Anil Kaul on why shaking up entrenched bureaucracy has to precede reform of defence procurement
Bureaucracy. Management. Administration. Call it what you will, every organisation has to have a hierarchical authority, numerous offices and fixed procedures so that it can function properly. But the administrative structure of a large or complex organisation can also impede effective action if it follows rigid procedures that baffle and frustrate.
The military bureaucracy does not go out and fight a war -- it is supposed to offer the support system for organised use of force. For historical reasons rooted in colonial rule, the military bureaucracy is supposed to be a pioneering and model bureaucracy. It is closely intertwined with the government and civilian bureaucracy, which are responsible for deciding how a nation defends its borders and when it should go to war.
The officer corps is politically aware but the military rank and file are more often working class in origin, and trained to give unquestioning obedience.
In India, military bureaucracy is divided into two parts: The controlling part and the executing part. While the Ministry of Defence is responsible for laying down policy, rules, regulations and adhering to budget allocations, the latter is responsible for ensuring the same in letter and spirit. Whereas the former lacks any hands-on experience of armed forces functioning, the latter due to inherent customs and regulations follows a straight and narrow path, hemmed as it is between the various statutes. In essence, innovative ideas get bogged down in red tape.
Changes that adversely affect entrenched bureaucratic empires in the military are resisted most of all. Fundamental changes in military organisation or doctrine often require outside intervention, for example by civilian political elites. A reason for the conservatism of military forces is that most of them are at war only a small fraction of time, and in between wars there is no 'marketplace' test of the current doctrines. Internal conservatism is one reason why militaries are notorious for ‘being prepared to fight the previous war’.
Ongoing efforts at modernisation of the armed forces, unless accompanied by significant political reforms, may fail to change our military-strategic position, particularly with respect to Pakistan and China. Despite importing large numbers of conventional weaponry over the last three decades, if we wish to effectively confront critical security challenges, we must address a civil-military imbalance that hampers coordination and an illegitimate procurement process that threatens to further entrench government corruption.
What makes the problem worse is that India is pouring money into its military. Yet those making the decisions tend to be politicians and bureaucrats with little understanding of how to invest the cash. Procurement procedures are arcane and the military suffers from the regular lash of red tape wielded by bureaucrats who are afraid of losing turf. That the integrity of these bureaucrats is doubtful does not help. New Delhi is crawling with middlemen acting for various companies and brokering defence deals. Unfortunately, nothing is being done to bring transparency or efficiency to the system.
If we are to become the global player we aspire to be, we have to reform our defence establishment. The recent controversies have exposed the deep rot that has set into the Indian system and can set the agenda for long overdue reforms.
What is shocking is that significant operations, logistics or even welfare related provisions related to the defence services which require a decision at defence minister or government level, including even those which have received an in-principle assent of the political executive, are junked by junior babus who do not even care to put up the file to their seniors and append misleading file notings. Similarly, the men or women in uniform, following their mentors in South Block, seldom question arbitrary decisions and accept everything as a fait accompli.
A typical examples of how military bureaucracy works is as follows: A lightweight bulletproof jacket is required. Its importance has come to light when an infantry jawan combating terrorists is killed wearing such a cumbersome jacket. The item is available off-the-shelf internationally.
Army 11,29,900 9,60,000
Air Force 1,27,200 1,40,000
Paramilitary forces 13,00,586 9,87,821
Navy 58,350 55,000
Coast Guard 9,550
Typically, the requirement would be raised by the main users, the Infantry. A request for provision would be sent by the directorate general of Infantry (DG INF) duly approved by its Director General, an officer of the rank of Lt General, equivalent to a joint secretary in the government to his counterpart in the directorate general of weapons and equipment, (DGWE), both sitting approximately 500 metres apart, connected by telephone and on the intranet. A running file in hard copy and a duplicate file would be generated. The DGWE would then send the said file on a formula one circuit to ascertain, first, whether at all a replacement of the said item would be required or not; second whether it could be produced in the country or needed to be imported, and finally for its cost evaluation. The file would wind its way from the DGWE’s office to that of the operations directorate, on to the ordnance, completing its journey at the perspective planning and financial planning directorates. Keeping in mind the working days, holidays, absenteeism of concerned officials and the normal fact-finding gestation period, the onward and return journeys would take at least six months.
In the meantime, 10 more fatal casualties due to similar equipment fault would have taken place and converted to statistics.
Having got a unanimous clearance that it was needed, it had to be imported and was available off the shelf at a competitive price, and that adequate funds from the yearly budget were available for procurement of ‘X’ number of items, a note for procurement would be sent to the concerned section in the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The lowest rung in the MoD, a section officer who has never seen a bullet let alone a bulletproof jacket, would be the first one to comment on the note duly approved by no less a person than the COAS. The file would then take off on a perilous journey covering the chain up to the Secretary of Defence, with each one in the chain either initialing the file or putting his own version of disagreement with the proposal. The secretary, not wanting to be seen in a poor light for outright rejecting the proposal, would forward it to his counterpart in the department of defence production to ascertain why shining India could not produce this item. The journey would then end at the doorstep of the defence research and development organisation (DRDO) and the ordnance factory board (OFB).
The DRDO would be quick off the block and would immediately commission a team of scientists and other officers of the MoD and OFB to visit foreign countries to assess the availability and efficacy of the requested item. The procedure of selection, sanction to travel, issue of visas and booking of tickets as also arranging their stay and demonstrations in the host country would take another three months or so. From the time the proposal had reached the MoD we are looking at roughly six months down the line. The team’s visit over a few samples would be imported from various countries for evaluation and user trials on one hand and an effort at reverse engineering in our own ordnance factories.
The field trials would be conducted in actual combat-infested areas and the results would filter up the chain of command to the MoD. An average gestation period of three months for this to happen would be reasonable. Simultaneously, the efforts at reverse engineering would be going on and the DRDO and OFB would claim to be able to produce an even better version than the original -- however, with a rider that it would take at least one year to produce a prototype and, if approved, another couple of years for its introduction in service.
In the interim, 20 more casualties both fatal and seriously wounded would have occurred and been reported.
Finally, the MoD would constitute a committee to evaluate the foreign bids as also the home product. A global tender would be issued and the price negotiating committee set up. This would take another six months if not more to fructify. The end result the firm declared as LI or the lowest bidder would be identified and an order placed.
Just as the order was to be executed there would be a leak in the media that a particular ministers kin who was the front man for the foreign supplying company had influenced the deal and a vast sum of money had crossed hands for the same. Uproarious scenes erupt in Parliament, news channels run evening debates addressed by a host of retired army officers and bureaucrats, all condemning the disgraceful act. The company is banned and the order scrapped.
In the interim, 20 more casualties, both fatal and seriously wounded including four young officers have occurred. They, like all those before them, join the ranks of the Unknown Soldier.
Cut to the ceremony at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate on 26 January. The Prime Minister, the defence minister and the three service chiefs, among others, pay homage to the martyrs, surrounded by gun-toting personnel of various agencies all wearing the obsolete and ineffective bulletproof jacket.
Col (retired) Anil Kaul is the author of Better Dead Than Disabled published by Parity Paperbacks. firstname.lastname@example.org