A high-level task force has been set up under former bureaucrat Naresh Saxena to take defence sector reforms forward. The remit is to review progress since the last bout of reforms were carried out pursuant to the report of the Kargil Review Committee in 2001.

This second round of reforms is timely, in the sense of a decade having elapsed since the last deep look at the defence sector. India, and the regional security situation, has moved on considerably and the outlook for the next decade also promises similar change. China is now the principal security concern, necessitating a change-over in defence from being Pakistan-centric. A changed manner of conduct of war has been on display over the past decade in the US military practices, made possible by organisational changes in the face of changing technology.

It is not as if the sector has been static. Not only have the approved changes from 2001 been effected, but considerable organisational restructuring has been carried out within the services. For instance, the Army has operationalised its limited war doctrine called 'Cold Start'. That resulted in the creation of a field army, among other things such as a shift in organizational culture towards the offensive. Its China-oriented makeover is underway, with two divisions being raised and talk of a mountain strike corps also in the air. Last week, the Army bid for taking the Indo-Tibetan Border Force, in charge of a section of peacetime border management with China, under 'operational control' even during peace. Likewise, the civilian side has also witnessed movement. The Kelkar Committee looked at defence procurements and the P Rama Rao Committee energised the defence technology sector.

The second round has been prompted by aspects that have remained undone since - specifically the creation of the position of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), and integration of service headquarters into the ministry. Naresh Saxena is likely to encounter some debate around these two aspects.

Politicians are not interested in seeing a concentration of military power in one office. And the services themselves have not evolved a consensus.

 •  Muddling along, strategically
 •  Government versus military
 •  A 'general' need for reform

The CDS was mooted with the idea that it is important to bring in jointness in the services, and through that to infuse them with doctrinal sync and operational synergy. In a conflict under nuclear conditions, the CDS would have the task of fine-tuning the conventional-nuclear interface. The hold-ups over the appointment of a CDS have been many.

Vast changes, turf battles

Politicians are not interested in seeing a concentration of military power in one office. The bureaucrats would prefer to play the role in its absence, since it helps play one service against the other. The services themselves have not evolved a consensus. The Air Force is against the idea. The Army appears to have distanced itself ever since General J J Singh, prior to retiring, said that even the Army could do without it.

While superficially the face-off is over turf, it is actually about deep doctrinal differences on how to fight wars. The Air Force sees a 'strategic' role for itself involving infrastructure busting, military attrition, etc. The Army thinks that the next war would require to be fought more jointly than the Air Force is willing to let on. The doctrinal dissonance requires adjudication that only an empowered CDS can provide. The way the Saxena task force inclines on this score will be critical to its recommendations.

That could also end up defining the remit of the CDS. Would his be an operational function or a staff function? The service chiefs currently combine the two roles in their person. They are loath to give up either and don't want their powers transferred upwards. Additionally, if the service chiefs are relegated to a staff function of creating, managing and provisioning respective services as part of an integrated ministry, the operational side would need to be handled by theatre commanders. This means that organisational restructuring would be very vast indeed.

The committee's role can only be recommendatory. Reforms of such a sweeping nature would require consensus in the political class as well. This may not be forthcoming. In India's evolutionary approach - as against a revolutionary one - grand sweeps are unlikely. Therefore, the task force faces a huge, possibly insurmountable challenge. Consequently, it may choose realistically to inch forward one step at a time.

As for the second task of integration into the ministry goes, this could be better done if and when the chiefs are willing to shed operational responsibilities. Currently, the command culture is so strong in the services that it would be impossible for an officer posted in an integrated ministry to sit in judgment on the service's case. This would be possible in case the chiefs become heads of staff, as their nomenclature suggests.

Anticipating the task force, the outline of reform that emerges then is an integration of service headquarters into the ministry in more than name. Service HQs are now called 'Integrated HQs' and several functions are now delegated to them, including financial. However, much of this is cosmetic, with bureaucrats sitting in judgment over service cases and - in the perception of the services - shutting them out of the policy loop.

Remedying this may require the chiefs to divest their operations function and become respective departmental heads. The operations function could be performed either by command headquarters reporting to an operationally empowered CDS, or by integrated theatre headquarters headed by a integrated Commander in Chief, for example C-in-C Western Front, or C-in-C Special Forces Command, etc. The current reforms may produce a half-way house, creating a CDS responsible for the nuclear dimension operationally and a staff function, so that the next step of integrating the sword arm in integrated commands can await the third bout of reform.

The moot question is: Would any of this make India more secure? This is the expectation. Military power would be made more usable and efficient. A rising power requires greater effort at self-protection and higher responsibilities to bear. The US $35 billion being set aside for defence purchases would be better utilised. A wieldy scalpel or scalable hammer means rationalising structures, doctrines and procedures. So upfront there is no problem with proceeding on course.

A colonial stance?

The problem is with the impulse behind the reform. In case self-defence was the sole motive, this would have been easy to concede. A case for dealing with a 'two-front' security threat would be persuasive, if the threat was manifest. It is debatable if this is so. Instead, the proposed 'reform', in this case, would make India more powerful, and in doing so it would make India appear a threat to its neighbours. If anything, it is this that would lead to the 'two-front' threat.

In other words, the effect of the reform would itself legitimise it. Since India would have the power and the reformed structures to use it, it would be seemingly secure; but assuredly at higher levels of threat. While what is needed now is to mend fences with alacrity, with more muscles there would be less need or inclination to do so.

Secondly, the reform would enable 'out-of-area' capability. A rising India has been asked to shoulder more global responsibility. This would be made possible by easily deployable capabilities, resulting from such reforms. The argument in favour of such a development is that India would need to protect its economy linked to resource bases elsewhere, and a stronger capability for projection of force is warranted, therefore. But this also implies lending its military to purposes that India itself would have in an earlier era labeled 'colonial'.

The government, being of a center-right orientation, has been open to accusations of being 'soft' on defence, particularly after persisting with the strategy of restraint in face of 26/11. Arraigned on multiple fronts, it has also suffered the indignity of witnessing its service chiefs' inapt interventions in the public debate on several occasions over recent past. Compensating for this, and admittedly sensibly also wanting to integrate the services into policymaking, it has perhaps embarked on the next generation of defence reform.

Such reforms being politically useful, the government would find it hard to side-step the recommendations once they are received. Going along would make India more nimble and able no doubt, but also place the country in greater harm's way. Political inability to be responsive to the vast reforms likely to be suggested would place the government once again in the awkward position of seeming 'weak' on defence: a case of doomed if you do and dead if you don't. Watch this space six months from now, when the call is due.