Nine years of management of defence

Harsha Kakar
Assessment of the Modi Government’s performance in the past nine years under various heads continues under discussion. In the defence sector, at the outset, the Government came as a breath of fresh air, as Anthony, the UPA defence minister from 2006 to 2014, hesitated to sign procurements, fearing accusations of corruption. His clean reputation mattered more than modernization. Hence, modernization plans were shelved and large parts of the capital budget returned to the Government annually.
The Modi Government commenced its tenure with a part time defence minister. Arun Jaitley handled finance and defence. The first five-year tenure witnessed four defence ministers, changing in quick succession, Nirmala being the last. There was a relief when Manohar Parrikar was in the chair, but being junior, there was little he could push. His intent was positive and vision clear. Regular change of defence ministers impacted defence preparedness. Thankfully, the second tenure has had a single minister.
Modernization of defence did commence with gusto post 2014. Soon after assuming office, deals for Rafale jets, SiG 716 rifles, Chinook and Apache helicopters were signed. Simultaneously, was inking the S 400 air defence missile deal with Russia, despite threats of sanction. The artillery modernization plan, which had gone into limbo for years was revived. The first procurement was the K9 Vajra SP gun followed by others. Bullet proof jackets and helmets, essential for operations, procurement of which was in limbo for years, were ordered.
The keel laying ceremony of India’s first missile tracking and ocean surveillance ship, INS Dhurva, its subsequent operationalization, giving approval for seven stealth frigates and six nuclear powered submarines gave naval power the much-needed boost. Clearing orders for 83 Tejas and 56 C-295 transport aircraft had the air force heave a sigh of relief, as its aging fleet was degrading air power capability.
Launching cross border strikes into Myanmar and Pakistan projected a confident India. It altered Pakistan’s approach to supporting terrorism by ensuring that there would be no incident crossing India’s level of tolerance.
Aatmanirbhar Bharat, aimed at developing domestic defence production, took off. The intent was to reduce dependency on foreign suppliers by involving the private sector in collaboration with the DRDO, in some instances,research funded by the Government. Foreign suppliers were encouraged to establish manufacturing and assembly units in India. The OFB, a major problem area, was restructured and corporatized. Anti-satellite weapon systems aimed at enabling India to be a force in the last remaining frontier, space, were tested and are in the process of induction.However, investment in R & D was and continues to remain a serious limitation.
The possible clearance of establishing manufacturing of GE fighter aircraft engines in India by Washington would be a major boost to the Aatmanirbhar program. Tejas, its future versions, and possible 114 multi-role fighter aircraft, which the air force needs, as also fighters for India’s second aircraft carrier would be based on these engines. This would change maintenance aspects in the future.
A major reform was creating the post of the CDS aimed at integrating the forces by restructuring them into theatre commands. The process faced a stumble with the untimely demise of India’s first CDS, General Bipin Rawat, post which the Government waited for months before nominating a successor, sending a negative message that it is reconsidering the appointment. Restructuring has recommenced, though at a slower pace. A major hurdle has been hesitancy in the three services accepting a common model.
Simultaneously, there have been cosmetic changes of moving the forces away from British traditions as also changing old structures including converting cantonments into military stations. Actions in hand include combining officers’ messes, changing customs and traditions etc. A long-pending and justifiable demand, creation of a national war memorial, was fulfilled and the memorial inaugurated on 25 Feb 2019.
Modi’s declaration of implementing OROP in a veteran rally in Sept 2013, was more for garnering votes than genuinely implementing it. He had not visualized the backing it would receive and the level his Government would be impacted. While he won veteran support, subsequent protests, including manhandling of protesting veterans tarnished his promise.
Today, the amount being earmarked for implementing OROP 2 is so high that the Government is compelled to approach the Supreme Court seeking to spread its implementation across the year. It has also resulted in the Government pushing through financial cost saving measures including reducing force levels and implementing the ‘Agnipath’ scheme, most without rationale or even discussion with service chiefs. In the Agnipath case, fearing national uproar, the Government fired its guns from the shoulders of reluctant service chiefs.
The Agnipath system has been debated as to whether it would meet service needs. With the first batch now nearing induction post training, any assessment could be premature. It is evident that with the introduction of Agniveers, the regimentation system, which was a major motivating factor, is likely to be history once Agniveers form the bulk of the army, in about a decade.
Reduction of force levels aimed at creating a lean and mean army, pushed without much thought by the Government, will not be effective without sufficient induction of technology, which is still some distance away. It was done arbitrarily by stopping recruitment on the pretext of COVID and reducing annual intake, both of which were undesirable.
The Galwan clash with occasional fisticuffs, as at Yangtse, as also permanent increased deployment, has enhanced tensions along the northern borders. This will continue as China displays no intent at resolving the issue. Pakistan faces economic and political turmoil, which is unlikely to end in the near future adding to security concerns. In this environment, there is a need to ensure that capability gaps are filled early. With the defence budget way below 2% of the GDP, with large sums being earmarked for salaries and pensions, the Government must reconsider its share for defence. With tensions likely to remain, closing the capability gap with China is essential.
The past nine years has witnessed enhancement in capabilities, commencement of theaterization and increased domestic defence production. There have also been rushed decisions including Agnipath and manpower reduction, which need to be monitored. Investment in R and D must increase if Aatmanirbhar Bharat has to succeed. However, a base has been created. Its continuation by future Governments is essential.
The author is Major General (Retd)