During his first year in office, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar gave a free hand to the army to act pro-actively on the Line of Control (LoC). He led from the front and worked closely with the leadership of the armed forces, the bureaucracy and his counterparts in the other ministries to put defence preparedness back on the rails and give a fillip to the stalled process of military modernisation. He put to use his management skills to set the right priorities for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the armed forces and the results have been good. However, defence preparedness and military modernisation continue to need his urgent attention.
The foremost item on the Defence Minister’s agenda for the NDA government’s remaining years in office should be to hasten the process of addressing the ‘critical hollowness’ plaguing defence preparedness – a term used by General V. K. Singh, the COAS, in the letter he wrote as COAS to the then Prime Minister in May 2012. Major operational voids in the war establishment of the three must be made up early in order to optimise combat efficiency.
Large-scale deficiencies in ammunition and important items of equipment continue to hinder readiness for war and the ability to sustain operations over anticipated time periods. The army reportedly has some varieties of ammunition for barely ten days of conflict and it will cost Rs 19,000 core to replenish stocks. It will be recalled that during the Kargil conflict in 1999, as many as 50,000 rounds of Bofors ammunition had to be imported from South Africa. The occurrence of such a situation during a time of crisis must be avoided through a prudent replenishment and stocking policy.
Modern wars are fought mostly during the hours of darkness, but most of the infantry battalions and many of the armoured fighting vehicles – tanks and infantry combat vehicles – are still ‘night blind’. Warships, submarines, fighter aircraft, light helicopters, artillery guns, ground-based air defence, command and control, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, are either held in inadequate numbers or bordering on obsolescence.
Among the structural reforms that need to be implemented in an early time frame the most important issue is the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This appointment was first recommended by the Arun Singh committee on defence expenditure in the early 1990s, and then by the Group of Ministers led by Mr. L. K. Advani that reviewed the recommendations of the four task forces on the management of national security, assembled following the submission of the Kargil Review Committee report. This crucial appointment has been hanging fire due to the want of a political consensus and differences within the armed forces. Recently, the Naresh Chandra committee has recommended the appointment of a permanent Chairman of the CoSC as a more acceptable alternative.
The appointment of a CDS should be followed a few years down the line by the raising of tri-Service integrated theatre commands so as to ensure the ‘joint’ formulation and execution of operational plans. It has now been accepted by all modern militaries that ‘jointness’ or ‘jointmanship’ leads to the optimisation of single-Service combat capabilities. Also, the Army, Navy and Air Force HQ have been only notionally integrated with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and are still ‘attached offices’ for all practical purposes. The civil-military heartburn and the consequent weakness in functioning caused by this lacuna must be removed forthwith.
Modernisation of the armed forces has been stagnating due to the inadequacy of funds, the black-listing of several defence manufacturers and bureaucratic red tape. The Defence Minister has taken positive steps on these issues. Approval of necessity (AON) has been accorded to defence acquisition projects worth approximately Rs 100,000 crore. Though only a few contracts have actually been signed, including the purchase of Apache attack helicopters and Chinook medium lift helicopters, the process has been set in motion.
The issue of black listing has been addressed by instituting a system of penalties for the infringement of rules. A committee led by Dhirendra Singh, former Home Secretary, was appointed to review the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). The Minister has begun to implement its recommendations in earnest. For example, the policy on offsets has been reviewed and several pragmatic amendments have been made.
The armed forces are now in the fourth year of the 12th Defence Plan (2012-17). It has still not been formally approved with full financial backing by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The government has also not formally approved the long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP 2007-22) formulated by HQ Integrated Defence Staff. Without these essential approvals, defence procurement is being undertaken through ad hoc annual procurement plans, rather than being based on duly prioritised long-term plans that are designed to systematically enhance India’s combat potential. These are serious lacunae as effective defence planning cannot be undertaken in a policy void. The government must commit itself to supporting long-term defence plans.
The government must relinquish its monopoly on defence research and development (R&D). The DRDO should undertake research in strategic technologies that even the closest strategic partners are unwilling to share; e.g. ballistic missile defence technology. The MoD should progressively move away from its excessive reliance on the inefficient public sector for defence production. The defence PSUs should be gradually privatised to make them more efficient and quality conscious.
The private sector must be encouraged and incentivised to contribute to the national quest for self-reliance in defence production. Through the implementation of the Prime Minister’s vision to ‘make in India’, plans for military modernisation must lead to substantive upgradation of India’s defence technology base and manufacturing capability, or else the country’s defence procurement will remain mired in disadvantageous buyer-seller, patron-client relationships. No new defence acquisition should be undertaken without insisting on the transfer of technology (ToT).
The NDA government has done well to announce its intention to allow defence exports. Formal instructions to give effect to this policy should be issued early and it should be ensured that India abides by the provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty even though it is not a signatory to the treaty. The national aim should be to make India a design, development, manufacturing and export hub for weapons systems and other defence equipment in the next 10 to 15 years in conjunction with the country’s strategic partners.
Financial management too needs a major overhaul. The defence budget has dipped 1.74 per cent of the country’s GDP despite the fact that Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence and the armed forces have repeatedly recommended that it should be raised progressively to 3.0 per cent of the GDP if India is to build the defence capabilities that it needs to meet future threats and challenges and discharge its growing responsibilities as a regional power in Southern Asia. The budgetary allocations earmarked on the capital account for the modernisation of the armed forces will continue to be surrendered unless the government sets up a rolling, non-lapsable defence modernisation fund of about Rs 1,00,000 crore under the Consolidated Fund of India.
The relatively softer issues that can adversely affect the morale of soldiers, sailors and airmen have also got the Defence Minister’s attention. Approval has been accorded for the construction of a National War Memorial at India Gate in New Delhi and for the long-pending ‘one rank, one pension’ (OROP) proposal, though not to the satisfaction of the Veterans. To his credit, the Minister has taken steps to reduce the number of cases that the MoD is fighting in various courts against retired armed forces personnel, especially those against disabled Veterans.
Key personnel issues that merit the Minister’s attention include the large-scale shortage of officers and the grossly inadequate availability of accommodation for married personnel. The Defence Minister must also make certain that the Seventh Pay Commission resolves all the anomalies of the last two pay commissions that have led to disaffection in the armed forces and have added to the civil-military divide.
Overall, in his first year in office, the Defence Minister has gained the confidence of the armed forces, shaken the MoD bureaucracy out of its decade-long slumber and initiated several policy measures that will enhance defence preparedness. He has also succeeded in giving a much needed fillip to military modernisation. He follows an informal approach, consults widely, encourages discussion and is quick at decision making – hallmarks of good leadership. He is likely to continue to strive towards enhancing defence preparedness and giving the highest priority to undertaking military modernisation.