India’s defence preparedness has for long been shrouded in opacity. Awareness of matters pertaining to defence both by the law makers and those in India’s bureaucracy manning the defence ministry leaves much to be desired. It was thus a breath of fresh air which blew in the dusty corridors of South Block when Mr Manohar Parrikar took over as the Raksha Mantri. For the first time after a decade of sloth, the files in the ministry actually started moving and within the couple of years plus that Parrikar remained in office, focussed attention was paid to reducing the shortages which the Armed Forces were plagued with, which had prompted an earlier Service Chief to write his apprehensions to the Prime Minister in 2012, wherein he stated that the Army is grappling with tanks running out of ammunition, obsolete air defence systems and lack of adequate weaponry for infantry and special forces battalions, and thereafter asking the then Prime Minister, Shri Manmohan Singh to “pass suitable directions to enhance the Army’s preparedness”.
We have indeed come a long way since that March 12 , 2012, letter was written. But years of neglect cannot be rectified in a short span of three years. There has been a decisive shift from the status quo era under the risk averse Antony’s stint as defence minister. Reported to be an honest person, his lack of decision making capability led to a paralysis in the defence ministry, which saw the acquisition process ground to a standstill.
So what has been the upside in the three years under the Modi Government for India’s state of defence preparedness? From the welfare point of view, the longstanding demand of One Rank One Pension (OROP), was finally implemented, not in full measure but to a large extent. Considering that previous governments since 1971 had dawdled over the issue and not a file had moved in this direction in the ministry of defence till Parrikar took over, this by itself is a commendable achievement. Operationally, a more muscular policy towards Pakistan has had an invigorating impact on the morale of the Armed Forces, who are now better placed to handle Pakistani perfidy with an appropriate response. The fact that the Army has also been given a freer hand to deal with terrorists in Kashmir is also having a positive impact on the ground, with the terrorists finding it increasingly difficult to operate with the freedom they hitherto enjoyed. On the question of probity, the defence ministry has been scam free, a welcome departure from the Antony days, who though by reputation was personally honest, did not or could not prevent scams from occurring in his ministry.
A lot of emphasis has been laid by the Government on the Make in India programme, to enhance defence preparedness. While such efforts are yet to see the actualisation of projects, it must be remembered that the gestation period for the same is large and will bear fruit only after a long period of time. The much-awaited strategic partnership model was finally approved on 20 May. The new initiative will boost the private sector’s role in defence production. Now, select private firms will be roped in to build military platforms like submarines and fighter jets in India in partnership with foreign entities, and we will be seeing a great deal of forward movement in the coming years. Hopefully, the process would be irreversible. In terms of defence procurement, the red tape culture, which was the hallmark of our procurement policy has been revamped. Certain procurements have been placed on the fast track, such as the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France, to make up for the depleting fighter squadrons in the Indian air Force, as also the purchase of 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers and 22 Apache attack and 15 Chinook heavylift helicopters in direct government to government purchase from the US. The USD 7.87 billion deal to purchase 36 Rafale fighters in September, 2016 was the first fighter aircraft deal since the purchase of Sukhois from Russia in the late 1990s. Similarly, the Rs 5,000-crore deal with the US for 145 M777 ultralight howitzers in November last year finally broke the Bofors jinx, ending a three-decade wait for the Indian Army to induct long-range artillery guns after the Bofors scandal. The ultra-light howitzers (ULH) with a calibre of 155 mm, will be mostly deployed along the borders with China and should prove useful in case of a threat developing on our Northern borders. While 25 guns will come to India in a fly-away condition, the rest will be assembled in India by the BAE Systems in partnership with Mahindra Defence.
In a major move to ramp up naval strength, the Defence Ministry gave amphibious assault ships, also called the Landing Platform Docks (LPD), in the private sector at a cost of over Rs 20,000 crore. According to experts, it will be the largest ever naval project involving the private sector and the ships will be the biggest to be built in India after the under-construction aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. According to sources, PM Modi took personal interest to ensure that such projects are done to strengthen the Navy.
The crippling deficiencies in the Army have also been made up to some extent and the situation is not as critical now as it was in 2014, in terms of ammunition and equipment holdings. While the new Defence Procurement Policy is still a work in being, it is a marked improvement over the earlier policy and is more user friendly and would provide the necessary impetus to the Make in India programme.
A great change in the MoD pertains to decision making, which has led to procurements taking place at a much faster pace. Over four lakh crore worth of capital projects have been approved since the government came to power, with approvals being accorded to around 140 capital procurement projects, with 96 of them worth over Rs 2.5 lakh crore involving domestic production. About 150 contracts worth over Rs 2 lakh crore have been inked. These include around 80 capital procurement contracts worth Rs 1.50 lakh crore inked with foreign vendors. In an interaction with Mr Parrikar when he was Raksha Mantri, Mr Parrikar stated that his ministry could have inked many more contracts, which had been pending for years — a tribute to the fast pace of decision making in Government. However, it would have been impossible to finance the lot, considering the huge backlog that had developed over the years. Allied to this was also the capacity to utilise the funds in a restricted time frame. In any case, the back log being so huge, it would be unfair to expect resolution of all issues in a short span of three years. But the road map has been created for which the government deserves praise.
While all this certainly speaks of a heightened sense of well being in relation to the country’s defence effort, much work remains to be done. Of critical importance are reforms in the Ministry of Defence, which are being resisted by the bureaucracy which is loathe to lose its turf. It is a sobering thought that India’s MoD unlike other countries has no defence personnel within its structure. Modern militaries like that of the US and Britain have at least half of the personnel in the ministry from a defence background, but the Indian system has resisted such a move on the specious plea that a coup could be planned and executed. Such fear mongering is unwarranted and it flows not from any perceived national interest but from fear of losing ones turf. Similarly, the time is ripe to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), in line with modern militaries to give single point advice to the Prime Minister and to the Defence Minister. The longer such a decision is delayed, the slower will be the pace of military modernisation. From the crucial post of CDS to the tri-Service commands to handle space, cyberspace and special operations, to bold measures required to invigorate India’s moribund defence-industrial base, the ‘radical systemic changes’ promised by the 2014 BJP manifesto are still to be implemented.
There is also a need to enhance the defence budget, which has remained static for many years. The 2017-18 defence outlay of Rs 2.74 lakh crore works out to just 1.63% of the projected GDP, the lowest since the 1962 war with China. Another critical area of reform is the proposed National Maritime Authority, which as of now is not visible on the radar. The depleting fighter squadrons make it next to impossible to address security concerns emanating from both China and Pakistan simultaneously. Till then, it would be incumbent on the part of the nations diplomacy to see that we avoid a two front war situation.
Finally, considering the threats and challenges India faces, it does the country no good to have a part time defence Minister. It is hoped that this lacuna at least is addressed shortly. The country needs a full-time Defence Minister. In sum however, the last three years have seen a new and resurgent India. We are no longer perceived as a push over. That by itself is a huge gain and something the nation needs to be proud of.