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Changing dynamics in defence

Thursday, 16 March 2017 | Pravin Sawhney | in Oped

Given that the constitutional authority for India’s defence rests with the civilian Defence Secretary, his own political weightlessness and little experience of working with a complex bureaucracy, his tendency to speak more than he should, Parrikar seems delighted with the demotion

Contrary to media reports, Manohar Parrikar leaves behind few challenges for his successor in the Defence Ministry since ironically, as the Union Defence Minister, he had little say in addressing them himself. His successor — perceived to be close to the Prime Minister — Union Minister for Finance Arun Jaitley might be able to deliver more.

Parrikar came to office with numerous handicaps — not many of his own making. Given that the constitutional authority for India’s defence rests with the civilian defence secretary, the de facto authority with the National Security Advisor (NSA), his own political weightlessness and little experience of working with the complex Union Government bureaucracy, and his tendency to speak more than he should, Parrikar seems delighted with the demotion — from Union Defence Minister, who is member of the Central Committee on Security headed by the Prime Minister to the Chief Minister of Goa once more. He was simply a round peg in a square hole since his political exuberance was stifled in Delhi.

The actual power centres for defence in India are two: The Defence Secretary and the NSA who work closely. Under the 1961 Government of India allocation of Business Rules and Transaction of Business Rules, the defence secretary and not the Defence Minister is responsible for India’s defence. Given this, while the five departments of the defence Ministry — namely, department of defence, department of research and development, department of production and supplies, department of finance and the integrated defence headquarters — and three integrated headquarters of the three defence services report to the Defence Minister, his authority is more notional than real. Actual work depends upon how the defence bureaucracy views matters.

The NSA’s post, created after the 1998 nuclear tests, draws its authority from three aspects. One, since the NSA knows India’s nuclear weapons’ — perceived to provide deterrence — capability and capacity, he defines threats and influences conventional war procurements. Two, being a part of the Prime Minister Office, he is the most accessible advisor to the Prime Minister on defence matters. And three, since the Modi Government gives weightage to political considerations for defence procurements, he inspires purchases.

Let’s assess the threats, procurements to meet those threats, and Higher Defence Management (HDM) changes needed to optimally utilise procurements to deter and if it fails, to fight threats.

India, it seems, has two threats to its integrity; neither has been identified with the Defence Minister’s participation. The first and the bigger is from terrorism — unleashed by Pakistan’s deep state, and the Islamic State which reportedly has got India on its radar. Since the NSA has assessed this threat, the Army chief, General Bipin Rawat, who specialises in counter-insurgency operations, was chosen by superseding two officers to lead the 13-lakh Army. Given this, the Army’s leadership is committed in terms of procurements, training and mind-set to thwart this threat. The Navy too is focussed on this threat with the Air Force keenly seeking a role in these small wars.

The other threat is from the two military lines — with Pakistan and China — that cannot be wished away. This has been left to the three defence services’ chiefs, who have assessed it as a two-front war possibility. All that the Defence Minister has done is to rubber-stamp the threats as his operational directive to the defence services. To foil these threats, the defence services have devised their force levels (needed manpower and equipment), war-fighting doctrines and procurements list. This has been done mindless of whether finite defence budgets can support massive manpower expansions and huge foreign equipment buys since India's own defence industry does not inspire much confidence.

The procurements are made by active participation of the NSA and the defence secretary; here too the defence Minister has minimal say. Since procurements should be under the Make in India policy, it needed a new Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) for foreign and domestic industry participation. Having come from a small State, Parrikar — in whose name the DPP was to be framed — in his child-like enthusiasm announced the DPP release date a few times. He was unaware that the bureaucracy, which wants full control over domestic industry, would make defining “Strategic Partnership” clause of the DPP unrealisable. Without this, Make in India would not happen since the foreign companies are required to tie-up with the Indian Strategic Partners. The answer then was in direct Government-to-Government buys where the NSA is in the position to influence selection.

While the threats are identified and procurements made under the defence Minister’s name, there is little to show Parrikar’s involvement in either. The least he could have done was to ensure that Make in India worked by insisting that both indigenous public and private defence industry be treated at par as national assets; that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) implement reforms as suggested under the Rama Rao committee; that public sector industry adhere to time and cost lines; that bought foreign technology is not passed on as indigenous; and that the services ensure desired availability of war wastage reserves (for fighting conventional war). Parrikar did nothing of this. However, to be fair to him, perhaps he could not do much.

The story regarding HDM reforms is no different. The basic purpose of these reforms is to strengthen the operational or war-fighting level of conventional war. And the least this requires is not a military tri-service leader — whether a Chief of Defence Staff or a Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee — on the top, or theatre commands, but an understanding by the defence services of their own and other service’s core competencies. The latter is essential for developing credible joint operations for successful war-fighting. This, however, takes years through staff and field postings at all levels within the services to master. Parrikar could have started this, provided someone would have told him. With the military leadership concentrated on winning counter-insurgency operations and in planning surgical strike contingencies, they would not have had the time.

What did Parrikar do that would be the minimum expected of his successor? Given the Government’s policy of Act East and Think West, the Defence Minister is required to travel to friendly nations to sign security and defence agreements. He also has numerous ceremonial functions of the services’ to inaugurate, a couple of book launches to attend, and of course to interact with the media periodically. In Parrikar’s case, he took the Def Expo-2016 from Delhi to Goa, an event that for all wrong reasons would remain etched in participants’ memory for long.

Without adequate infrastructure, this was a humongous task to perform. All this is not to make light of Parrikar’s tenure, but to highlight that a dynamic politician was wasted away in Delhi. Little wonder, he grabbed the first opportunity to return to Goa.

(The writer is editor, FORCE newsmagazine)