ARMING THE FORCES
THE NEW DEFENCE MINISTER NEEDS TO REFORM THE JADED MINISTRY, REPLACE WORN-OUT EQUIPMENT AND PUSH DEFENCE INDIGENISATION
New defence minister Rajnath Singh has an enormous task—to reform India’s military
Just hours after he was informed of his appointment as defence minister on May 31, Rajnath Singh, 67, dialled army chief General Bipin Rawat. He wanted to spend his first working day, June 3, in Siachen. The army chief readily agreed. A little over 48 hours later, the defence minister was helicoptered into Siachen base camp, where he spent a day with troops at the world’s highest military deployment—12,000 feet above sea level. “I started at the top,” Singh told his close aides after the visit, “and I will stay there.”
That statement could just as well have described Singh’s successful behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to maintain his position in the new government. In the post-election cabinet formation, he has retained his seat in six of the eight cabinet committees that he was part of as home minister in the previous government. Perhaps Singh appealed to the fact that national security is a critical issue for the BJP. It was certainly a prime focus in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2019 re-election campaign, riding on the February 26 air strikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. And the composition of the prime minister’s
core security team—home minister Amit Shah, national security advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and foreign minister S. Jaishankar—does suggest an unswerving, hawkish security focus.
The workings of the defence ministry will be pivotal to the new government, and Singh will himself be judged by what he is able to achieve in his tenure. The appointment of a political heavyweight to the post signals the end of the revolving door in South Block’s Room No. 104. The Modi government’s first term saw three occupants in five years. Rajnath Singh, more than any of his predecessors, has a chance to reshape the defence ministry.
Though the defence ministry (through the army) is only one of the stakeholders working to restore normalcy to insurgency-hit Kashmir, it is a dominant player when it comes to the escalation ladder. The choices it makes can decide whether an incident in Kashmir remains an internal security matter or escalates into a full-scale Indo-Pakistan war. This is especially true post the February 26 air strikes, because a significant strategic threshold was crossed at Balakot—one that then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee dared not cross during the 1999 Kargil War,
for fear of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
In responding to the Pulwama terrorist incident with an air-strike on Balakot—a limited strike that did not provoke a nuclear response—it is believed that Prime Minister Modi managed to raise the nuclear threshold, a level of incident that could lead to Pakistan making good on its nuclear blackmail. This has opened up space for ‘sub-conventional’ options, the kind NSA Doval calls ‘offensive defence’—the freedom to hit back if attacked by non-conventional forces. However, for this to be a realistic option, India must comprehensively reinforce its military. This calls for a vast re-equipping, to prepare it for what are known as ‘operations other than war’—which must be available at a few hours’ notice.
As home minister, Singh assiduously cultivated a soldier-friendly image, spending nights with IndoTibetan Border Police personnel at a border outpost in Ladakh, or with their Central Reserve Police Force counterparts in Maoist-infested Bastar. He was singularly responsible for a raft of welfare measures for the armed forces: free air travel for jawans from Delhi to Srinagar; enhancing hardship allowances for paramilitary forces in Kashmir and those fighting left-wing extremism in central India; doubling exgratia payments to the kin of jawans killed in combat; and establishing a new ‘Bharat ke Veer’ fund, for donations toward jawan welfare. Since taking up his new post at the defence ministry, one of Singh’s first acts has been to establish a committee to work on revising the One Rank, One Pension programme and to restore rations for officers in peacetime stations—a sore point for members of the armed forces since they were withdrawn in 2017. There is also a back story to his love for the armed forces—in the early 1970s, Singh nursed ambitions of joining the army as a Second Lieutenant, before he became a physics lecturer at K.B. Post Graduate College, Mirzapur, UP.
However, his task is cut out as he negotiates the byzantine corridors of South Block—to rein in the bureaucracy and to ensure that the military is brought into the decision-making process. And in the month since he took up his new post, Singh has attended dozens of presentations from the armed forces, getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of this most complicated of government ministries.
On July 27 this year, India’s Vijay Diwas celebrations will mark 20 years since the Kargil War. In the context of India’s security ecosystem, much has changed. For instance, 2019 is also the year that the draft of India’s first-ever National Security Strategy (NSS)
comes up for approval before the Cabinet Committee on Security. The NSS, prepared by NSA Doval in consultation with other security stakeholders, will help the armed forces prepare for the kind of wars India expects them to fight.
