A new command

A two-star military officer as joint secretary in the ministry of defence will create more problems. A total revamp is required.

The three Service Chiefs are reported to have pitched for greater say in decision-making on national security matters. For the first time they have taken a united stand on this vital issue. However, their proposal to have military officers posted as joint secretaries and directors in the ministry of defence is only tinkering with a most irrational higher defence organisation in the world, which has developed in India.

A two-star military officer as joint secretary in the ministry of defence, sitting in judgment over the recommendations of Service Headquarters will create more problems. What is required is a total revamp of the ministry of defence in line with other democracies, particularly the United Kingdom.
During British rule, the Commander-in-Chief held a very exalted position. As the senior member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, he was a de facto defence minister, besides Supreme Commander of the three services. After the Curzon-Kitchener dispute, the appointment of Army Secretary in the rank of major general was introduced. His duties were to interact with other departments (now ministries) and provincial (now state) governments, and deal with Assembly (now Parliament) questions, ex-servicemen affairs, military land and so on, besides the issue of formal government letters. Service HQ, in conjunction with military finance, worked on draft government letters, which were passed to him for issue.
In 1920 the Army Secretary was designated defence secretary and the appointment started being held by ICS officers. On Independence, this structure had to ensure the supremacy of the civil over the military, a fundamental requirement in a democracy. However, certain features of the previous organisation, like due participation of the defence services in decision-making and one-point professional advice to the government, should not have been discarded.
After Independence, the supremacy of the civil servant has got established in the MoD. As a first step, a committee of three senior secretaries of key ministries, R.N. Banerjee (home) Vishnu Sahay (Kashmir affairs) and H.M. Patel (defence), recommended that as in other ministries, where heads of attached departments were junior to the secretary, the three Service Chiefs should have a lower protocol status than the defence secretary. At that time all the three chiefs were British officers. They approached Lord Mountbatten, the then governor-general. At his instance, Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the recommendation of the committee of secretaries. To this day the Service Chiefs enjoy a higher protocol status than the defence secretary. However, functionally they have got increasingly subordinated to the latter. Lord Ismay was in India, serving on the staff of Mountbatten. He had held a key appointment at the apex level in the British defence organisation during the Second World War. After the war, he had been to the United States to advise on higher defence reorganisation. In view of conditions then prevailing in India, he did not advise any radical restructuring. All units of the three Services had just been through vivisection. The senior military officers had been exclusively British and had left or were leaving. There was communal turmoil in the country and we were fighting a war in Kashmir. He recommended a series of joint committees, upholding the supremacy of the civil and catering for speedy decision-making, along with due participation of the military. At the apex level these were the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, the Defence Minister’s Committee and the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The Principal Personnel and Supply Officers Committees made for quick decision-making in personnel and logistic matters. There were also other technical committees like the Joint Intelligence Committee, Joint Training Committee and so on.

The Defence Committee of the Cabinet was chaired by the Prime Minister with key Cabinet ministers, including, of course, the defence minister, as members. The Service Chiefs, the defence secretary, the financial adviser and the scientific adviser were required to be in attendance at all meetings of this
committee.
Next was the Defence Minister’s Committee with the defence minister as chairman and the Service Chiefs, the defence secretary, financial adviser and scientific adviser as members. The Chiefs of Staff Committee comprised the three Service Chiefs as members. The Chief for the longest time in the committee wears the additional hat of the chairman. With frequent retirements of Chiefs, the part-time chairman’s tenure is normally only a few months. This is not
conducive to resolving controversies between the Services. The case for Army Aviation lingered for decades and, even today, the Army does not have helicopter gunships.
Chiefs of personnel and logistics were members of the Personnel and Supply Committees, with one of them functioning as the chairman. The other members of these two committees were a joint secretary from the MoD and a joint financial adviser. This composition allowed joint government decision-making, cutting out examination of cases on files and consequent red tape. All these five committees had a common secretariat. This secretariat issued agenda for meetings, circulated papers for discussion, recorded minutes of meetings and processed decisions taken. These functions in the two top crucial committees were taken over by civil servants.
Over the years, these committees have been wound up, except the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The Defence Committee of the Cabinet was replaced by the Emergency Committee and later by the Cabinet Committee for Security. Service Chiefs are invited, when required, to attend meetings of this committee, which is now increasingly rare. Normally only the defence secretary is in attendance when defence matters are
discussed.
In the late Seventies, I was chairman of the Principal Personnel Officers Committee for three years. The civil servants avoided attending the meetings of these committees and, when they did, decisions taken by the committee were still processed in files in the ministry. The whole purpose of having these committees got defeated.
(This is the first part of a two-part series.)

The author, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir

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