A NEW COMMITTEE TO SPEED UP DEFENCE PLANNING AND ACQUISITIONS

The Defence Expo, held every two years in India, showcases military platforms that could make India’s armed forces — comprising of first rate combatants, but saddled with equipment, much of which is obsolete — a world class fighting machine. But that is only if we go beyond the debate on such shortages. Thus, significantly soon after the recently concluded Defence Expo in Chennai, the Modi government has announced the establishment of a permanent institutional mechanism, a Defence Planning Committee (DPC), with a cross ministry mandate. Although this initiative of the current BJP led government has come in its final year in office, the DPC is expected to provide the Defence Minister with specific inputs to quicken the process of approvals specially for defence acquisitions, since the DPC will have, apart from the service chiefs, top bureaucrats from the defence, foreign and finance ministries.

Apart from the long standing need to overhaul India’s inadequately placed higher defence structure, it is said that the Modi government has set up this committee (DPC) as the existing set up was unable to provide the PMO the inputs that were being sought, specially so due to the divide between the military and civilian officials in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and between the MoD and the Finance Ministry on the allocation of funds for our defence modernisation. The annual allocation is far below the optimum levels required to sustain a modern military machine. No wonder then that the vice chief of the army had recently stated that two-thirds of the army’s equipment is “vintage” and that the defence budget dashed all hopes of modernisation.

India’s defence acquisition process is a long drawn out and tedious one, that often leaves the defence suppliers exasperated. The DPC will thus, hopefully, speed up defence acquisitions, with a long term view on how to fit them into India’s current and future security challenges. This would help make India’s defence preparedness more than an acquisition centric exercise. That apart, it will ‘evaluate foreign policy imperatives’ and also chalk out a strategy for international engagements that would include exports of products made in India and foreign assistance programmes (like the proposal to gift revamped older military equipment as ‘gifts’ to less developed countries) to enhance India’s military footprint through defence diplomacy.

In short, the list of ‘can do’ items before the DPC is long, but it might just help bridge the gap between the armed forces and the civilian bureaucracy, and will finally give them an institutional role in higher policy making, which they have lacked so far. This is one reason why, until now, India’s armed forces, largely saddled with an inward looking regional security mindset, have been unable to come up with proposals that are in sync with government’s rapidly expanding diplomatic agenda. In fact, each of our armed services have their own doctrines, but there is no publicly known national security doctrine! Now, as the DPC is to be headed by the National Security Adviser (NSA), we might finally have one, despite the fact that this carries the danger of over-centralisation of national security initiatives under the NSA.

Even as the supporters of this initiative feel that the Modi government has finally addressed a major shortcoming in India’s higher defence management, there is always the possibility that this proposal, like many others, could be confined to the vaults of South Block, if the post-2019 government decides not to follow up on this initiative, in the absence of a political consensus on this important matter. To ensure that this doesn’t happen, the service chief’s in particular must ensure that they make the most of this proposal, and insist on its institutionalisation. Among other things, this would allow them to reconcile the often conflicting claims of the armed forces and that of the defence PSUs, on what we can “Make in India”.

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