One step forward, two steps back

As the Narendra Modi led government completes one year in office, what is its track record regarding defence and how has it fared so far? Has it sowed the seeds for a stronger and healthier national defence? Has it tried to create a proactive environment for defence procurement? These are pertinent and critical questions worth asking and answering! National security is a complex puzzle with many dimensions. Given this context it may be wise to ignore the micro/small-scale events over the past one year and instead focus on the bigger picture and macro trends.

The political choice of the defence minister needs some careful analysis. In the first few months of the ruling dispensation, Arun Jaitley was appointed both finance and defence minister. Political commentators noted that despite his brilliance, handling two key ministries was perhaps a Sisyphean task. 

The current defence minister from what one can discern shows two positive signs. The first is that he has a clean image thus perhaps restoring confidence in arms procurements and purchases. Secondly, he is courageous enough to take bold out of the box decisions: outright purchase of 36 Rafale jets, lifting the ban on Tatras, to name a few.  As far as the application of mind is concerned he is one of the few defence ministers whose interviews clearly infer that he is applying his mind. It’s also clear that he has also been leveraging his engineering background and administrative acumen. The positive spin-off from this is that for a change the Ministry of Defence (MOD), is gradually coming under political rather than bureaucratic control. This is a net positive change as bureaucrats usually are not answerable to anybody except their political masters.

The budget was an accurate reflection of the governments’ defence priorities and reflects its sense of urgency in overhauling India’s outdated defence framework. The national security budget is 1.75 percent of the projected GDP for 2015-16.  However, it must be noted that the budgets of the BJP have been in line with the UPA and do not show any distinct sense of urgency. The BJP has announced two budgets and the impression one gathers, is that there is a serious effort to “Make in India”, rather than import costly arms, but that is easier said than done. At current rates, India is expected to spend around $700 billion in weapons procurement over ten years and the current defence budget is $40 billion dollars. Thus, arms procurement will always be lacking. In his interviews the defence minister has been talking of fiscal policy, thus working within the allotment implying either, “status quo” or indigenous base.  The BJP should show some seriousness in increasing the defence budget to walk their talk as they have only three more budgets left.

The defence minister has been laying emphasis on fiscal planning and not big ticket announcements. The Army has a plan but when it goes before the MOD it all comes back to nought for want of funds. This has led to stark neglect and shortages including that of ammunition and equipment. Gradually these are being addressed but how does one tackle the ordnance factories and the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). A high powered committee is looking into the functioning and coordinating with these.  Till date the “Make in India”, remains a slogan only. Will the recommendations of this committee be implemented or will they lie in cold storage only time will tell. The government needs to set up a military industrial complex (MIC). There is hardly any movement in that direction.

The human aspects are what matters, as the defence minister and the prime minister provide civilian military leadership, which is <g data-gr-id="80">very-important</g> in a country like India. The Army is deployed face to face with two potent adversaries and sending the right robust message from the top matters. The leadership provided in the geostrategic domain translates to tactical level leadership that has always been robust and first class, as far as <g data-gr-id="85">the the</g> Indian Army is concerned. Those who violate  our borders at land, sea, or air now have the choice of either paying the price or drowning themselves to <g data-gr-id="84">death,</g> because the Indian reply will be vigorous. On the other hand, the defence minister needs to address a tough question. Why does the Indian generalship remain in the tactical domain? The answer is simple: the higher levels of a defence organisation need professional advice and insight. <g data-gr-id="82">Unfortunately</g> advice and insight has been lacking so far. This means that the military man must form a part of the policy loop and the civilian military leadership needs to ensure that, there is no movement in that direction.

The issue of heart burns over promotions needs to be addressed at the earliest with a fair hand. It has the potential of Balkanizing the officer class. A remark stated by the minister that the infantry must retain a young profile leaves the balance officer cadre parentless. At his level, the entire force must retain a young command hierarchy, all over the army. The One Rank One Pension (OROP) issue also remains; it is not about pension it is about trust and hope. The old saying goes, “as you sow so shall you reap”. 

Manohar Parrikar still has a long way to go.  The impression one gets is that the minister is applying his mind. However at the same time it seems that he is unable to move the system from its torpor, hamstrung as the system is for critical funds. He is also yet to get the best out of the potential of the DRDO and Ordnance factories. These are institutions, where if innovations are made, weapons can soon be produced with a Made in India slogan. This will be the first signs of an enabling civilian military leadership.    

The author is a retired brigadier
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