Pressing the reset button in MoD - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 26 May 2014

Pressing the reset button in MoD

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th May 14

Defence Secretary RK Mathur, like his counterparts in other key ministries, will soon make a presentation on the defence ministry (MoD) to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his recommendations to the PM, Mathur --- a farsighted bureaucrat who was badly hamstrung by the former defence minister’s paralysing conservatism --- will choose between incremental and radical change. He could submit to bureaucratic caution and recommend process improvements that are easy and acceptable: streamlining procurement, promoting indigenisation, etc. This safe approach might include a suggestion to raise the defence budget from its current 52-year low of 1.74 per cent of GDP. Yet, timid measures would not yield the transformative change that the new PM seeks.

Instead, Mathur must be visionary. He should take to the PM just five simple measures that would create or catalyse dramatic improvements across the wider defence arena. It would be pointless recommending a larger defence budget; anyone can improve defence by throwing vast sums of money at it. Mathur should focus on getting more bang for the buck. Given the almost criminal inefficiency of our defence processes, this can be achieved without fuss.

India’s fundamental defence problem is the army’s bloated manpower, the cost of which leaves little for modern equipment. The army chief says defending the mountainous border needs large numbers. True but China, with far longer unsettled borders slashed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by 10 lakh in 1985; another 5 lakh in 1997, and 2 lakh more in 2003, to a size not much larger than India’s. In contrast, our army is expanding, adding 80,000 soldiers this decade, when half the army’s current budget already goes on salaries. Adding bayonets is useless when that leaves no money for equipment like artillery? The defence secretary must recommend time-bound manpower reduction targets, right-sizing over this decade, from 12 lakhs today to a 9 lakh strong army.

These smaller numbers can successfully defend our far-flung borders provided they can move quickly between sectors. Currently every sector must be heavily manned in case of a full-scale attack. A poor border road network precludes the quick reinforcement of a threatened sector. A time-bound road-building plan would allow many sectors to be lightly held, saving manpower costs that could buy heavier and more accurate firepower. To meet road-building targets, an expanded Border Roads Organisation (BRO) must be placed under the MoD (it is currently under the ministry of road transport and highways). The defence minister must chair the apex Border Roads Management Board, which was once chaired by Jawaharlal Nehru himself. Border states must be incentivised, through border area development funds, to play their role in land acquisition.

The third suggestion, which would be enabled by a better-connected border, is to radically outsource the army’s administrative functions. Today, based on the dated assumption that wars are fought mainly in uninhabited areas, the army’s administrative functions are discharged by expensive combat soldiers. Military salaries and lifetime pensions are paid to legions of “combatant tradesmen” who wash, sweep, cook and cut hair. In an equipment heavy armoured division, every sixth combatant is a mechanic, performing a role that civilians can discharge more cheaply and better. Other soldiers supply rations, clothing, spare parts and fuel, jobs that most armies have privatised almost entirely. Today, even a waiter in an officers’ mess is a full-time soldier, entitled to pay and pension for life.

Privatising these functions would improve the military’s “tooth-to-tail ratio”, cut salary and pension bills, create economic opportunities for local populations in border areas who would be hired by private service contractors. It would also “civilianise” defence, creating a new genre of combat service contractors.

Fourthly, Mr Mathur should place national interest over political and IAS apprehensions and recommend the appointment of a chief of defence staff. The CDS, a five-star rank officer, appointed for a three-year tenure, is badly needed to coordinate and oversee manpower and equipment planning of all three services. Today, with nobody to mandate joint-service aims, priorities or roles, the army, navy and air force jostle for money and turf, wasting scarce funds in duplicating capabilities. Furthermore, without an overall commander to prioritise between competing service demands, the tri-service 15-year equipment plan is a worthless wish list that, in pandering to all three services, goes far beyond the actual availability of funds. Finally, a CDS would provide the military with unified command in war, and the ministry with single-point advice in peace.

Finally, to create a viable defence industry the MoD must consciously assume a “market maker” role. For almost a decade, Mr Antony has shied away from any role in developing indigenous companies into serious defence players. Instead, he reduced defence procurement and production policy to a decision matrix, devoid of judgment and discretion. The MoD must overtly and unabashedly favour indigenous production, while remaining impartial between public and private sector. To maintain even-handedness, the MoD must unburden itself of the nine defence PSUs, transferring them to the Ministry of Heavy Industry. To promote high technology, the MoD should identify innovative Indian companies and focus on their development. Controls must be loosened on defence exports to help these companies become global players, benefiting from economies of scale. At least 100-150 “Make” category projects must be kicked off, providing these companies the framework to grow. Technology entrepreneurs should be additionally seeded through the DARPA model, in which the Pentagon’s Defence Advance Research Projects Agency funds small projects that are directed towards futuristic war. DARPA’s successes include creating the Internet; but Indian technologists have no one to turn to.

None of these proposals are difficult for the new government, given its mandate and vision for change. Yet it is disappointing that a full-time minister has not been announced for the MoD. Arun Jaitley would find it difficult to function effectively as a part-time defence minister, given the many technicalities and challenges involved. It is to be hoped that Mr Modi will appoint a full-time defence minister soon.


