In an article for Dainik Jagran of Februaray 3, 2008, venerated defence analyst and head of the Kargil Review Committee, Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam had asked for a Blue Ribbon Commission for the Indian armed forces .
While the politicians and the Government have been paying lip service to the armed forces in the last sixty years since Independence there has been no concerted effort on the part of the government to look at the problems of the armed forces in a comprehensive way as is normally done in other democratic countries. In US at regular intervals Blue Ribbon commissions are appointed to look into the problems of the forces. Similarly in UK there are Royal Commissions which go into the problems of armed forces from time to time and suggest remedies.
…All these issues could be referred to a high powered commission headed by an eminent personality who commands high credibility, like Ratan Tata or Narayanamurty, including retired chiefs of staff from three services, retired chairman of the Joint Intelligence, retired defence and foreign secretaries, eminent management specialists and others. At the same time it should be clear to the government and Parliament that once such a commission submits its recommendations there will be no further nitpicking by the committee of secretaries but the report should be accepted and implemented as is done in US or UK.
As no such commission has been established in India so far, it is time to take a deeper look at the concept of a Blue Ribbon Commission.
Q – What is a Blue Ribbon Commission?
A – It is an independent and exclusive commission of non-partisan statesmen and experts formed to investigate some important governmental issue and to develop the optimum kind of structure to address policy issues and concerns of national importance. The term generally connotes a degree of independence from political influence or other authority, and such panels usually have no direct authority of their own. Their value comes from their ability to use their expertise to issue findings or recommendations which can then be used by those with decision-making power to act.
Q – Why is it called a Blue Ribbon Commission?
A – The “blue-ribbon” aspect comes from the presentation of the panel as the “best and brightest” for the task, and the appointment of such a panel, is meant to signal its perspective as outsiders of the usual process for study and decisions. In that sense, it is different from an internal study group, a judicial commission, a JPC, a committee of secretaries or a group of ministers.
Q – Who are the members of a Blue Ribbon Commission?
A – It might be composed of independent scientific experts or academics with no direct government ties to study a particular issue or question, or it might be composed of citizens well known for their general intelligence, experience and non-partisan interests to study a matter of national interest. The call by K Subrahmanyam for a commission in India headed by Ratan Tata or Narayanamurty is in the same vein.
Q – What are the necessary characteristics of a Blue Ribbon Commission?
A – A Blue ribbon commission has the following characteristics:
- a predetermined life span
- eminent individuals from a variety of backgrounds
- staff and funds to assist in fulfilling its charge
- a charge to investigate and/or to recommend changes in structures, functions, origins, or processes.
Q – What makes a Blue Ribbon Commission effective?
A – The following factors contribute to the effectiveness of a Blue Ribbon Commission:
- attainability of commission objectives
- adequacy of the amount of time allotted for the study
- number of times commission meets
- accessibility of commissioners to persons wishing to comment
- sufficiency of the number of staff
- selection of staff on the basis of merit alone
- depth and breadth of background research conducted by staff
- consideration of testimony from public hearings
- favourable media reaction
- repeated use of experts other than commission members and staff
- ample substantiation of commission recommendations in the final report
- consideration of the political potency of major affected interests in the implementation process
- activity of the majority of commission members in the implementation process.
Q – When are the Blue Ribbon Commissions useful?
A – Military organisations traditionally rely upon its members to come together in ad hoc study groups to attempt resolution on important issues. However, there are occasions when outside assistance is helpful and a Blue Ribbon Commission can then contribute significantly. For example, the three services themselves or the military and the civil bureaucracy can become deeply divided over certain issues, and a bi-partisan view may be required to resolve the problem in a manner that will settle the immediate question and reduce (or eliminate) the level of rancour, so that the national defence setup might be united again. Another situation in which a Blue Ribbon commission might be appropriate occurs when the government seeks to establish a planning agenda to create an optimum organisation for national defence by undertaking a root-and-branch reform of the defence organisations.
Q – Are there any criticisms of the concept of a Blue Ribbon Commission?
A – Most of the criticism has been levelled at the approach of a Blue Ribbon Commission towards planning and problem solving. Some critics allege that such commissions tend to exaggerate the problems they address and they draw broad and general conclusions rather than specific and bold conclusions. At times, their recommendations are beyond the financial means of those who would implement them and they fail to spell out the clear details of their proposals. Moreover, the designation “blue-ribbon” is often made by the appointing authority, and may be disputed by others who might see the panel as less independent, or as a way for an authority to dodge responsibility.
Q – When was the last such commission on defence established in the US? What was its mandate?
A – In July 1985, the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense(1986), also known as ‘The Packard Commission’ was charged by President Ronald Reagan, Executive Order 12526, July 15, 1985, to conduct a defence management study of important dimension, including:
- the budget process,
- the procurement systen),
- legislative oversight, and
- the organizational and operational arrangements, both formal and informal, among the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Unified and Specified Command systems, the Military Departments, and Congress.
Q – Did Indian government not appoint a similar panel consequent to the Kargil Review Commitee Report?
A – As a follow up of Kargil Review Panel’s recommendations a group of Ministers was appointed, which, In turn appointed four task forces. As a result of these deliberations, they were able to make a comprehensive set of recommendations to improve the decision-making process. However, the implementation of these recommendations has been sketchy at best and the decision making procedures in respect of national security have remained same since they were formulated by Lord Ismay in 1947. Although it was close to the concept of a Blue Ribbon Commission, it was not a bipartisan group and did not comprise eminent individuals from a variety of relevant backgrounds.
Q – What establishes the need for a Blue Ribbon Commission for defence in India?
A – The current animosity generated between the defence services and the civil bureaucracy over the SCPC have raised substantive questions in India over civil-military relations in general and higher defence setup in particular. These questions arise from a dissonance between the current and future requirements of national security and the resources available — in the form of the archaic defence services and a ham-handed defence ministry. This need for a complete reform and restructuring of the defence services and the national security setup is best explained in the words of K Subrahmanyam:
Modernisation of the armed forces does not mean only acquisition of modern equipment but modernization in organization, management, thinking, human resource development, operational methodologies etc. …there has been no thought devoted to the future requirement of armed forces in the light of changes in the international strategic environment, the revolution in military affairs, enormous technological changes in the equipment of the three services and radical changes that have come about in monitoring and surveillance. While all over the world there have been radical organizational improvements in the structure of forces, the Indian Army still continues to be structured on the pattern that was prevalent during World War II. Though the Prime Minister in his successive addresses to the Combined Commanders’ Conferences has pointed out the need to modernize the armed forces in the light of the international and sub- continental strategic developments there has been no attempt to plan to meet the long term security challenges.
Q – But why only a Blue Ribbon Commission?
A – No one can deny that the national security institutions, policies and processes created 60 years ago are inadequate for the increasingly complex, dynamic and interdependent security threats of the future. The need to adapt the way the nation pursues its security goals is pressing. Genuine national security reform is a difficult process that requires change far more profound than shifting the boxes in a wiring diagram.
Real reform entails profound and fundamental change, not just in management and organisation, but across many other dimensions—in attitudes and mindsets, leadership and culture, operations and execution, tools and procedures, human resources and financial support. True national security reform demands a whole new way of thinking and a different way of doing business. Reforming the national security system involves changes not just to one department but to the entire system of government. Achieving reform in the way the Indian government conducts its national security business, therefore, requires significant, focused, dedicated, sustained and bipartisan commitment and effort, which can ideally come only from a Blue Ribbon Commission.
The choice is upon the Indian nation and its government. Either the political executive can display the will to institute a Blue Ribbon Commission for Defence now or they can wait for a national crisis to establish that need.