NEW DELHI: The media is abuzz with the government pushing for Army reforms based on recommendations of the government-appointed Lt Gen D B Shekatkar Committee "Enhancing Combat Capability and Rebalancing Defence Expenditure of the Armed Forces”.

The report was submitted to the Defence Minister on December 21, 2016. 65 of the 188 Committee recommendations stand approved that mainly pertain to the Army and involve redeploying some 57,000 personnel.

The highlights of the approved reform include:

one, optimization of Signals Establishments;

two, restructuring of repair echelons in Army;

three, redeployment of Ordnance echelons;

four, better utilization of Supply and Transport echelons and Animal Transport units;

five, closure of Military Farms and Army postal establishments in peace locations;

six, enhancement in standards for recruitment of clerical staff and drivers in Army;

seven, improving the efficiency of the NCC, plus retired officers and jawans to replace serving personnel for running NCC;

eight, performance audit of non-combat organizations under MoD, plus Defence Estates, Defence Accounts, DGQA, Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), DRDO be accountable;

nine, establish joint services war college for training middle-level officers;

ten, ‘Roll On’ plan for fresh acquisitions be introduced to overcome ‘surrendering’ funds at the end of every financial year, and;

eleven, financial powers of all three chiefs and vice chiefs be enhanced further to quicken the pace of acquisitions.

As per reports, these reforms, termed Phase 1, are to be completed by end 2019. Significantly, the Committee had stated that if all 188 recommendations are effected within five years, it would result in saving Rs 25,000 cr that could be utilized for modernizing the Armed Forces.

Interestingly, MoD sent only 99 of the 188 recommendations to the Armed Forces for making the implementation plan, of which 65 sent to the Army have been approved, while balance 34 are to be taken up in Phase 2.

It is unclear how many, if not all, of the 89 recommendations not sent to the Armed Forces are being shelved.

Significantly, of the 57,000 personnel being redeployed, 31,000 are civilian-defence officials. Was there scope of phasing out the latter after attaining normal retirement? Where are they being redeployed? And what functional problems will aggravate with the Army already facing this with civilian-defence officials paid more than their military counterparts based on which they claim superiority over same ranks?

The creation of new posts in AFHQ Civil Service is catalyst to the problem. When we are calling for nationalistic rock concerts in universities, how about ‘combatizing’ the AFHQ Civil Service?

The bit about performance audit of non-combat organizations under MoD and making organizations like Defence Estates, Defence Accounts, DGQA, Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), DRDO accountable is inherent responsibility of MoD, which has been utterly lacking. Adding these as part of ‘Army reforms’ is mere bullshit; meant for impressing the public.

Similarly, the ‘Roll On’ plan for fresh acquisitions to overcome ‘surrendering’ funds at the end of every FY is a misnomer, as it still leaves loopholes. Why not simply say that the unutilized defence budget will be carried forward to the next Financial Year, as was recommended by a defence minister during NDA I, and also in various reports by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence?

There is need to guard against changes in manning of NCC from becoming ‘political’ appointments, as has happened in ‘some’ Zila Sainik Welfare offices. At the same time, there is need for providing NCC training in all schools, colleges and universities. Enhancing the financial powers of Chiefs and Vice Chiefs is good and ‘reduces’ red-tape but if the overall defence budget continues to be negative, like the current and previous one, then enhanced powers don’t leave much to play around.

Army would have surely worked out the implementation plan for the rest of the issues mentioned above; optimizing relevant components for boosting combat capabilities including force multipliers like intelligence, information systems, cyber warfare, electronic warfare, and optimizing logistics and maintenance.

But at the end of it all, this announcement is kneejerk, devoid of any holistic and strategic sense – obviously stamped on bureaucratic advice for selective approval.

Why have the reforms not been looked at top down, starting with the Higher Defence Organizations (HDO) and the MoD? What has been approved suits the bureaucracy perfectly, including the redeployment of civilian-defence officers. The government despite being in-charge since May 2014 has not even commenced the process to define a national security strategy since that will make the bureaucracy accountable.

The way reorganization of MoD is being orchestrated too is obvious. On one hand, there is news of middle-level appointments in MoD being identified for manning by military officers. On the other hand, Cabinet has approved creation of seven posts of Principal Directors (PDs) and 36 posts of Director on regular basis of in the AFHQ Civil Service, MoD. The reason given is stagnation in the cadre; and assigning higher responsibilities will result in greater productivity and accountability.

Rest assured, with much higher pay and allowances, these PD’s will claim to be senior to Lieutenant Generals / equivalent of the military – so welcome to more obstructionism, red tape and bureaucratic control in future. Yes, the CDS / or Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) may come in due course but he will be without full operational powers.

Besides, the CCS note on which HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) was raised is explicit in saying “As and when the CDS is established, he will have equal voting rights as the Service Chiefs, and if two Service Chiefs disagree, MoD will arbitrate”, implying the CDS can hardly speak as one voice to the government, given the bureaucratic finesse of ‘divide and rule’.

The inside news is that the proposal of CDS is shelved anyway – end of story and perhaps Theatre Commands. HQ IDS was raised for being merged with MoD but that did not happen, and will not unless the political authority stops being subservient to the bureaucracy. Many stories circulating of purging bureaucrats – ever heard this applied to MoD?

The Kargil Review Committee and the follow up Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by the Deputy Prime Minister-cum Home Minister during NDA I, had both recommended not only establishment of the CDS but also DQQA (Director General Quality Assurance) and DGAFMS (Directorate General Armed Forces Medical Services) to be brought under HQ IDS, but MoD did not permit this – for very obvious reasons.

Post the announcement of Army reforms, Lt Gen Shekatkar has reportedly stated that government should implement all 188 recommendations, but that is utopian with this bureaucratic hold. So, we may see a similar kneejerk announcement with respect to reforms in the Navy and Air Force in Phase II at a politically convenient time – perhaps post another Doklam.

Implementation of course is a separate issue altogether but in the ultimate analysis there is not much to say beyond what Late K Subhranyam (father of Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar) kept repeating in his lifetime – that India lacks strategic sense.

(Lt General P.C.Katoch is a veteran of the Special Forces)