Nirmala Sitharaman’s ‘modernisation’ drive must go beyond buying big weapons systems

Nirmala Sitharaman shouldn't just focus on big weapons purchases but improving the defence forces as well
Nirmala Sitharaman meets with the chiefs of the defence forces | Source: @rakshamantri

Even as India continues its big-ticket weapon buying spree, new Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman must address the key question of the soldier behind the machine, and the structure behind the soldier.

Nirmala Sitharaman’s elevation brought back to mind another image from 2008. In casual chinos, no headgear, and no marching steps, the image of late Spanish Defence Minister Carme Chacón inspecting the troops in Lebanon and Afghanistan. The officers and troops were in combat camouflage, she wore chinos. And she was seven months pregnant, which made as much news as the gender of the minister.

But that is really where the gender debate ceases, and governance begins. That is the biggest challenge before the new Raksha Mantri. She will be meeting the three chiefs every day, as it was announced. Other than saying Raksha Mantri Ma’am, and not sir as they are akin too, the agenda remains as complex, challenging, and exciting as it always was.

But as with all agendas, the big ticket items grab the most attention. Unless the rules of the game are changed, the headlines will remain all about modern machinery.

The expectation from every Raksha Mantri is to address the ‘modernisation’ of the armed forces. Obsolescence of equipment is the most touted discussion point when it comes to matters of defence. It has been so since the first Gulf War changed how a conventional war would be fought in future. Militaries and their ministries all over the world raced to play catch up.

That race is still on, even as the complexities of conflict continue to metamorphose. India took the easy route, and it continues down that path of equating ‘modernisation’ to mean smart machinery, and not smarter soldiers, sailors, airmen, led by smarter command and control structures. Images of high-tech weaponry began the purchase race, rather than a look at the man behind the machine, and the incredibly efficient and modern combat structures put in place to best use the equipment.

Even as India continues its buying spree, topping the world list, it has yet to address the key question of the soldier behind the machine, and the structure behind the soldier.

For India to play the big game, and eat at the high table, it needs to have the resources in place — intellectual, strategic, and structural. The Indian military thinking, planning and resource allocation is geared toward local contingencies, and ‘aid to civil authority’. It is not aimed at taking the big stride across regions. For that to happen India’s military needs to re-orient it’s training syllabi. The lowest in the ranks also needs to be prepared for playing on the big stage, with the command structure geared toward out-of-area contingencies, rather than simply neighbourhood focused operations.

All of which comes down to addressing the basic question of the structure of the Ministry of Defence. Even as India’s security environment, internal as well external, evolved into greater complexity, the structure and functioning of the MoD remain as they were when it was first created. The argument isn’t simply over financial control, as many military bureaucrats would like to paint, but over the larger issue of decision making and implementation. The turf war between the civilian and military bureaucracy needs to be addressed as an immediate imperative.

Since the headlines are always about the next big ticket item to be purchased, this turf war continues apace. As does the jockeying between the three services for pole position. Each is as important as the other, and each has to share resources to make national security more secure. And there is no greater resource to share than the soldier, the sailor and the airman.

But jointmanship is avoided despite the military world pointing in that direction. India’s military continues to plan and structure their operations in silos, rather than jointly. Jointmanship means the curtailing of military empires, whereas the current service bureaucracy is designed to precisely expand its empire. That expansion has cost India greatly over the years.

So much so that it is said that India’s big ticket weapon purchase obsession is directly proportional to the display value it brings to the annual Republic Day parade. It is always the big aircraft, tanks, missiles et al. While none of the Ashok Chakra awardees announced during the parade have ever used that equipment, or would need it in future. The nature of conflict continues to evolve with insurgency being the primary source of concern. It is likely to remain that way, daisy cutter in the arsenal or not.

That soldier sitting in an ambush, or in a post facing China is in more dire need of ‘modernisation’ than the next big aircraft, single- or double-engined. The word “modernisation” must undergo a perceptional shift. Command and control structures behind that ambush and that post are what should become the primary focus of the new Raksha Mantri Ma’am.

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