There is, however, another key component in the armed forces ecosystem that has also been missing for at least two decades—a working synergy between the branches of the Indian military.
The 11-week war fought in 1999 to evict Pakistani intruders from Kargil led to a landmark military reforms report, by the Kargil Review Committee (KRC). Among the biggest flaws the committee highlighted was the lack of synergy between the various armed forces—especially the army and the air force—that were involved in the war. In 2001, a Group of Ministers’ committee set up to examine the findings of the KRC upheld that conclusion, and recommended the integration of the armed forces into the defence ministry and the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). The need for a singlepoint advisor was reiterated by the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2011, and reiterated again by the Lieutenant General D.B. Shekatkar committee in 2016, but was never implemented.
However, the time may be ripe for change. Just last year, a rare consensus was achieved among the three services—the army, the navy and the air force—and a proposal for the appointment of a permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee was forwarded to the government, where it still remains. Without a permanent chairman or a CDS, and indeed, the political oversight to drive through reforms from the top, all the efforts to streamline the armed forces to fight the wars of the 21st century will come to naught. The CDS will drive the integration of the armed forces, integrate the existing 17 single-service commands into just three theatre commands—Northern for China, Western for Pakistan and Southern for the maritime theatre. This will not only optimise resources but also enhance the combat-effectiveness of the armed forces.
“The reason why reform has failed over the past four to five years is because there been a piecemeal, fragmented and bottom-up approach, without any embedded bureaucratic reform. There should be a serious attempt at engaging the Higher Defence Organisation with a top-down approach, where the political leadership pushes reforms through,” says defence analyst Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramanian. There is also an urgent need for reforms at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) itself, another change that can only be implemented by the political leadership. “Rajnath Singh should not get fooled by the bureaucracy,” says Lt Gen. Shekatkar (retired), former director general of military operations, who headed the MoD reform committee. “There is an urgent need to reorganise, reorient and restructure the MoD. It needs to reduce numbers. Obesity of numbers does not improve efficiency.”
Singh has cultivated a trooperfriendly image, visiting with ITBP personnel in Ladakh along the LAC, or with their CRPF counterparts in Maoist-infested Bastar
REPLACING VINTAGE EQUIPMENT
The BJP’s 2019 manifesto commits to ‘speeding up the purchase of defence-related equipment and weapons’ and to ‘taking focused steps to strengthen the strike capability of the armed forces with modern equipment’. A grim reminder of how urgently this is needed came on June 3, just days after Singh took over as defence minister. An An-32, a military transport aircraft, crashed into a hillside in Arunachal Pradesh. All 13 people aboard died.
This was the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) 10th air crash in the past six months, marking a new low in its peacetime record. Many of these crashed aircraft are long past their projected service dates—the An-32 platform, for example, was acquired in the 1980s, and is due to be retired in the next few years. Other compromised platforms include the MiG-21 and the MiG-27, both of which are also decades-old. The An-32’s possible successor, the Airbus C-295, to be built in India by a Tata-Airbus combine, has been ‘in the pipeline’ for close to a decade. In recent years, the 56-aircraft deal, first initiated in 2009, has been stuck on the benchmarked price—far above what the defence ministry is willing to fund.
All in all, over 60 per cent of the military’s arsenal—from all three branches—is outdated and requires replacement. The IAF urgently needs over 100 new fighter aircraft to bolster its squadrons against Pakistan and China. The navy has a shrinking fleet of submarines, and the army has a massive backlog of requirements for everything from antiaircraft weaponry to utility helicopters. On that count, a majority of the presentations Singh has been receiving from the armed forces over the past fortnight have to do with pending purchases. One of the IAF’s pending requirements—126 fighter aircraft to replace the crashing MiG-21s—dates back to Kargil. And with the post-Kargil modernisation stuck on paper because of budget constraints, the military’s pending purchases have skyrocketed to an estimated $100 billion (Rs 7 lakh crore), by the armed forces’ own calculations.
