting former President R. Venkataraman and former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, both of whom had served as defence ministers — had held over a decision. His hope of settling the issue within a year proved illusory.
The task force has now clearly said no to the idea of a CDS and concomitant changes in the higher defence management. At the same time, it has shown acute awareness of the serious flaws of the present arrangement. It has recommended, therefore, that the existing system of the most senior of the three serving chiefs acting as the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee should be abandoned, and there should instead be a separate, four-star “permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff” with a fixed tenure of two years. Of course, the post will rotate among the three services.
The suggested change is sound. For quite apart from other shortcomings of the Chiefs of Staff Committee at present, during the last decade the committee’s chairmen have changed 11 times. One of them had lasted precisely 30 days. The pattern now proposed would not affect the powers and functions of the three service chiefs, while the permanent chairman of the chiefs would not be a ceremonial head either. He will have enough to do. For one thing, it is the chairman of Chiefs of Staff who oversees the strategic command. Hopefully, under the new dispensation, this profoundly important task would start receiving the attention it deserves. Moreover, the permanent chairman would also command the special forces, existing and those likely to be formed in future. Inter-services problems and coordination of the three services would also be a part of his remit. His deputy, a three-star officer, would be the Chief of Integrated Staff, a post that already exists.
In a symbiotic relationship with the chairmanship of the Chiefs of Staff Committee is the long-standing issue of integration of the services’ headquarters with the ministry of defence (MoD), which would then require having theatre commands. The idea has merit but it seems the task force has done a half-hearted compromise on this. It has reportedly recommended that military officers should be encouraged to serve in the MoD up to the rank of director and, over a period of five years, the practice should be extended up to the level of joint secretary. In short, the MoD would continue to be dominated by civilian bureaucrats. To its credit, the task force has emphasised the need for IAS and other officers running the MoD, the National Security Council and other departments responsible for security, internal and external, being specially trained for the purpose. The pattern of “generalists” flitting from rural development to defence just would not do.
Sadly, however, it must be reported that over this issue and several others, including parliamentary oversight of security, the “generalists” prevailed by turning the spotlight on the mess in which the Army has been mired in recent months. For this reason, according to reliable reports, even sharp exchanges eventually ended in compromises of sorts. Even so, the task force has tried to hold the scale even. It has spelt out a scheme for “decentralisation and devolution of financial and administrative powers” that should largely eliminate unconscionable delays in decision-making in the MoD.
Similarly, the appalling procedures for procurement are to be streamlined. The task force has suggested an end to the practice of blacklisting firms of suppliers at the drop of a hat. There are suggestions also for ending the scandalous situation that requires India to import 70 per cent of the military hardware it needs. These include a greater role in indigenous production of the private sector. The Defence Research and Development Organisation is enjoined to work in closer cooperation with the armed forces than is the case at present.
Unquestionably the finest finding of the task force is that the Prime Minister, together with his senior ministers concerned and the top military leaders, should unfailingly conduct an annual review of national security.

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