Manohar Parrikar's Must-Do List is Long

(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

In the month since he took office, Manohar Parrikar has injected a much-needed dose of dynamism into the defence ministry. Mr. Parrikar has repeatedly stated his desire to expedite defence procurement even while adopting transparent processes. Chairing his first meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council he gave the go-ahead for the long-stalled procurement of artillery systems. He has also agreed to revisit the existing procurement guidelines in order to give a fillip to the defence industry in India.

Yet, the challenges that the defence minister faces go well beyond the problems of equipment and technology. Structural reforms and development of human capital are equally, if not more, important. Unless these are squarely tackled, the drive towards modernization could judder to a halt.

It is not difficult to see why Mr. Parrikar is focused on questions of procurement. For the past few years, the defence ministry been paralyzed by the fear of corruption and has allowed crucial acquisition decisions to drift along. More importantly, the bureaucracy staffing the ministry all but exclusively deals with issues of procurement. This in itself is an indicator of a major structural problem with our defence establishment: the institutional gulf between the ministry of defence and the armed forces.

Since the ministry and service headquarters are not institutionally integrated, successive defence ministers have taken little interest in the functioning of the services and have been content to work the files prepared by bureaucrats in the ministry. This has had deleterious consequences.

Civil-military relations have been vitiated from both ends. The military feels that political control has been supplanted by bureaucratic control-that too by officials who have scant understanding - let alone expertise-of military matters. The military, for its part, has sought to keep the political leadership out of its turf by insisting on a wide measure of operational and organizational autonomy. The upshot has been suboptimal for all concerned.

Take the issue of procurement itself. One of the major problems with the existing process lies in the formulation of "Qualitative Requirements" that translate the operational needs of the armed forces into detailed specifications for acquisition. These problems could be effectively handled by setting up an integrated capability development unit-comprising military officers, DRDO scientists and civilian experts-in the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). After all, the IDS was set up precisely to achieve this kind of integration. Yet the institution remains under-utilized owing to the political leadership's lack of interest.

A number of proposals are available to the government on cross-posting of civilian and military officers in the ministry of defence and the service headquarters. Dealing effectively with the strategic context confronting India requires joint-ness within the armed forces and integration between the services and the ministry of defence. Successive governments have baulked at these ideas and have looked for alternative arrangements. It will be a pity if Mr. Parrikar perpetuates this trend.

Institutional integration apart, the defence minister must take a more direct interest in the operational readiness of the armed forces. Mr. Parrikar's predecessors have tended to tick the box by turning up at the finale of large military exercises. But the real problems lie in the domain of military education, especially for officers. Our training establishments aim at imparting narrow professional skills. The focus is on churning out officers who can command companies, battalions and brigades; or those who can perform staff duties at various levels. There is practically no attempt to give the officers a sense of the larger contexts-strategic, political and international-in which the armed forces function. It is only at the highest training establishment, the National Defence College, that senior one-star officers get exposed to some these issues. This is too little and too late.  

This outmoded approach to training impacts the quality of human capital at all levels in the services. If civil-military integration at the top is essential to ensure optimum strategic preparedness, then we need senior military officers who have some understanding of international relations and politics-beyond whatever they pick up by following the news. At lower levels, too, it is important that officers understand the environment in which they are operating and the consequences that flow from their actions. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, junior officers have vented their feelings via social media that they were being expected to fight a war using the principles of maintaining law and order. It is difficult to imagine a greater misapprehension about the context in which they are being employed.

The quality of officers attracted by our services is comparable to those in any other country. But our systems of training fall rather short of preparing them for the challenges of the 21st century. Thorough-going reform of military training must be on top of Mr. Parrikar's agenda.

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