In this context, Singh’s role is doubly important. He also heads the Defence Acquisition Council, which must approve all military purchases. He will have to do what predecessors Manohar Parrikar and Nirmala Sitharaman did—prioritise critically needed equipment like helmets, bulletproof jackets and assault rifles over acquisitions like surface-toair missiles. At the same time, he will also have to implement post-Balakot emergency procurements for the army and air force, which have already been sanctioned. The army, for instance, needs to re-equip its Para-Special Forces units, at a cost of around Rs 1,000 crore. Similarly, the air force has drawn up requirements for modern radios, airto-air and surface-to-air missiles, jammers and AEW&C aircraft, all of which need to be purchased in the next few months.
Among Singh’s first tasks as defence minister has been to assess the military’s funding requirements. A bulk of the presentations currently being made to him argue for increased funding, especially in the upcoming union Budget, to be tabled on July 5. In a presentation made last week before the finance ministry, the armed forces have projected a requirement of Rs 1.5 lakh crore, over and above the existing defence budget, to allow for critical purchases to be made.
All of the armed forces’ modernisation plans are bogged down by a lack of funding. For instance, the interim defence budget presented this February hiked military spending by 8 per cent to Rs 3.01 lakh crore, but even this was insufficient. To put that in context, in 2018-19, there was a 30 per cent shortfall of funding—a Rs 1.12 lakh crore shortfall against a requirement of Rs 3.71 lakh crore.
While Singh is sensitive to these requirements and open to proposals, he also recently told aides that “[the armed forces] should not project requirements which we can only satisfy by plucking the
stars out of the sky”. He could, therefore, question some key requisitions from the armed forces, like the navy’s projected need for a third aircraft carrier—a requisition which met the disapproval of at least one MoD-appointed committee in 2016.
But the question remains—what is to be done about the insufficient funding for the armed forces? Even if new equipment purchases are mothballed, around 60 to 80 per cent of the capital expenditure of the armed forces already goes to servicing what are known as ‘pre committed liabilities’. These are annual payments that need to be made to arms manufacturers for equipment already purchased—similar to the annual monthly instalments paid out by automobile and house owners. For instance, down payments have to be made for the 36 Rafales from France and the S-400 missiles from Russia.
Issues like these are what have led to an unofficial cap on any increase in spending by the defence ministry. In that context, last year, a minister of state for defence, Subhash Bhamre, told the Lok Sabha that defence already accounted for close to 18 per cent of government spending. (His numbers included Rs 1 lakh crore for defence pensions, an item which is usually not included in the armed forces’ budget; see box: Five Big Challenges.) This is one budgetary battle Singh will have to fight—and win—if the armed forces are expected to be ready for other Kargils and Pulwamas.
MAKE IN INDIA
Among the biggest failures of the Modi government’s previous term was the stillborn Make in India scheme for indigenously manufactured weapons.
There are essentially two components to Make in India. One is Strategic Partnerships (SPs), in which the Indian private sector is expected to form working relationships with foreign arms manufacturers to develop an indigenous weapons production industry. The second component develops from the first—once a manufacturing base has been established, it will be expected to invest in weapons research, to develop ‘Indian Designed, Developed and Manufactured’ weapons platforms, or IDDM projects. In these projects, the intellectual property—weapons schematics, military software and the like—will be wholly controlled by Indian firms.
The SP programme, launched by defence minister Parrikar in 2016, aimed to get the Indian private sector to build tanks, helicopters, fighter jets and submarines. However, this policy is yet to get the MoD’s stamp of approval. And while the SP policy pinballs across the corridors of South Block, several larger IDDM projects, like those for tactical communications systems, battlefield management systems and infantry combat vehicles, are stuck. The need, as a leading private sector CEO says, is to create a defence ecosystem around IDDM projects.
Both these programmes must be implemented, and implemented well, if India is to ever be able to produce its own military equipment and start out along the path of self-sufficiency. And though India dropped to second place in the world ranking of arms importers this year, that was only because Saudi Arabia hiked its defence purchases—India still imports over 60 per cent of its defence hardware. The challenges before Singh are both plentiful and formidable. Several of the Gordian knots he faces in office have got the best of his predecessors. If Singh cuts through them, he is assured of a place in history.
The BJP’s manifesto commits to speeding up defence purchases and steps to strengthen the strike capability of the armed forces with modern equipment
PAYING TRIBUTE (L-R) General Bipin Rawat, Rajnath Singh and Lt General Ranbir Singh at Siachen
MILITARY MINDS (L-R) Rajnath Singh with General Bipin Rawat, Admiral Karambir Singh and Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa