On May 3, within days of its surprise formation, the newly constituted Defence Planning Committee (DPC)—at best a cut-and-paste job of the Cabinet Committee on Defence, the Integrated Defence Staff and, its predecessor, the Defence Planning Staff—held its first meeting under the country’s counter-terrorism czar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who reports to defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The DPC has the busiest people in the North and South Blocks—the foreign secretary, the defence secretary, the expenditure secretary, the service chiefs, one of whom is the rotating chairman and ceremonial head of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, just as the President of India is the powerless Supreme Commander of the armed forces. Such a weird Higher Defence Organisation (HDO) can at best tinker with the uncivil military-civil relations and inter-service rivalry that are anathema to the integration of the armed forces and defence management.
The DPC’s first meeting produced a queer mix of ideas and even decisions, notably on defence preparedness and longevity of war. Operationalising the DPC is like putting the cart before the horse—creating an HDO without first establishing jointness in command, integration between the civil and planning staffs, and the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff. Given the resource crunch with the defence budget at its lowest since 1962 at 1.57 per cent of the GDP, the service chiefs were advised to tighten their belts by prioritising their defence acquisition plans, with an emphasis on Make in India. The Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on defence under General (retd) B.C. Khanduri of the BJP had recently declared the armed forces unfit for war. That did not worry the government as it has convinced itself there will be no war (there have been none since 1971 and the Kargil border skirmish of 1999) and that the focus has shifted to counter-terrorism. And yet both the army and air force chiefs have repeatedly said they are ready to fight a two-front war, though the navy chief has not mentioned a two-ocean naval strategy so far.
When the three service vice-chiefs deposed before the PSC, Lt Gen Sarath Chand said the army would have to drop some of its 125 ongoing schemes and emergency procurement. This must have prompted General Bipin Rawat to announce a few days later that the army could maintain its operational readiness within the existing allocations by ‘readjusting and prioritisation’. Once in 2017, when Gen Rawat had commented about shortage of funds, the then finance minister, doubling for a second time as defence minister, told him he should come to meet him if the Integrated Financial Advisor says no funds are available.
Clearly, OROP (‘one rank one pay’, a political achievement frequently cited by the government), the 7th Pay Commission and the warped tooth-to-tail ratio have resulted in the 2018-19 defence allocation consuming 67.3 per cent for manpower, leaving only 33 per cent for modernisation. Till this is fixed and Make in India realised, defence preparedness will have chinks in the armour.
The DPC is meant to better manage the ad-hocism in defence planning, budgeting and procurement, besides producing India’s first-ever national security strategy and sundry other position papers. In its meeting, the DPC decided to increase the critical ammunition inventory, currently sufficient for a 10-day intense war, for sustaining 30 days of war. But ammunition procured through the revenue account is to stop, affecting the capital account for modernisation. This reprioritisation of ammunition to be procured from the capital account will majorly affect ongoing modernisation projects to be ready for 30 days of war. This could affect new projects like providing new and more lethal small arms to the infantry, which had been in cold storage for two decades and fructified only recently. The unstated timeframe for acquiring a 30-day stockpile of ammunition will adversely affect perspective planning of the three services.
Is the NSA’s operational decision applicable to a two-front war? Is it based on any clear and present threat assessment? No strategic security and defence review, followed by measurement of military capability, has ever been done to conclude on the longevity of war. Neither has any white paper on defence been attempted. According to its charter, the DPC is required to make recommendations to the defence minister, who would then get the Cabinet Committee on Security’s approval where necessary. The DPC’s actions are a good illustration of ad-hocism.
(The writer, a retired major general, is a founder-member of the Defence Planning Staff, now known as the Integrated Defence Staff)