Rajnath Singh Must Revive Defence Ministry Through Political Will
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.(Photo: Shruti Mathur / The Quint)

Rajnath Singh Must Revive Defence Ministry Through Political Will

To run the Union Defence Ministry effectively, its new Minister Rajnath Singh needs to first reform it. This is not something unique to him. This axiom has been true of the ministry for the past two decades, as India’s defence capacities have suffered relative decline and their modernisation has lagged by more than a decade and a half.

To conduct the deep surgery and reconstruction needed, Rajnath Singh does not need personal expertise, since in our Parliamentary system a minister need not be an expert in anything. But what he has to have is a native shrewdness in cutting through the thick bureaucratic cobwebs that envelop the ministry, and the support of his prime minister in undertaking a process that will inevitably require the knocking together of a lot of heads.

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A Case of ‘Benign Neglect’

In Modi’s first term, the Ministry suffered from ‘benign neglect’, even though the IIT-educated Manohar Parrikar was initially touted as the best medicine for the ailing giant ministry. Budgetary outlays, as a percentage of the GDP steadily declined. Nirmala Sitharaman was too much of a political lightweight to manage the task and she did not even try. Instead, she farmed it out to the National Security Adviser who took charge of a Defence Planning Committee to virtually run the ministry and the armed forces. What the DPC has done since is not clear, but it has not begun to even dent the problems the ministry confronts.

This is a truly sprawling ministry with an annual budget of more than Rs 4 lakh crore which not only runs the 1.3 million strong military, 0.5 million civilians, but also some 8 public sector units like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd or the Mazagon Dockyards Ltd, but 42 ordnance factories, 52 laboratories, dozens of associate organisations, training institutes and academic institutions.

Problem of Modernisation Plaguing All 3 Wings Of Armed Forces

This elephantine structure is effective in defending the territorial boundaries of India, not only because an external attack on them is improbable, but because India has nuclear weapons to deter potential attackers. But it is no good for fighting beyond the immediate territorial limits. The ability to carry war into the adversary’s territory is important because the eventual aim of any combat is to prevent destruction in the homeland.

On paper, the Indian armed forces have been instructed to be able to deal with the possibility of war on two fronts, viz, against China and Pakistan. But there are many who doubt whether the forces have the ability to conduct even a one-front war.

The problem of modernisation has been dogging all three wings of the armed forces for some time now. Ill-conceived and poorly executed indigenous R&D and production programmes trigger acquisition delays which cannot be met by imports because of resource constraints.

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Budget: Only One Facet of Issues Dogging Defence Ministry

In 2018, a Vice Chief of the Army told the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence (PSCOD), “68 percent of our equipment is in the vintage category, with just about 24 percent in the current, and eight percent in the state of the art category.”

Defence takes up the second largest head of expenditure of the Union government, but despite this, there are key gap in submarines, fighter aircraft, artillery, to name but a few high-value systems. Worse still, defence pensions, though not officially counted as part of the Budget, exceed the salary and allowances bill of the three services, as well as the money the three services have to buy new equipment. The Union government already spends more than one-third of its total capital outlay in a year on defence. So, finding more money is not an option, especially for a government that has a vast social welfare agenda.

Budgetary issues are only one facet of the problems confronting the ministry. The other is the relationship between the civilian and non-expert Ministry of Defence and the armed forces which require even greater doses of technology and managerial ability.

There are two big issues here: 1) the entry of uniformed expertise into the civilian Ministry of Defence, and 2) the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who would lead the process of integration of the armed forces  and prioritise their acquisitions.

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Greater Integration Of the 3 Wings of Armed Forces Needed

Most defence ministries in the world have a substantial level of uniformed personnel who provide expertise on matters of procurement and policy. But in India, the government rules mandate that the armed forces are merely ‘attached offices’ of the ministry and have no role in policy-making or running the ministry itself. After calls for change especially through the Group of Ministers(GoM) who proposed a slew of reforms in 2001, the ministry claimed it had integrated the armed forces into the ministry by merely re-labeling the armed forces headquarters as ‘Integrated Headquarters Ministry of Defence, Navy’ or ‘Air Force’ or ‘Army’. Fixing the arcane Transaction of Business Rules (TOBR) of the government would be an important step in changing this state of affairs.

The GoM 2001 report also observed that, “The functioning of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) has to date revealed serious weaknesses in its ability to provide single-point military advice to the government and resolve substantive inter-service doctrinal, planning, policy and operational issues adequately.” Yet, this position remains unchanged today.

A Chief of Defence Staff figure would be the go-to person for the government when seeking to adjudicate issues that relate to two services. He would be put in charge of joint-planning and author the joint defence strategy, handle ‘out of area’ contingencies,  command existing tri-service institutions and shape future theatre commands.

Multiple committees since the 1990s have argued for a greater integration of the three wings of the armed forces under a CDS-like figure, the most recent being the Shekatkar committee appointed by the previous Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar. But there has been no movement.

Challenges Ahead For Rajnath Singh

Integration is important because of the nature of modern warfare where ICT is fusing sensors and connecting them seamlessly. To exploit their advantages, and to prevent adversaries from exploiting the chinks in our armour, there is need for integrated approaches to war fighting. In our system where there is little integration, there is, instead, a lot of duplication. Besides savings through integration, there is need for better manpower planning—redistributing numbers between the Army and other services, ensuring recruitment methods which will reduce the humongous pension bill,

Carrying out these reforms can never be easy, but there must be a start.

The political class does not lack in advice. Besides the 2001 GoM report, they have the Naresh Chandra Task Force Report of 2012 which already provides the road map for the reforms. There is no shortage of advice; what has been missing is political will. Let’s see if Rajnath Singh can summon it.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow Observer Research Foundation and a member of Naresh Chandra Task Force on Defence Reforms. 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.)

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