Challenges Aplenty for the New Defence Minister

The Ministry of Defence received a boost under the leadership of Manohar Parrikar. He was pro-active and initiated steps that had started the modernisation of the armed forces. brig Gurmeet Kanwal points out that the new defence minister will have to take over from where Parrikar left off

During his tenure of two and a half years as India’s Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar gave a free hand to the army to act proactively on the LoC. He got the Prime Minister to approve surgical strikes across the LoC in September 2016 – operations that changed the paradigm of India’s response to Pakistani provocations. Parrikar worked closely with the leadership of the armed forces and the bureaucracy to put the stalled process of military modernisation back on the rails. And, he reviewed policies and procedures for the efficient functioning of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the armed forces. Yet, he left some tasks unfinished and the new Defence Minister will have a lot on his plate. Critical Hollowness in Defence Preparedness The state of defence preparedness continues to merit the government’s urgent attention. During the remaining two years in office, the NDA government must address the ‘critical hollowness’ plaguing defence preparedness – a term used by General V K Singh, former Army Chief, in the letter he wrote to the then Prime Minister in May 2012. Also, major operational voids in the war establishment of the three Services must be made up early in order to enhance combat readiness. Large-scale deficiencies in ammunition and important items of equipment continue to adversely affect India’s readiness for war and the ability to sustain military operations over durations of up to 30 days. The army reportedly has some varieties of tank and artillery ammunition for barely ten days of conflict and it will cost `20,000 crore to replenish stocks. It will be recalled that during the Kargil conflict in 1999, 50,000 rounds of 155 mm artillery ammunition had to be imported from South Africa. The occurrence of criticality in the holding of ammunition during a time of crisis must be avoided through a prudent replenishment and stocking policy. Under Parrikar’s guidance, the MoD invoked the government’s emergency financial powers to sign contracts with Russian manufacturers to procure ammunition and spares worth `5,800 crore for the army and `9,200 crore for the air force. Similar deals are being negotiated with French and Israeli companies. The serviceability state of warfighting equipment still needs substantial improvement. Many frontline equipment are ‘out of action’ for want of spares. It is suspected that the delay in changing the old batteries of INS Sindhuratna could have been the cause of the accident that resulted in the death of two officers, injuries to seven sailors and irreparable damage to the submarine. The serviceability state of the SU- 30MKI fighter-bomber fleet is reported to be just about 60 per cent. Numerous vehicles in the army are ‘off road’ for want of spares, mainly tyres, tubes, batteries and items like spark plugs. Stagnating Military Modernisation Modernisation of the armed forces has been stagnating due to the inadequacy of funds, the black-listing of several defence manufacturers and bureaucratic red tape. A committee led by Dhirendra Singh, former Home Secretary, was appointed to review the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Several pragmatic amendments have been made in DPP 2016 issued in early April, including an emphasis on ‘Make in India’, raising of FDI in defence to 49 per cent, tweaking of the policy on offsets and permitting defence exports. While projects worth over `1,50,000 crore have been accorded ‘acceptance of necessity’ (AON) by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, actual contracts have been signed only for `90,000 crore. However, it will take three to five years before deliveries begin. And, like in the UPA regime, significantly large amounts of funds continue to be surrendered unspent from the capital budget. In the army, artillery modernisation is still stagnating. There is an urgent need to acquire approximately 3,000 155 mm/52-calibre guns to replace obsolescent guns and howitzers, but a contract has been signed only for 145 M777 howitzers so far. Air defence and army aviation units are also equipped with obsolete equipment that has degraded their readiness for combat and created vulnerabilities. Modern wars are fought mostly during the hours of darkness, but most of the armoured fighting vehicles – tanks and infantry combat vehicles – are still ‘night blind’. Only about 650 T-90S tanks of Russian origin have genuine night fighting capability. The infantry battalions of the army need over 30,000 third generation night vision devices. Other requirements for infantry battalions include 66,000 assault rifles – a soldier’s basic weapon, carbines for close quarter battle, general purpose machine guns, light-weight anti-materiel rifles, mine protected vehicles, 390,000 ballistic helmets, and 180,000 lightweight bullet proof jackets. The navy is in the process of building an air defence ship at Kochi to replace the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, six Scorpene submarines at Mazagon Docks and 22 destroyers, frigates, corvettes and other ships such as fast attack craft, landing ships and support ships. However, India’s maritime security challenges are growing and the navy not only needs to modernise but must also expand its footprint in the Indo-Pacific region. It is important to ensure that the PLA Navy does not make inroads into India’s backyard. The modernisation plans of the air force also proceeding ahead but only at a snail’s pace. The MMRCA project to acquire 126 fighter aircraft to replace obsolete MiG-21s is stuck in a groove. The government plans to initially purchase 36 Rafale fighters from France for which a contract has been signed. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin (F-16), Boeing (F-18) and Gripen have jumped into the fray again with offers to produce their aircraft locally with transfer of technology (ToT). The IAF also requires two AWACS early warning aircraft, six mid-air refueller tankers, 56 transporter planes, 20 advance jet trainers, 38 basic trainers, 48 medium-lift helicopters, reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic warfare suites. All three Services need to upgrade their C4I2SR capabilities to prepare for effects-based operations in a network-centric environment and to match ever increasing Chinese capabilities. Inadequacy of Funds All of these acquisitions are capital intensive and the present defence budget cannot support the acquisition of many of them. The current system of financial management for the armed forces needs a major overhaul. The defence budget for FY 2017-18 has dipped to 1.62 per cent of the country’s GDP – the lowest level since the disastrous 1962 war with China. Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence and the armed  forces have repeatedly recommended that it should be raised progressively to 3.0 per cent of the GDP if India is to build the defence capabilities that it needs to meet future threats and challenges and discharge its growing responsibilities as a regional power in southern Asia. This issue merits the new Defence Minister’s urgent attention. A portion of the budgetary allocations earmarked on the capital account for the modernisation of the armed forces is surrendered every year as the MoD is unable to spend the funds before March 31. This will continue to happen unless the government sets up a rolling, non-lapsable defence modernisation fund of approximately `1,00,000 crore under the Consolidated Fund of India. Cutting down on wasteful subsidies from which the people do not really benefit in a meaningful manner would be one way to spare more funds for national security. It has been reported that the MoD has sent a recommendation to the Ministry of Finance to consider setting up a defence modernisation fund. The new Defence Minister must see this pragmatic proposal through. The armed forces are now in the final month of the fifth year of the 12th Defence Plan (2012-17). It will end without having been formally approved with full financial backing by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The government has also not formally approved the long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP 2007-22) formulated by HQ Integrated Defence Staff. Without these essential approvals, defence procurement is being undertaken through ad hoc annual procurement plans, rather than being based on duly prioritised long-term plans that are designed to systematically enhance India’s combat potential. These are serious lacunae as effective defence planning cannot be undertaken in a policy void. The new Defence Minister must commit himself to supporting long-term defence plans and also get his colleagues in the CCS to do so. The Defence Minister must ensure that the government relinquishes its monopoly on defence research and development (R&D). The DRDO should undertake research only in strategic technologies that even the closest strategic partners are unwilling to share; e.g. ballistic missile defence technology. As for weapons platforms and other defence equipment, there should be no need to reinvent the wheel. The MoD should progressively move away from its excessive reliance on the inefficient public sector for defence production. The defence PSUs should be gradually privatised to make them more efficient and quality conscious. The private sector must be encouraged and incentivised to contribute to the national quest for self-reliance in defence production. This should be a high priority area for the Minister’s personal intervention. Through the implementation of the Prime Minister’s vision to ‘make in India’, plans for military modernisation must lead to substantive upgradation of India’s defence technology base and manufacturing capability, or else the country’s defence procurement will remain mired in disadvantageous buyer-seller, patron-client relationships with foreign MNCs. No new defence acquisition should be undertaken without insisting on the transfer of technology (ToT). The NDA government has done well to announce its intention to allow defence exports. Formal instructions to give effect to this policy should be issued early and it should be ensured that India abides by the provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty even though it is not a signatory to the treaty. The national aim should be to make India a design, development, manufacturing, servicing and export hub for weapons systems and other defence equipment in the next 10 to 15 years in conjunction with the country’s strategic partners. Structural Reforms Another important responsibility for the new Defence Minister is to ensure that long-pending structural reforms are undertaken in an early time frame to improve national security decision making and synergise defence planning. The most important issue that has been pending for long is the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This was first recommended by the Arun Singh committee on defence expenditure in the early 1990s, and then by the Group of Ministers, led by then Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, that reviewed the recommendations of the four task forces on the management of national security. These task forces had been assembled following the submission of the Kargil Review Committee report. This crucial appointment has been hanging fire due to the want of political consensus and differences within the armed forces, which have since been resolved. Recently, the Naresh Chandra committee has recommended the appointment of a permanent Chairman of the CoSC as a more acceptable alternative. The appointment of a CDS shouldbe logically followed by the raising of tri-Service Special Forces, aerospace, cyberwar and logistics commands. Subsequently, after gaining experience with joint defence planning, single-Service commands should give way to triService integrated theatre commands so as to ensure the ‘joint’ formulation and execution of operational plans. It has now been accepted by all modern militaries that ‘jointness’ or ‘jointmanship’ leads to the optimisation of single-Service combat capabilities. Also, the Army, Navy and Air Force HQ have been only notionally integrated with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and are still ‘attached offices’ for all practical purposes. The integration of the Services HQ with the MoD must be carried forward to its logical conclusion. The civil-military disconnect and the consequent flaws in functioning must be removed expeditiously. The recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission have still not been implemented for the armed forces. In fact, some of the anomalies of the Sixth Pay Commission are still to be resolved. The agitation for OROP launched by the Veterans was allowed to linger on for an embarrassingly long period of time, with many anomalies remaining unresolved. Also, there has been no progress on the establishment of the National Defence University and the construction of a National War Memorial-cumMilitary Museum. Civil-military relations had hit a new low during the last few years of the UPA regime and need to be brought on a level keel again. Collectively all of these issues have a deleterious effect on the morale of soldiers and undermine their fighting spirit. Hence, their early resolution must be a matter of the highest priority for the new Defence Minister. It does not need to be emphasised that the country needs a full-time Defence Minister who can devote himself to overcoming the complex challenges confronting national security. If there is one ministry that must not be held as a dual charge by a cabinet minister, no matter how competent, it is the MoD. And, the Prime Minister must pay special attention to the functioning of his Defence Minister and the MoD so that fissures can be nipped in the bud and not allowed to fester.

The author is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi