Nirmala Sitharaman’s recent appointment as defence minister is indeed welcome news, though she has only about 16 effective months in office, till December 2018, because after that politicians will be in “poll mode” till the crucial 2019 general election. There were mixed responses to her appointment – that she was the “right person for the job, but has very little time to do anything important, given the long lead times of major defence shortcomings”; and that she had been put there by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to create more openings for women in the armed forces – basically in combat roles in the Army and serving on naval warships (with three women fighter pilots soon to be posed to the IAF’s SU-30 MKI squadrons). The day after she was appointed, an even before taking charge officially, the new Raksha Mantri was briefed at her residence by the three service chiefs while outgoing defence minister Arun Jaitley flew to Tokyo for a pre-arranged meeting with his Japanese counterpart. A number of suggestions have appeared in the media on what the new minister should do, with some even suggesting banning all imports, unmindful of its consequences given the looming external and internal security threats. Based on my 10 years’ service at Naval HQ and Coast Guard HQ, I would propose certain minimum steps and reforms that are essential and feasible in the 16 effective months available to Ms Sitharaman.
I am sure the top political and military leadership is fully aware that, notwithstanding the Doklam standoff between India and China ending on August 28 (though later reports indicated that troops on both sides had only withdrawn 150 metres each), and the subsequent successful Brics summit at Xiamen, China, on September 3-5, with its declaration naming Pakistani terror groups, India shouldn’t get lulled into a false sense of security. China is totally preoccupied right now with the continuing crisis in the Korean peninsula, which got further aggravated with North Korea testing a 100- kiloton hydrogen bomb on September 3-4, thus stealing the limelight from President Xi’s Brics summit. Should the situation in the Korean peninsula cool down and the present status quo remains in the tension-filled disputed South and East China Seas, Beijing (fully aware that the Doklam standoff had raised New Delhi’s stature globally) may well be tempted to “teach India a lesson” through a “limited military intrusion” along the disputed 4,000-km Line of Actual Control after the winter snows melt by April 2018, that could escalate into a war. India’s Army Chief has, in fact, warned that China’s “salami-slicing land grab tactics” on Indian territory, along with Pakistan’s implacable hostility, could lead to a two-front war.
China would also be aware of the reports in the Indian media, quoting a CAG report, that the Indian Army has ammunition only for eight to 10 days of “intense fighting”, against the need to have stocks for at least 40 days of intense fighting. The only way to deter such a scenario is for Ms Sitharaman to give top priority to making up the acute shortages in not only ammunition but also spare parts for the Army, Navy and Air Force. Having personally seen this while serving at the Naval HQ during the 1999 Kargil war and the December 2001 post-Parliament attack standoff with Pakistan, I can vouch that this is a major task, will also involve imports of ammunition and spare parts, and may require action beyond what the press reported as “authorising the three service vice-chiefs to purchase emergency needs”. The strategic roads and other infrastructure along the LAC with China is years behind schedule and desperately needs a new results-oriented leadership.
The second key priority for the new defence minister is to finalise, ideally by December 2018, the long-awaited reforms badly needed by the MoD itself and its arms like DRDO, HAL, Public Shipyards, ordinance factories and the like. The three service headquarters need to be fully integrated with the MoD, and the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) created, preferably with five-star rank (that would put him a run above the three chiefs, of four-star rank). The CDS should be the sole adviser on military matters to the defence minister and to the Cabinet Committee on Security whenever required. The CDS should also take direct charge of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which operates our nuclear deterrent when so ordered by the Prime Minister, who heads the Nuclear Command Authority. After the CDS is in place, the next government, after the 2019 elections, could consider implementation of Joint Theatre Commands, akin to what the Americans and the Chinese already have (as explained in my article in this newspaper onAugust 7). In addition, India’s defence PSUs, to further indigenisation, should have professional result-oriented CEOs; while the much-touted “Make in India” partnership of PSUs, the Indian private sector and foreign defence manufacturers must be given a boost by the defence minister as nothing has happened in critical areas like Project 75(i) submarines, Mine Counter-Measures Vessels, the aircraft-carrier Vikrant being built at the Kochi shipyard is almost nine years overdue and needs fighter jets by 2021 on commissioning , while all the three services face acute shortages of helicopters.
The Air Force needs over 200 fighter jets, beyond the 20+83 LCA Mk-1 jets ordered (building at the rate of six to eight aircraft a year, increasing to 16 per year by 2019). Obviously, increasing LCA Mk-1 and later LCA Mk-2 production rate is vital, but some “Make in India” fighter jets for the Air Force and Navy is unavoidable. The indigenisation of the Army’s 155 mm artillery guns is proceeding at a snail’s pace while there are indications that the indigenous Akash surface-to-air missiles with 25-km range have serious reliability problems, with high failure rates, while our ordinance factories can’t even make a suitable rifle for our soldiers. The time has come for the new defence minister to sack a few non-performers and bring in some professionals who will ensure results and quality control. Finally, the military needs to play amuch greater role in indigenisation. The Navy has succeeded as it created a new cadre of submarine and ship designers over 60 years ago and is reaping the benefit of highly-trained designers, engineers and electronic experts working in DRDO-sponsored projects, with almost 95 per cent participation in the ATV nuclear submarine project and 70 per cent participation in “Systems and Weapons Integration Projects”.
Post-retirement, most of these highly-trained specialists work in shipyards, and private sector giants like Tata, Larsen & Toubro, etc. Ms Sitharaman, will do a great service to the nation if she can get the Army and IAF to emulate the Navy, set up a Directorate of Indigenisation, Weapon and Platform (Aircraft, Tanks, Artillery, etc) design teams at Army and Air Headquarters, and set up an organisation like the Navy has to coordinate directly with the private and public sectors industries to procure India-made equipment. To conclude, the new defence minister needs to ensure India makes up its known shortcomings and is capable of deterring any misadventure by China and Pakistan by April 2018, kickstart long-pending manufacture of submarines, aircraft and guns, carry out much-needed military reforms, give a greater push to indigenisation and “Make in India”, while finding competent people to head DRDO, HAL and similar bodies, and to induct an Indian-made 7.62 mm rifle for the Indian soldier before December 2018. All other issues can be pursued by the next government after the 2019 general election.