The Priority List For Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman
Nirmala Sitharaman has limited time and less political clout as far as implementing defence reforms is concerned. 
Nirmala Sitharaman has limited time and less political clout as far as implementing defence reforms is concerned.  (Photo: Harsh Sahani/The Quint)

The Priority List For Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman

Nirmala Sitharaman’s elevation as the Union Minister of Defence was met with deserved applause for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, more predictably, a spate of news stories highlighting the “gimme” attitude of the military, with each armed service pitching its own set of wants.

Television channels, meanwhile, indulged in symbolism, portraying her as a strappy, no-nonsense ‘Durga’, presumably, ready to lay waste adversaries. There are the Mahishasuras to slay, many of them, she’ll find lurking in her own ministry and in the military. That should keep her busy for a long time.

Also Read: Sitharaman Will Have to Grapple With Urgent Reforms in Defence Min

But, hopefully, Sitharaman will bring to her job the attributes that high-achievers of her gender are justly appreciated for – practical good sense, capacity for multi-tasking, and natural tact to make the demons smile even as she sticks the Trishul into them.

Firstly, the new defence minister has to inoculate herself against being overwhelmed and beguiled by technical jargon, minutiae and military pressure – all of which can get brains to freeze, as has regularly happened with her predecessors.

Secondly, she needs to set her goal. Does she mean to be transformational, or merely fill a South Block ministerial chair?

If transformation is what she has in her mind then it will require her to radically change the way the Ministry of Defence and the Indian military think, prioritise, and make decisions.

She’ll be upending a hoary system that, astonishingly, has been persisting despite routinely making the wrong choices, misusing scarce national resources, and digging the country ever deeper into a strategic hole.

It will require her to stomp and repeatedly on a whole bunch of very big toes. But the rewards of doing so for national security in the medium and long term will be immense.

Also Read: Can Nirmala Sitharaman Be a Game-Changer for Defence Ministry?

Thirdly, Sitharaman needs to rejig the policy-making scheme to reform the functioning of the senior bureaucrats in her ministry as well as senior armed services officers she will be dealing with. The Government of India, as she’s well aware, follows a quaint tradition of civil servants making policy by defining the policy choices for the minister, thereby reducing their political bosses to ciphers.

Articulating policy is solely the minister’s task, and she will have to assert this prerogative, see to it that it is implemented within the time-frame that she sets.

Also Read: A Five-Point Agenda For Sitharaman As India’s Defence Minister

She will have to hold the civilian officials and uniformed officers up and down the implementation loop, starting with the Defence Secretary, accountable for failure to achieve targets, shortfalls, and lapses.

She would benefit from specialist advice and consider for this purpose having outside experts – not retired babus and the like – whose expertise she can tap. The premise here is the Ministry of Defence civil servants are mostly generalists, lack the technical expertise to render any counsel, leave alone write up policy choices.

And, in this respect, to rely on technically competent military men may be to risk getting advice that is influenced by parochial service and combat arm biases.

Fourthly, this necessitates the Minister getting two policy fundamentals right.

Also Read: Nirmala Sitharaman’s Journey: From JNU to Defence Ministry

Should China or Pakistan Be the Main Threat to Orient the Military?

If she believes the latter poses the greater peril, she can save herself a lot of bother and carry on with the system in place.

Additionally, if she believes that self-sufficiency-wise the country is doing fine by importing capital weapons platforms where it can and, where it must, cutting deals for assembling foreign weapons systems or manufacturing them under license, albeit mouthing ‘Make in India’ rhetoric, then the Minister needs to do nothing at all.

The existing defence public sector units-dominated defence industry specialising in screwdriver technology can keep chugging.

Also Read: Old Video of Nirmala Sitharaman Making Mango Pickle Has Gone Viral

If on the other hand, Sitharaman views China as the primary threat and feels that the wasteful habit of importing armaments is not the answer, not even in the short term, then the following are the priorities for her to consider.

1. Three Offensive Mountain Corps

The Doklam episode ended well this time around. But to deter China from using massive blunt force in the future, the desperate need is for three offensive mountain corps, each with an armoured division. The resources can be obtained by rationalising the present three strike corps into a single, large, composite corps for any Pakistan contingency because ‘Cold Start’ realistically is a ‘No Start’ strategy, and shifting the freed up human and material resources to speedily raise two additional offensive mountain corps, to enable taking the fight to the People's Liberation Army on the Tibetan plateau.

2. Indigenous Submarines

Project 75i to build yet another foreign diesel submarine from imported design makes no sense when a basic design by the submarine design directorate in the Indian Navy is available to work on, and an Indian company, Larsen & Toubro, has successfully constructed the far more technically demanding titanium-hulled Arihant-class nuclear-powered submarine.

The contract with the selected foreign ‘strategic partner’ could then be restricted to jointly translating the Indian navy design into engineering drawings and to fill other specific design and technology deficiencies.

3. Bigger Role For The Tejas

The Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) has progressed sufficiently to now outfit squadrons of the Indian Air Force. Except that HAL capacity is not enough for rapid augmentation of the Tejas aircraft in the fleet.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation or the Aeronautical Development Agency should be instructed to fully transfer light combat aircraft technologies, including source codes, to two select private sector companies, with HAL retaining production rights as well.

It will increase competition, labour productivity all round, and guarantee quality control. Also, The Indian Air Force should be made fully responsible for the LCA project and the follow-on advanced multi-role combat aircraft program. The defence minister should also order the IAF order-of-battle to comprise three types of aircraft – LCA/AMCA, Su-30, and FGFA (with Russia only, because no other country will collaborate on such a venture).

The Navy’s Request for Information for carrier aircraft should be terminated, and the naval variant of Tejas fast-tracked for carrier operations under the Navy’s direct supervision.

4. Indigenous Hardware

Hereafter, all major hardware should be indigenously designed, developed and produced in “mission mode” without debilitating requirements of L-1 “lowest tender”, etc. which have to-date undermined plans to make the nation self-sufficient in arms.

“Mission mode” is the principal reason, Sitharaman may recall, for the success garnered by all the indigenous strategic military programmes – nuclear weapons, the Agni series of ballistic missiles, and the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.

Further, all arms production should be shared with the private sector companies who, like the defence PSUs, should be free to export derated versions of all the products they make to generate revenue and amortize investment.

5. New Generation Brahmos

The Brahmos supersonic cruise missile is the weapon China fears most.A new generation smaller, lighter, Brahmos has been designed by the Russians.

This should now be produced, like the LCA, by farming out its manufacturing to several private sector firms, besides the Brahmos Aerospace defence PSU, so that large numbers of this newer, more lethal, missile in all its variants including the air-launched new generation version, is available more quickly to outfit Indian forces and for accelerated exports to countries on China’s periphery to keep Beijing quiet.

Finally, in league with Sushma Swaraj in the Ministry of External Affairs, Sitharaman should push in the Cabinet Committee on Security for establishing and operationalising full-fledged military bases – with the cost shared between the two ministries – in our own Andaman territories in Campbell Bay and Komorta, in North and South Agalega Islands in Mauritius, in the Seychelles, Na Thrang on the central Vietnamese coast, and on the northern Mozambique coast, as a means of enhancing the country’s diplomatic reach and political clout.

The capability for distant military operations will ensure that at a minimum the extended Indian Ocean is India’s lake.

(Bharat Karnad is a professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, author most recently of Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(This piece was first published on BloombergQuint and has been republished with permission)

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