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The Rediff Special/ Admiral J G Nadkarni (Retd)

A lean, mean fighting force

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Reforming and restructuring the defence ministry has been very much in the news recently. A few senior officers of the armed forces have even written to the defence minister to undertake the exercise urgently. While a relook at our defence set-up at South Block is certainly necessary, even with the best of intentions this is not likely to materialise soon. There are too many differences between the bureaucrats and the services and even between the services themselves about the reforms which are not very easy to resolve.

Service officers often blame the politicians and bureaucrats of being obstructionists and of feathering their own nests. On the other hand there are a number of very crucial changes and reforms which each service can bring about which do not require the slightest nod from the "obstructionists". Here are a few worth considering:

1. Improve productivity. In short, cut down the fat in the services. Our armed forces today are probably the most bloated in the world. Servicemen constantly talk of becoming a "lean and mean" force. Instead, what they have become in recent years is fat and flabby. Today the Indian Army alone is over 1.2 million strong. The Navy has grown to a strength of 60,000 with an additional civilian force of 50,000.

2. What this means in real terms is that a job which was done by one man in the past is now being done by two or more people. And not too well at that. A Leander class frigate in the Royal Navy was manned by about 140 men. The Indian Navy has over 300 to do the same job. A total of 6,000 men in three dockyards maintain and refit the French Navy. The Indian Navy requires over 30,000 in two dockyards to look after a smaller force. No figures are ever released, but if they were, it would also show that it takes twice the number of technicians to fly one aircraft in the Indian Air Force as compared to some air forces abroad. After all, we have the statistics of Air-India and the Indian Airlines before us.

The army chief talked about reducing the army by 50,000. Although this was a drop in the ocean, it was considered to be a good start. Whatever happened to it?

The additional manpower in the services has a direct bearing on, not only the defence budget, but also on the modernisation of the services. Somehow, the Indian Navy has managed to keep its revenue expenditure to about 50 per cent of the total Naval budget, thanks to a one-time windfall handout for purchase of capital equipment. The revenue expenditure of the Army, on the other hand, is close to 85 per cent, most of it catering to manpower related costs. Which leaves little to buy new equipment. The Army cannot even hope to modernise until it cuts down the revenue budget. This can only be done by massive downsizing.

It must be admitted that reduction of manpower will not be an easy task. It is likely to bring strong protests from populist politicians. But if a start on reducing subsidies is being made, why not on defence manpower?

3. Improve the budgeting procedure. Service officers constantly complain about the stranglehold of the bureaucracy on each and every proposal put up by them. This is inevitable because of the out-of-date and archaic budgeting methods followed by the services.

In most developed countries, a very detailed budget is prepared and presented to the legislative body. Once the budget is passed by the government, services are free to incur the expenditure. The US armed forces budget, for example, is 15 volumes thick. It tells you how much money can be spent during the year on buying newspapers in the naval academy! In contrast, the Indian Navy presents its budget under very broad headings in five or six pages.

Nobody in the armed forces at lower levels knows about the budgeting exercise or how money is to be spent. The services lack even the basic cost accounting system, with the result that no one can really tell you scientifically whether it is worth giving a ship a refit prolonging its life or scrapping it. If the armed forces institute a proper budgeting exercise internally followed by a very detailed budget each year, they will have far fewer problems with the bureaucrats.

4. Integrate Services budgets. In India each service prepares its own budget which they do not even divulge to the sister services. The government passes a separate budget for each service. This result in criminal waste of resources. Robert McNamara introduced the Planned Programmed Budgeting System in the US armed forces in 1961. Today it is the standard system, not only in the US military, but in most industries in the world.

In 1987 the Indian armed forces set up the defence planning staff hoping to integrate the planning and the budgeting of the services. They have not made much progress. Integration of our budgets along the PPBS format is anathema to servicemen who each guard their turf with fierce fanaticism.

Producing an integrated budget is, of course, a major exercise requiring complete overhaul of the existing system. It will require the services working together and selflessness from the chiefs in the national interest. It may look difficult at first, but will eventually lead to a lean fighting machine and enormous savings to the exchequer. In the US it had to be rammed down the throat of the services by a powerful but knowledgeable defence minister. Now it has become routine.

5. Improve jointmanship. Service rivalries exist all over the world. Yet since the Second World War many countries have reformed their organisations to bring in a great deal of jointmanship. Theatre commands are the norm today rather than the exception.

We mistake backslapping in public, playing golf together and stating that they all belong to one course in the NDA as jointmanship. True service co-operation goes deeper. In India each service has its own commands. They are not even located together. In the western region, for example, one is headquartered at Mumbai, the other at Pune and the third at Ahmedabad. We have a sort of joint command in the Andamans. And even here, the Air Force says its forces will only take orders from New Delhi!

Integration of commands into theatre commands will not only lead to more fighting efficiency but save enormously. Now is the opportune time to do it. The three services are, for a change headed by pragmatic and level headed individuals who have no ego problems. They will find it easier to put the country before the service and the service before self. It can either be now or never.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd), former chief of the naval staff, is a frequent contributor to these pages.

Admiral J G Nadkarni

The Rediff Specials

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