  1. Col. Shukla, I have been waiting for this piece, ever since the results of the elections became apparent May 16th. When everybody and their grandma has been making wishlists for Modi, the defense checklist needed to be added too. I am hopeful that PM Modi happens to read this well thought out and reasoned piece of yours.

  2. Colonel,

    You and Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal are very keen on having a CDS who is "FIVE STAR OFFICER". You both have been recommending this in every forum and channel, available.

    Shall I remind you that all other Chiefs of Defence Forces, all over the world, are "FOUR STAR OFFICERS". So, on what basis do you recommend this step?

    A five star officer would become too powerful in a democratic setup. Do you plan to create a Prussian General Staff in India? Or have you started learning from Pakistan?

  3. Colonel Shukla,

    Who does not know that long standing narrow minded argument of yours - Give Army tanks rather than manpower, after tank buy BLTs then Buy ARV then buy AD, then Buy ACs for tanks, then buy soft drinks for the tanks .... all lastly make all tankmen the Genrals !! so that only 1/10 of the border is well guarded by tanks and remaining 9/10th of the border be given to police... so that they have no claim to Generalships ...

    Better give tankless borders to the NCC if not the locals as you advocate.

    Hell of a defense analyst you are !!

  4. There teeth-to-tail ration is the single most pressing concern in the Indian military.

    No nation can afford to maintain such a large manned force on a permanent basis - especially not a developing economy like India.

    I would argue that there should be no "teeth-to-tail" ration itself and every soldier in the Army should be an infantryman first and foremost. ALL non-combat duties save intelligence and command should be made civil.

    Add to this the absurdity of having 3 separate logistic commands in all three services badly duplicates manpower. These should be made into a joint command as soon as possible.

    Lastly, the entire "general staff" structure in the Indian Army needs to be modernized from our present pre-WW1 system to a newer-leaner and more "joint" command structure of Theater combat commanders and rotating staff structure to distribute command and control into across the board.

    This will put to rest some of the civil-military tensions and soothe the IAS bureaucracy of not having to rely on the military's "self-restraint" to protect the democratic set-up of India. Unless the general staff in India are sorted out- the civll-military tensions will persist. Instead of fighting unitedly against an external threat, the present set-up forces us to fight two fronts - internally and externally.

  5. Colonel,
    - "raise the budget from 1.74 percent of GDP" = where is the money ??
    - "bloated manpower" = do you think Army Chief is less intelligent ??
    - "move quickly in mountain warfare"- do you think mountain infrastructure will stand in a full scale warfare with china ??
    - "build mountain roads and connectivity" = before equip units with sufficient manpower and ammunition ?? Do you know how long it will take to build road/ equip units ??
    - "Antony has shied away from developing indigenous companies" - You dont know anything about L&T, Tatas, Mahindra, Bharat Forge, etc are developing various equipments/systems ?? Or do you want a Lockheed Martin in 10 yrs??
    - "Five star General"- somebody already commented it !!!

    Let me ask you Colonel are you sick ?? becoz standards of your articles about policy analysis are getting deteriorated !!

    Regards - an old soldier

  6. Someone said, when teeth don't know what to do with themselves, they start biting the tail.

  7. Dear Col Shukla,
    I find valid and well reasoned suggestions in your article. I would however add an element of caution in undertaking the process of downsizing the Army. We must be careful to the fact that our equipment is old...very old and has been kept in running condition by the mechanic who probably would have many a time faced a spare crunch and substituted that with his ingenuity to make the equipment work. Military equipment has no civil parallels and skills hence too are not transferable. Take for example a typical Air Defence equipment which is a synthesis of mechanical, electronics, telecommunication and armament engineering. The skills required would be multifarious and specialized. The platforms if on aged tracked vehicles would further compound the complexity of maintaining them.It becomes difficult to think of a life without that mechanic.
    Secondly,when we downsize we need to remember that we still have the task of protecting our nation. Replacing the duties with employment of technology would need acquisitions by the Army. No evidence of such high technology being developed within the nation or being acquired from elsewhere seems to be happening. The Chinese would have done that assessment and inducted to their Armed forces such capability before undertaking the downsizing. I am all for downsizing but not before modernization in tandem.

  8. These are radical changes that have to be supported by the army, especially the officer corp because they will take longer to implement that the current govs current mandate. Is there support for this in IA, otherthan the retired guys?

    If you want to continue to attract the best, you either have to pay them really good salary or give them incentives like batmen/quality of life. If you take away the incentives and don't increase the salary the shortage of officers will increase.

  9. A fairly reasoned article. As the commentator at 15:26 has pointed out, jointness and reduction of tail in the top levels of our military hierarchy needs to be sorted out before anything else. 4 or 5 star is irrelevant. Putting 10 stars on the shoulders does not make one any better a general. Clarity of function and reduction of seam lines is the need of the hour.

  10. How many troops does china employe in internal security duties like our rashtriya rifles ? Every officer and soldier in Indian army had been bloodied in anti-insurgency role.
    This number is not accounted for.
    We can blame Pakistan for Kashmir, what about north east, why is that always on fire ?
    We are replacing poor governance by army there.

  11. Hope prorata remains........anyway with vkji in the govt, the cavalry and sarath charge beginning later this year will come a cropper!!


  12. ahoy i have been trying to get one driver yes one for my unit since last one year but have not been able to convince the gods of war--am i missing something or are we from different planets


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