Cutting through defence red tape

As the budget is awaited, the defence allotment is patiently awaited too. The Modi-led government has for the first time shown firm resolve; and defence naturally is expecting infusion of funds. The policy on defence is not so much about money but about arming to a firm policy, as stated in the book Arming without Aiming: India’s Military Modernisation, by Professor Stephen P Cohen, and Sunil Dasgupta.

It is quite lucid that the current government means business: the chiefs have to brief the PM every month, from no access they have been upgraded to limited access, a string of foreign policy statements and sound economic decisions all are good indicators, ‘but is all this good enough’?
Besides arming, India needs to develop ‘Comprehensive Military Power’, wherein, both hard and soft power combine seamlessly to form one power that stands on its own in Asia at its earliest, even after years of neglect in the next two decades. Power projection in a disturbed region like ours, wherein, oil and sectarian causes are a heady cocktail mix; and piracy at sea an established profession, needs sound long term solutions and intense investments due to past years of neglect.

A strong nationalist government which would rejuvenate defence, a costly bitter pill compared to populism, is a sure sign at the present: the Modi-led government is in it for the long haul. The amount of money spent now along with the hard economic decisions will pay off in the long run. A lot is also expected in the unfinished agenda of the veterans ‘One Rank One Pension’ and three cheers for that if all goes well; we shall ever be grateful. This budget is expected to give enough funds for MMRCA, a medium artillery gun, a rifle for the infantrymen and not to forget due impetous for the Navy.  Besides this another focal point where the government has shown firm resolve is the domain of foreign policy which is distinctly neighbourhood friendly centric. Historically, sound economics is the key to national defence as the size of the cake and the ingredients in the pudding matter.

Soft power needs a critical rethink, and the absence of a defence minister does really matter still, doesn’t it? The Ministry of Defence needs a good long scrutinising look within itself. Currently the Ministry of Defence has non-professionals, thus the decision making is on slow rails, quite tardy and I dare recommend that we can perhaps look at the experience of a veteran Major General O P Sabharwal, author of book Killer Instinct. Sabharwal served in USA from 1981-1985 as Military and Naval Attaché at the Indian Embassy at Washington DC, with concurrent accreditation to Canada. It was during this period that his diplomatic skills showed up in good measure and he won applauds for many of his achievements. He was the first Indian officer to receive the International Research Fellowship at the Defence University of Washington, DC and was also made an honorary citizen of the state of Tennessee and the city of El Paso, Texas, USA, and I have two interesting anecdotes to tell about him, my inferences from this should be obvious.

Sabharwal, as military attaché, made a formal official call on the Chief of Army Staff at Pentagon. During the course of conversation he just mentioned to the US Army Chief  that there should be an exchange of Gentlemen Cadets between Indian Military Academy, Dehra Doon and West Point USA, for better interaction between these two professional academies. The four stars American General thought about the proposal and within thirty seconds got on to the internet and before Sabharwal realised he was walking with the US chief towards the office of Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defence, United States of America. In short the American Chief of Staff could just walk into the Defence Minister’s office without an appointment accompanied by the Indian defence attaché with the only claim being: that he has an interesting proposal.

The same was repeated before the Secretary of Defence who thought about it for a moment and said the government of America could sanction the same. So basically, in five minutes flat, the Americans had agreed to an exchange program. Sabharwal seemingly proud of himself, informed of this to General Krishna Rao, who was greatly pleased too and sent the proposal in writing. Files in India move at snail’s pace owing to the Great Indian Bureaucracy, thus ten years after his retirement on a visit to IMA he saw some cadets from West Point and enquired if they had come on the exchange program. When they replied in the affirmative he was snugly pleased; but it had taken ten years what the Americans did in five minutes.

Around this time, the Americans had made remotely piloted vehicles and he was told to make inquiry about the same. While travelling to the place of demonstration, he met the Israeli defence attaché on the flight and got friendly with him. They both watched the skillful demonstration, and were hugely impressed with the same and hence both recommended it for their respective countries, this was way back in the mid-eighties. What are the lessons that emerge from these anecdotes? There is a need to have professional military advice at the Ministry of Defence with serving career officers of at least 50 per cent strength from the three services such that the problems are understood. We don’t need an approach like George Fernandez suggested that MOD officers must visit Siachen, but defence is a special field and this requires a special cadre which should be a mix of experts and not a generalist mix.

The author is a retired brigadier
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