Who Thinks for the Ministry of Defence?

At best, the ministry can be defined as an assembly of zooids, similar to myriads of marine species that clone themselves thousands of times in different forms and shapes, defying accurate definition.

One of the more abiding riddles in the officialdom revolves around the viewpoint of who really is responsible for deliberations in the multilayered Ministry of Defence (MoD) responsible for managing the armed forces and related matters of national security. For, unlike other compact and self-contained ministries like the railways and commerce and industry, MoD remains a mystery as to who actually conceives national defence policy and plans, ponders over the best way to execute them and, above all, assesses their outcome in the ministry.

Few, including insiders, can provide a convincing answer. At best, the MoD can be defined as a ‘siphonophore’ or an assembly of zooids, similar to myriads of marine species that clone themselves thousands of times in different forms and shapes, defying accurate definition. For starter, the MoD is headquartered in South Block, but its numerous zooids – in uniform and out of it – stretch across surrounding Bhawans, adjacent colonial-era hutments and numerous other niche departments strung out across New Delhi, whose relevance remains enigmatic, mysterious and above all, indescribable.

The Indian Coast Guard (ICG), based at India Gate, even has tentacles in NOIDA in Uttar Pradesh, while the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) located behind South Block also has many branches, including a grand establishment near the Civil Lines in North Delhi located in the 19th century residence of India’s acting British governor general Charles Metcalfe, and another one a few kilometres away in Timarpur. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO), for its part, operates from its headquarters in South West Delhi.

The tentacles of the Services Headquarters (SHQ), which go by the arcane nomenclature of Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (Army/Navy/Air Force) since 2001-02, are physically spread out even wider. They stretch from the Directorate of Naval Design (DND) located in Delhi’s East of Kailash colony to RK Puram and even in nearby Chanakyapuri. The overall lack of space for the vast MoD has even forced some of its zooids to recently commandeer some floors of the state-owned Ashok Hotel.

If this bewildering multiplicity was not enough, the federal government further confounded confusion by creating the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) headed by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat in late 2019. The CDS’ appointment followed decades of lobbying by the services for the post that was widely envisaged as a ‘magic bullet’ to streamline military doctrines, perpetuate ‘jointness’ and to economise defence expenditure, amongst a myriad other operational tasks too expansive to enumerate. However, in reality, after over a year of its existence, the DMA and the CDS remain a work in progress, adding to the overall syndrome of confused thinking amongst MoD zooids.

Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat. Photo: PTI

Horses pulling in different directions

All these multiple zooids pursue their individual interests which, most times are at odds with the MoD’s avowed goal of seamless co-operation between its many participatory organs. The three services, the ICG, the BRO, DRDO, and the Kolkata-based Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), for instance, all formulate and pursue separate plans, many of which are invariably divorced from financial reality and often imbued with fiscal profligacy. The montage that emerges is akin to a chariot being drawn by several horses, each one pulling in a different direction, resulting in a confused melee that few can comprehend, and largely unimplementable plans.

Collectively, however, these zooids busy themselves disposing of the daily influx of files with lengthy and largely puzzling notings and responding to mostly incomprehensible queries. In between, they attend or preside over endless meetings or conclaves to discuss matters few participants feel the need, or have the time, to understand in totality.

With seemingly little or no repository of institutional wisdom, the MoD appears to be perpetually astride a treadmill, busy reinventing the wheel of national security, seldom looking at, or learning any lessons from the past. It is astonishing that the MoD, which accounts for 15-16% of the federal government’s annual expenditure, has neither a viable financially comprehensive plan nor an enduring strategy to make optimum use of its large budgetary outlays to achieve intended outcomes. Astonishingly, it has no core inside it to either formulate such overarching proposals or oversee their implementation.

Also read: Why Is the Ministry of Defence So Committed to Forming Committees?

Hence, it is no small wonder that each of these physically dispersed ‘zooids’ continue to discharge individual functions, at times unbeknownst to the central authority in the MoD or the equally disparate SHQs, perpetually overburdened with paperwork. A common stream, however, running through all the zooids manning these divisions is to bemoan the mediocrity and inefficiency of their predecessors on which they blamed the prevailing confusion. Like most incumbent civil servants, they too seem driven by the infallible bureaucratic rationale that only they know best.

