The Defence Ministry's proposed restructuring programme for the armed forces, particularly the selection of a CDS, is held up for various reasons.
THE Ministry of Defence (MoD) is once again in the news, thanks to a host of knotty problems. The long-awaited restructuring of the MoD has run into unexpected roadblocks. The post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), which was supposed to have been filled earlier in the year, remains vacant.
In the first week of August, the Indian Air Force (IAF) formally conveyed to the Defence Ministry its serious misgivings about the post of CDS. The IAF, being the smallest of the three wings of the armed forces, had doubts about the restructuring exercise being conducted under the stewardship of the Special Adviser (Defence), Arun Singh. Arun Singh is said to be keen on hastening the appointment of a CDS, though the Finance Ministry and the Cabinet Secretariat have expressed some reservations. Opposition party leaders have described Arun Singh as an extra-constitutional authority who has exceeded his brief. Arun Singh had earlier headed the "task force" on higher defence management after the Kargil War.
The IAF top brass have felt that once the restructuring is completed, the identity of the IAF would be eroded. The consistent stance of Chief of the Air Staff A.Y. Tipnis on this issue had forced the initially tough-talking Defence Minister Jaswant Singh to adopt a more flexible attitude. Tipnis wrote a formal letter to the Defence Minister on July 18, stating that the IAF had a "rethink" on the CDS issue. The IAF chief had reluctantly gone along with the two other service chiefs on the CDS issue during the meetings of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) had with the Implementation Cell of the MoD. As the seniormost among the present service chiefs, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sushil Kumar, was all set to take over as CDS (Frontline, May 11, 2001).
The IAF chief is said to have formally conveyed his objections during a meeting with the Defence Minister in the first week of August. Tipnis demands for the IAF parity with the Army in the proportion of representation in any new "integrated" defence establishment. If the government had gone ahead and appointed a CDS ignoring his reservations, a fresh crisis could have been precipitated. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government can ill afford at this juncture the resignation of yet another service chief. Many former IAF chiefs had written letters to the President, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, arguing against the move to appoint a CDS, which they said could prove to be detrimental to the interests and cohesion of the IAF.
Tipnis argues that the present system of COSC headed by the seniormost defence chief, is working well. According to a Defence Ministry official, Tipnis has written several times to the other service chiefs and the Defence Minister on the issue. The Air Force chief has emphasised that his differences are "professional". Air Headquarters has differences with the Army on the proposed structure of the strategic command. As currently visualised, nuclear weapons will be under the command of the Army.
As a face-saving measure, Jaswant Singh announced in early August that the government had decided to consult the Opposition parties on the CDS issue. Until then the Defence Ministry was proceeding unilaterally. Home Minister L.K. Advani had said the CDS would be appointed before the end of the monsoon session of Parliament, which ended in the last week of August. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has given the highest priority to national security and the restructuring of the armed forces was characterised as an essential component of this.
The whole process of restructuring was formally set in motion a year and a half ago. The government was acting on the recommendations of the Task Force on Higher Defence Management and the Kargil Review Committee. Their recommendations included the creation of a Defence Procurement Agency, a Defence Intelligence Agency, a Strategic Forces Command and the first ever tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Operational Command.
The Defence Procurement Agency and the Andamans and Nicobar Command headed by Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash have been given the green signal. There are indications that the government is waiting for the present Air Force and Navy chiefs to retire to make the post of the CDS operational. The Navy chief is due to retire in November and the Air Force chief in December. There are reports that Army chief Gen. S. Padmanabhan, who will then be the seniormost serving chief, has indicated his willingness to take over as CDS in January while concurrently holding the post of the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). The decision to allow the Army chief to hold dual posts is seen as a bid by the government to hasten the reform process which has lost its pace over the CDS issue.
The CDS will be a four-star officer assisted by a Vice-Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS) and four Deputy Chiefs of Defence Staff (DCDS). Details of the tri-service Strategic Forces Command, which will handle the country's nuclear forces, have not yet been finalised. The commander of the Strategic Forces will report to the CDS, who will be the "single point" adviser to the government on military matters. The new tri-service Defence Intelligence Agency will be headed by a DCDS. The DCDS (Intelligence) will advise the Defence Secretary, the Defence Minister and the Cabinet on security-related matters. But the three services will retain their individual intelligence services.
THE Defence Minister has announced in Parliament that the government is in the process of setting up a Procurement Board for arms purchases. According to him, the revamped Procurement Board will be totally "transparent". He said that the government was seriously examining the role of middlemen in the procurement process.
The new Defence Procurement Agency will be chaired by the Defence Secretary. Other senior officials will include the Secretaries in charge of Defence Production as well as research and finance, the VCDS, the vice-chiefs of the three services and the Special Secretary in charge of acquisitions. Some former service officials have pointed out that this will be the first time that serving officers will be directly involved in the arms acquisition process. They said that the international arms bazaar is a murky arena where reputations can be easily tainted.
In a sideshow, Jaswant Singh refuted the allegation by former Defence Minister George Fernandes, whose portfolio he is "temporarily" holding charge of, that all defence procurement has come to a halt owing to the hearings being conducted by the Venkataswami Commission inquiring into the "Tehelka" expose. Fernandes had claimed that several "crucial" files relating to the purchase of arms were in the possession of the Commission, which has resulted in the delay in the acquisition of essential weapons for the armed forces.
In a statement issued by the Defence Ministry, Jaswant Singh said that the "suggestion that proceedings in the commission have adversely affected defence procurement is incorrect". He reiterated that the government was committed to ensuring full defence preparedness and all possible steps were being taken to achieve that end. Since the Tehelka inquiry commission started functioning, several high-level delegations have gone to Israel and other countries in connection with defence deals. New Delhi has signed deals worth over $2 billion for arms purchases from Israeli companies, the Minister said.
Around a billion dollars is reportedly being earmarked for the purchase of the Phalcon air surveillance system from Israel. Last year the Clinton administration had denied Israel permission to go ahead with a Phalcon deal it had concluded with China. It is unlikely that the Bush administration will make an exception in the case of India. Much of Israel's high-tech weaponry has U.S.-manufactured components. Under the BJP-led government, Israel has become the second biggest supplier of arms to India after Russia.
Both the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) have been critical of the Defence Ministry's arms acquisition programme in the last couple of years, especially during and after the Kargil War.