India Today - - INSIDE - By San­deep Un­nithan Pho­to­graph by BANDEEP SINGH

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


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.


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

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