It is instructive to recall a seminar some time ago at a leading Delhi defence think tank which illustrates this syndrome. By the time the extended session, filled with soporific monologues by a handful of experts, dispersed for a welcome lunch, every single MoD entity – the DRDO, the OFB, all nine Defence Public Sector Undertakings, the Director General Quality Assurance and all other related departments, including its routinely vilified Finance Division, were pronounced inefficient and incompetent. They were also deemed unimaginative and of being ignorant in matters strategic and military and therefore, incapable of managing their assigned tasks.

It did not matter that few or no representatives of the departments condemned by the speakers were present in the seminar; and the handful who were, were accorded barely a fleeting opportunity to put across their contrary point of view. What, however, was even more disturbing was that no speaker voiced any concrete plan to remedy the situation that everyone condemned as hopeless. It was merely a plethora of complaints, criticism, and grumbles, which, over decades, have become the defining feature of the public discourse on defence and military matters.

South Block of Central Secretariat, where the defence ministry is located. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Matthew T Rader CC BY SA 4.0

What’s the solution?

To overcome this tendency and more importantly to ensure jointness in planning this writer, whose remit included defence planning, suggested sometime in 2011 that the MoD should task a leading Delhi-based think tank which it funds, to organise a series of interactions with all the stakeholders and formulate an ‘approach paper’ for the ensuing five-year plan. The reasoning was that consequently a financially viable comprehensive plan or road map could then be prepared by the MoD and pursued for optimum results.

Expectedly, the suggestion was turned down at the ‘highest levels’ on the mystifying grounds that defence planning was the MoD’s responsibility and hence could not be outsourced, ironically even to one of its many zooids and that too only for proposing the approach to be adopted for formulating a comprehensive plan, and not to actually formulate the detailed plan, much less implement it.

And, in 2015, the late defence minister Manohar Parrikar set up a committee to explore the possibility of establishing a bespoke Defence Capability Acquisition Organisation, divorced from the MoD, to manage acquisitions, one of the major stumbling blocks in India’s higher defence management. It was envisaged to accomplish this task from the time the operational requirement of any equipment was identified by the services till it was acquired and remained in service.

The report submitted by the committee in 2016 after exhaustive and expansive diligence and examination of procurement procedures in numerous foreign countries lies interned in South Block, much like scores of others on a wide range of subjects aimed at augmenting the MoD’s functioning in a cohesive manner.

The same fate has befallen several draft policy documents released by the MoD. In his budget speech on February 01, 2018 then defence and finance minister Arun Jaitley had announced that the government would formulate an industry-friendly Defence Production Policy to indigenise the country’s materiel needs. A draft policy was indeed issued by the MoD later that year, but it remained unfinalised, only to be succeeded by another draft Defence Production and Export Promotion Policy in August 2020, which too remains in limbo.

Also read: Denigration of Defence Ministry’s Finance Division Is Just Another Blame Game

Meanwhile, a draft Offset Policy was issued in April 2015 to empower the MoD to channelise offsets accruing from materiel buys into priority areas identified by it. That too slipped into oblivion. And some five years later, this same offset policy has been further diluted in complete disregard of the objectives of the 2015 draft policy, further reinforcing the argument of there being little or no integrated and sustained thinking in the MoD.

In conclusion, nothing underscores the absence of coordinated deliberations in the MoD more than the braggadocio concerning India’s exaggerated military capabilities that echo around South Block parroted by droves of moustachioed television gladiators, forever tilting at windmills. And though the josh or valour of the Indian soldier remains unquestionably supreme, it serves the MoD zooids no purpose to hollowly tell our nuclear-armed neighbours repeatedly that ‘hum tum ko vekh lega’ (We will sort you out) and that the Indian military was ‘losing patience with their antics’.

An Urdu couplet sums it up best: Kah raha hai josh-e-dariya se samandar ka sukoon, jis mein jitna zarf hai utna hi woh khamosh hai (the serene ocean is telling the excited and impulsive river that being calm and quiet is relative to one’s intrinsic strength and capability).

Amit Cowshish is former financial advisor (acquisitions), Ministry of Defence.