China strides, India dithers

China strides, India dithers

Where China has taken the issue of military reforms by the horns, India continues to be lackadaisical about its defence reforms.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will now be known as Commander-in-Chief of the military’s joint operations command centre. The title, bestowed on a fatigues-clad Xi by the state media last week, is largely a symbolic reaffirmation of his existing authority over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Xi is attempting to consolidate his control over China’s institutions and the title is primarily to reinforce his image as the man in charge. While previous Chinese presidents had delegated operational decision-making to the PLA, Xi wants to have operational powers as well.

This move comes as Xi is launching a massive reorganisation of the PLA, moving it from a collection of distinct regional units that operated with a degree of autonomy to a more streamlined, top-down organisation. The Chinese leader is also actively purging the military’s officer corps, arresting dozens on charges of corruption and firing others for incompetence, while cutting some 3,00,000 troops from the army’s bloated ranks.

This unprecedented reorganisation of the PLA is a rolling process that will continue over the next few years with 2020 as the target date set for all changes to be in place. This is the most sweeping and fundamental reorganisation of the PLA since the 1950s, when Russia helped Beijing create a post-civil war military largely modelled on the Soviet system. The process is likely to strengthen the hold of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the military and is aimed at enhancing the professionalism of the force.

There still remain many unanswered questions about the future trajectory of the new Chinese reforms programme, including what it means for the top-heavy leadership structure, and what role the reserves and the country’s civilian militias will play in national defence and in projecting Chinese power abroad. But what remains certain is that the Chinese military of the near-future will be very diffe-rent from the Chinese military of the recent past. And this is predictably causing consternation in the region and beyond.

Where China has taken the issue of military reforms by the horns, India continues to be lackadaisical about defence reforms. Appropriate institutional fra-meworks that enable a nation to effectively leverage its capabilities – diploma-tic, military and economic – in the service of its strategic interests, still do not exist in India. Though many in government have lamented the paucity of long term strategic thinking, nothing substantive has been done by successive administrations to stimulate such thinking.

The National Security Council still does not work as it ideally should. The headquarters of the 3 services need to be effectively integrated with the Ministry of Defence and the post of the chief of defence staff is the need of the hour for a single-point military advice to the government. The fact that successive governments failed to produce a National Security Strategy is both a consequence of the institutional decay in the country as well as a cause of the inability of the armed forces to plan their force structures and acquisitions adequately to meet their future challenges.

Yet, the politico-bureaucratic establishment is not the only guilty party here as the Indian armed forces also have a lot to answer for. Their top leadership has shied away from making tough choices about reducing manpower strength; about adjusting the inter-service budgetary balance; and about restructuring the nation's professional military education system. No military anywhere in the world gets all the resources from its government that it deems adequate but an effective military organisation should be able to optimise the use of whatever is at its disposal.

Resources alone, however, will not make Indian armed forces the envy of its adversaries. It is the policy direction that is set by the military leadership and the quality of training imparted to its manpower that will make the difference. The debate on the wide-ranging changes that the defence set-up needs should have been initiated long ago by the armed forces themselves.

Questions abound
The questions that need to be debated and answered include: Does India have a 21st century military in terms of doctrine and force structure? Have the doctrines and force structures evolved in line with the equipment that the nation’s resources are being spent on? Do India’s command and control processes reflect the changing strategic and operational requirements?

Does the Indian military have the capacity to initiate military actions on very short notice and actually conduct military operations that result in something other than a stalemate, something that India might have wanted to do during Operation Parakram in 2001-02 but could not? Have the armed forces got the balance between capital and labour right?

The armed forces will have to find a way to strike a balance between growing manpower shortage and the easing of budgetary constraints. The services have no option but to modernise their human resources policy – recruitment, retention, promotions, exit et al – which will make a huge difference to the satisfaction levels of the rank and file.

It is disappointing to see the service headquarters continuing to resist greater integration and inter-services rivalry continuing to be as vicious as in the past. The government, meanwhile, can always point to the malaise within the forces as an excuse for not undertaking any meaningful defence reforms of its own.

India, for example, finds itself in a peculiar position of having a Strategic Forces Command but no Combined Defence Services (CDS), partly because of the differences among the 3 services. The debate has got stuck on the issue of the CDS whereas the nation needs to be thinking seriously about integrated theatre commands, allowing the 3 services to share their resources and enabling a reduction of manpower at various levels. Today’s military challenges cannot be tackled without a real integration up to the command level.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London)

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