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Looking ahead to 2015: Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has his task cut out

Updated: Jan 15, 2015, 01:35 AM IST

Manisha Singh

Not to undermine the capabilities of the current Finance Minister Arun Jaitley but India needed a full-time defence minister. And so when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is his first Cabinet reshuffle in November since he took over in May 2014, appointed the former Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar as the country’s defence minister it was hailed by all.

After all Parrikar was known to be hard-working, decisive, with administrative acumen and personal integrity. It’s been almost two months in the job for him and though the Defence Minister may have started on a good note with right sound bites as far as Pakistan is concerned and some big decisions as far as weapons acquisitions are concerned, there is still much to be done.

Report after report has indicated that India is not ‘war-ready’ and there are gaping holes in the country's defence system. Sample some of them - the Indian Army has not purchased modern artillery guns in more than two decades or since the Bofors guns in the late 1980s. There have also been appalling reports of lack of basic equipment for the men in uniform who fight at the border and elsewhere in difficult conditions. And accidents in Navy’s submarines and vessels have been making international headlines.

Plus, India has an aging fighter aircraft fleet with MiG-21s crashing every now and then - the crash of IAF’s Rs 1,000 crore C-130J Super Hercules also raised questions about training and maintenance. The multi-billion dollar contract for 126 Rafale fighter aircraft has still not gone through and if it fails then India may look at the option of buying more Russian-made Sukhoi-30 MKI.

Thus, modernising the country’s armed forces, clearing long-pending projects and giving fillip to indigenous weapons production are probably three of Parrikar’s biggest challenges. It is said that just modernizing the artillery will cost somewhere around Rs 30,000 crore for the government. If at all, it’s a race against time for Parrikar, given the fact that China is adding to its arsenal at an alarming pace and India is no match to its war capabilities. This is not to say that the Modi government should join an ‘arms race’ but the country also cannot be in a state where another defence minister once again writes to the PM saying that India’s defence preparedness is below par.

It may be recalled that in March 2012, the then Army chief VK Singh, now a minister in the NDA government, had written to the then PM Manmohan Singh, highlighting the critical shortage of ammunition and equipment in artillery and armoured regiments, indicating that India’s security may be at risk. One can say that Singh’s letter only brought out in public what the men in uniform must have known for years.

One can also say that by and large not much has changed since then. Given the context the recent clearing of a big proposal for modernisation of the Army’s artillery arsenal with the proposed acquisition of 814 artillery guns (155 mm) worth Rs 15,750 crore by Parrikar, among other things, is sure a welcome step. Of the 814 artillery guns, 100 will reportedly be acquired from the original manufacturer while the remaining 714 will be manufactured in India under technology transfer.

Before this, when Jaitley was handling defence portfolio, he had also cleared a slew of proposals which included building six new stealth submarines with foreign collaboration in India, deals for anti-tank guided missiles, midget submarines for special covert operations, Dornier aircraft and Russian Uran missiles for warships and so on. A deal between Tatas and French aircraft giant Airbus to manufacture transport planes for the defence sector was also given the green signal and one can only say that all this was long overdue.

As per one report, India will likely spend more than 260 billion dollars on military purchases in the next 10 to 12 years. And another report said that if Modi government is able to push the ‘Make in India’ model then at least 50 billion dollars could be saved. The present government wants private sector to acquire technology from foreign companies and set up joint ventures in the country, with foreign manufacturers being allowed to own as much as 49 percent.

However, ‘Make in India’ is long haul and requires patience. But it needs to be done if India wants to shed the tag of being the world’s largest weapons importer. Heavy reliance on imports in the past has left defence procurements at the mercy of the exchange rate and in the previous regime several acquisitions had to be put on hold due to this reason. 

When Parrikar took over as Defence Minister he had promised quick and transparent decisions on defence acquisitions. He had also said that changes would be made to the Defence Procurement Policy and company representatives would be allowed but commission, or percentage of profit for the deals, would not be allowed. This is another area of concern and the recent AgustaWestland helicopters scam or the Tatra trucks scam is a case in point. Not to sympathise with former defence minister but AK Antony had almost stopped ordering equipment for fear of kickbacks and bribery. Corruption in defence contracts has to be dealt with iron-fist and now is the time for Parrikar to walk the talk. Moreover, the bureaucracy probably too needs to be streamlined and the military also probably needs to be more involved in decision-making.

The other challenge for Parrikar is one which has been a thorn for India for decades – Pakistan. When PM Modi came to power, he did extend an olive branch to Pakistan by inviting Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony. But Pakistan had other ideas and since then till now the aggression by them on the border has been a test for the BJP-led government. And though Parrikar has told the Indian forces to pay Pakistan back in double, he will have to think of ways to keep them on a tight leash.

Also, there is no respite to India from another of its neighbour either with whom it shares some 2,500 km border - China. Chinese incursions in Ladakh have been a major cause of worry for India to say the least. The fact that Chinese forces were reportedly continuing with their aggressive ways even when their President, Xi Jinping, was visiting India speaks volumes of the kind of neighbour that one is dealing with.

Not to forget the sensational article published by state-owned Chinese daily Wenweipo in 2013 titled, ‘Six wars China is sure to fight in the next 50 years’, according to which the dragon country’s third war would be against India over Arunachal Pradesh and which will be fought sometime between 2035 and 40. In such a scenario, Parrikar will have to ensure that his forces are ready to thwart off any attempt by China to make inroads into the Indian territory.

And for all of this, the defence budget probably will need to be upped. As of now it is said to be 1.8 percent of India’s GDP. In comparison the annual defence expenditure of China is 2.5 percent of the GDP. Thus, while all the ministries and departments have their own importance, there is no doubt that the Defence Ministry is right there at the top and decisions concerning it have to be taken in context of the country’s present realities as well as changing dynamics in the neighbourhood.

We’ll have to wait a bit to see whether Manohar Parrikar can do all of the above and whether he is the right man for the job but as of now, he has his task more than cut out for him.

(This article is first in the 'Looking ahead to 2015' series.)