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Rajnath Singh must look beyond ‘feel-good’ booklets. MoD lists reforms but quiet on threats

2020 has been a momentous year for policy decisions with respect to defence reforms. The challenge will lie in execution.

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On 7 June 2021, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh released an e-booklet — ‘20 Reforms in 2020’ — in presence of the top brass of the military and the Ministry of Defence. In his address, he termed the e-booklet a reflection of the resolve of the government to make the defence sector stronger and more efficient, and expressed the hope that the reforms undertaken would make India a global powerhouse in the defence sector in the years to come.

The aim of the reforms is vaguely mentioned “to bring about greater cohesion and modernisation of the armed forces through policy changes, innovation and digital transformation.” Notable reforms mentioned in the booklet are:  appointment of Chief of Defence Staff and creation of Department of Military Affairs for tri-service integration and synergy with the MoD; crystallisation of policy on Aatmanirbhar Bharat to achieve self-sufficiency in defence, including creation of a military industrial complex;  transformation of R&D; introduction of Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 to streamline  procurement with focus on indigenisation; increase in defence budget; policy to boost defence exports; strengthening of border infrastructure; defence diplomacy; and a host of policy decisions and executive actions like increased participation of women in defence, digitisation of various departments, expansion and reforms of NCC and assisting the nation in fight against Covid.

The year 2020 has been momentous for policy decisions with respect to defence reforms. The challenge will lie in execution. Also, the reforms seem to be incremental in nature to make the existing system function better. What is missing though is holistic and cohesive national security  strategy driven transformation of the armed forces and the defence industrial complex to fight the wars and conflicts of the 21st century.

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National security strategy

The MoD booklet remains silent on a strategic review and the derived national security strategy. What are the security threats we are likely to face in the next 15-20 years? What kind of armed forces do we require to cater for them? What is the state of our economy and how much can we spend on defence? Unless we envision the answer to these questions, we will continue to reform and arm to fight the wars of the last century.

The National Security Advisor as chairperson of the Defence Planning Committee, who reports to the defence minister, was vested with the responsibility to evolve a national security strategy in 2018. That there was no mention of it in the booklet, is indicative of the fact we still continue to adopt a functional strategy without a long-term vision. Consequently, we will continue to reform and arm without an aim as caustically highlighted by Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta in their bookArming without Aiming: Indias Military Modernisation.

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The appointment of CDS and creation of DMA on 1 January 2020 was a path-breaking reform. While the integration of the three services and creation of the theatre commands requires a long gestation period, a year-and-a-half was adequate to streamline the ambiguity in the charter of the CDS, defence secretary and service chiefs.

The defence secretary, who heads the Department of Defence (DoD), as per Allocation of Business Rules, Government of India, is responsible for “Defence of India and every part thereof including defence policy and preparation for defence and all such acts as may be conducive in times of war to its prosecution and after its termination to effective demobilisation.” Logically, it should now be the CDS.

The DoD continues to be responsible for “Capital Acquisitions exclusive to the Defence Services.” The DMA is only responsible for “Procurement exclusive to the Services except capital acquisitions, as per prevalent rules and procedures.”

There is a strong case for the DMA and DoD to amalgamate. The defence secretary must either function under the CDS or become part of defence minister’s secretariat. Unless the Allocation of Business Rules are changed in letter and spirit, the military–bureaucracy rivalry is likely to scuttle this radical reform.

At present, the CDS has no command responsibility, including over the three service chiefs. As the tri/bi-service theatre commands come into being, the government will have to take a decision in this regard. National Air Defence Command and the Maritime Theatre Command are likely to come up in the near future. In the US, the theatre commands directly operate under the president/defence secretary, a model hardly suitable for India. In my view, there is no option but to make the CDS senior to the service chiefs, by appointment if not by rank, and the theatre commands must come under his command with appropriate restructuring of the Integrated Defence Staff by amalgamating the operations directorate of the three services with it.  The service chiefs must only administer and train their respective forces.

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Aatmanirbharta in defence

Atamnirbharta in defence is certainly a major step for achieving self-sufficiency in defence. Defence procurement has been streamlined through the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020. Policy on Promoting Indigenisation in Defence and Aerospace has been formulated. Positive Indigenisation List of 209 items, the import of which will be progressively banned, has been drawn up. 74 per cent FDI has been allowed in defence sector.

Corporatisation of the Ordnance Factory Board was approved by the cabinet on 16 June. Separate budgetary allocation of Rs 52,000 crore has been made for indigenous procurement.

However, the above policy and executive decisions will take a long time to fructify. The research and development, and technological base of the defence industry and the DRDO, as yet, is not ready for emerging technologies. Consequently, the rider of technologies designed and developed by the Indian defence industry or the DRDO with 50 per cent indigenous content with respect to an indigenous system is likely to be counterproductive. Until the research and development, and technological base of the defence industry and the DRDO improves, ‘Make in India’ with transfer of technology and specified indigenous content that can be progressively increased may be a better bet.

Corporatisation of the OFB has been announced but the modernisation of the seven new corporate entities will require huge investments. The same is true for the Defence Public Sector Undertakings. Also the new corporations will remain saddled with a unionised 70,000 strong workforce.

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Shrinking defence budget

The biggest problem for defence reforms is going to be the shrinking defence budget. The MoD booklet highlights a 10 per cent increase (claimed to be the highest in a decade) in the annual defence outlay for FY22.

However, the revised estimates of the last financial year have not been taken into account. The net increase is only Rs 3,266 crore. There is a yawning gap between the projections of the services and actual allocations. This was Rs 77,182 crore for capital expenditure and Rs 48,298 crore for revenue expenditure.

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Missing reforms

Surprisingly, there is no mention of restructuring and reorganising the armed forces to optimise their size. Our pay and pension bills are higher than our allocation for capital expenditure. Given the state of our economy and development expenditure, the defence budget is unlikely to increase in real terms in the foreseeable future. Modern conflict/wars require smaller and agile forces with high-end military technology.

In eastern Ladakh, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed approximately six combined arms brigades. To counter them, we had to deploy nearly four divisions with 12 brigades. That is the difference technology makes in modern conflict.

To sum up, there is no doubt that the MoD has taken a number of major policy initiatives to reform and modernise the armed forces and defence production. However, the reforms are not holistic and cohesive as they do not flow out from a national security strategy for conflict/wars of future. There is also a mismatch between the intent and the defence budget. It would be prudent for the defence minister to formalise an all-encompassing cohesive strategy matched with budget projections for transformation of the armed forces and the defence industrial complex with pragmatic timelines rather than bring out ‘feel-good’ booklets highlighting standalone reforms.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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