The turn of the year has heralded a transition in the Indian military as nothing before. The shackles of a legacy that presumably prevented progression have been discarded and a whole new paradigm is aglow on the horizon. The oft mooted and widely discussed post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has finally been acceded by the government and Gen Bipin Rawat has been conferred the appointment in the new year.
The success of any transition is in its timing. Integrating the various pillars of the armed forces is never an easy task, the age-old rivalries never easy to overcome, and the hallowed ‘turf’ the most difficult to encroach. In most cases, integration has been thrust down upon the military and in our case, it has been no different.
Given the backdrop of the ongoing hybrid war being played out by Pakistan against us and civil disobedience issues keeping the country in turmoil, this may not seem an appropriate time to modify the only pillar of the government which holds firm. But to my mind, the timing is right because changes are leadership-driven and with the leadership in all the three services having seen a recent turn-over, with incumbents having their fingers on the pulse of the ground realities, this is the opportune moment.
The mandate given to the Chief of Defence Staff has been monumental, though the time frames for implementation seem a bit unrealistic. The mandate, to my mind, suffers from an inherent dichotomy which stems from the empowerment of the Chief of Defence Staff and somehow does not provide the affected party, the armed forces, the confidence in the path chosen by the government. Whether it be a position in the government hierarchy, from not elevating the status, to keeping Capital Acquisitions away from the Chief of Defence Staff while making him responsible for integrating all military procurements, to finally keeping him out of the operational arena for whom he is, in fact, doing the procurements.
Add a few more weights to the saddle in the form of creation of Integrated Commands, an operational and warfighting entity (but hey! The Chief of Defence Staff is not to interfere in the operational arena), a delightful hotchpotch has been created, a potential cooking pot to give rise to narcissistic thoughts and ideas.
As the transition in the military was introduced, tempo built up for the DefExpo 2020 in Lucknow, held between 05-08 Feb 2019. There is no gainsaying that the Indian armed forces are woefully short of weapons and equipment to meet the essential tasks set forth by the government. This fact is historical and follows a pattern from the day Nehru proclaimed that we are a non-aligned and peaceful nation.
The slap on the face he received post-independence in the 1947-48 war with Pakistan did not have the desired effect but 1962 was definitely a starting point for realization and reality. Prioritization has, however, dogged the defence budget and it suffers from inadequacy to meet the demands.
Successive DefExpos, while showcasing the indigenous defense industry and offering them a platform to leapfrog into the mainstream, have not really succeeded to the extent one would like to see. The late acceptance of private industry participation in defense matters has actually been the reason for the setback. Inadequate funding and infrastructure support, product acceptance, and quality control have disallowed progress and consequently the ability to produce world-class products that find international buyers.
The test of any country’s product is its ability to find adequate markets abroad. Pitted against international manufacturing giants, they fade into insignificance and consequent penury. One of the mandates given to the Chief of Defence Staff is to uplift the indigenous defense industry to promote self-sufficiency in military components and spares. The Chief of Defence Staff must use the powers of his mandate to provide the financial support and infrastructure back-up to SMEs with the help of the bigger industrial houses.
With the evidently curtailed budget and the fact that no increase is expected with the continuing state of the economy, the Chief of Defence Staff, speaking in the backdrop of the DefExpo 2020, has adopted some unique strategies. First and foremost, he has said that given the financial crunch, the armed forces will follow a “staggered” or “split purchase” model for critical procurements, where items required will be bought in small quantities in a phased manner. Other than the financial issue, it is also suited to stagger servicing schedules which will ensure an effective operational readiness status.
Hopefully, his AF and Navy advisors have provided suitable inputs on the differences in the procurement of aircraft and ships and the pattern they follow. But the Chief of Defence Staff strangest comment has been on the fact that in the pursuit of indigenisation and preference for local products, ‘the defence services will accept an indigenous product over a foreign one even if it meets 70- 80% of the required parameters!’ A warfighter compromising on quality where the defense of a country is involved and lives are at stake? I rest my case.
With the Standing Committee on Defence proposing the constitution of a high powered committee, overseen by the Chief of Defence Staff, to look at national security doctrines and decide acquisitions according to the world security scenario, the whole ‘sab-cheez’ is becoming one big mumbo-jumbo. The Chief of Defence Staff has all this and more on his hands. The juggler has to perform and overcome his dilemma.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Marshal Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction. He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn, and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.