Rajnath Singh has to look beyond “feel good brochures”. MoD lists reforms, but remains silent on threats


Defense Minister Rajnath Singh with top commanders of the Indian Air Force on April 15, 2021 | Twitter | Snehesh Philip

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ÖOn June 7, 2021, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh published an e-booklet entitled “20 Reforms in 2020” in the presence of top military officials and the Department of Defense. In his address, he referred to the e-booklet as an expression of the government’s determination to strengthen the defense sector and make it more efficient, and expressed the hope that the reforms underway will make India a global force in the defense sector in the years to come.

The aim of the reforms is vaguely named “to bring about greater cohesion and modernization of the armed forces through policy change, innovation and digital transformation”. Notable reforms mentioned in the brochure include: appointment of the Chief of Defense Staff and creation of a Military Affairs Division for the integration of three services and synergies with the Ministry of Defense; Specifying policy on Aatmanirbhar Bharat to achieve self-sufficiency in defense, including the creation of a military-industrial complex; Transforming R&D; Introduce the Defense Procurement Process 2020 to streamline procurement with a focus on indigenization; Increase in the defense budget; Policy to promote arms exports; Strengthening the border infrastructure; Defense diplomacy; and a variety of political decisions and executive measures such as increasing the participation of women in defense, digitizing various departments, expanding and reforming the NCC, and supporting the nation in the fight against Covid.

2020 was a significant year for policy decisions related to defense reforms. The challenge will be in the execution. In addition, the reforms appear to be incremental in nature to improve the functioning of the existing system. What is missing, however, is a holistic and coherent transformation of the armed forces and the defense industrial complex, driven by the national security strategy, in order to combat the wars and conflicts of the 21st century.

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National security strategy

The MoD booklet is silent on a strategic review and the national security strategy derived from it. What security threats are we likely to encounter in the next 15-20 years? What armed forces do we need to supply them? How is our economy doing and how much can we spend on defense? If we do not think of an answer to these questions, we will continue to reform and arm ourselves to fight the wars of the last century.

The National Security Advisor, as chairman of the Defense Planning Committee, which reports to the Defense Minister, was entrusted with drawing up a national security strategy in 2018. The fact that it was not mentioned in the brochure is an indication that we are continuing to pursue a functional strategy with no long-term vision. As a result, we will continue to aimlessly reform and arm, as Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta pointed out acutely in their book – Arming without aiming: Indias military modernization.

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The appointment of CDS and the establishment of DMA on January 1, 2020 was a pioneering reform. While the integration of the three services and the creation of the theater commands required a long period of wear, a year and a half were sufficient to clear up the ambiguities in the statutes of the CDS, defense ministers and service chiefs.

The Secretary of Defense, who heads the Department of Defense (DoD), is responsible for the “Defense of India and every part of it, including defense policy and preparation of defense and all such acts as they may” under the Government of India’s Allocation of Business Rules is conducive to their persecution in times of war and after their end to effective demobilization. Logically it should now be the CDS.

The DoD continues to be responsible for “Defense Services Capital Acquisitions”. The DMA is only responsible for “procurement exclusively for the services with the exception of capital acquisition in accordance with the applicable rules and procedures”.

There are strong arguments for merging DMA and DoD. The defense minister must either work within the CDS or become part of the secretariat of the defense minister. If the business rules are not changed verbally and in writing, the rivalry between the military and bureaucracy is likely to thwart this radical reform.

The CDS currently has no management responsibility, not even over the three service heads. When the Tri / Bi service theater commands come into effect, the government will have to make a decision on this. The National Air Defense Command and the Maritime Theater Command are expected to emerge in the near future. In the USA, the theater commands are directly subordinate to the President / Secretary of Defense, a model that is hardly suitable for India. In my opinion, there is no other choice than to make the CDS the chiefs of service, if not by rank, and the operations command must under his command with appropriate restructuring of the integrated defense staff by merging the operations management of the three services. The chiefs of service are only allowed to administer and train their respective troops.

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Aatmanirbharta in defense

Atamnirbharta in defense is certainly an important step towards self-sufficiency in defense. Defense procurement has been streamlined through the Defense Procurement Process 2020. A guideline has been formulated to promote indigenization in defense and aerospace. A positive indigenization list with 209 articles, the import of which will be gradually banned, has been drawn up. 74 percent foreign direct investment is allowed in the defense sector.

The incorporation of the Ordnance Factory Board was approved by the Cabinet on June 16. Separate budget allocations of Rs 52,000 crore were made for domestic procurement.

However, it will take a long time for the above political and executive decisions to bear fruit. The research and development as well as the technological base of the defense industry and the DRDO are not yet ready for new technologies. Consequently, the tab of technologies designed and developed by the Indian Defense Industry or the DRDO with 50 percent indigenous content in relation to an indigenous system is likely to be counterproductive. Until the research and development as well as the technological base of the defense industry and DRDO improve, “Make in India” with technology transfer and specific indigenous content that can be gradually increased may be the better choice.

The OFB merger has been announced, but the modernization of the seven new business units requires enormous investments. The same goes for public sector defense companies. The new corporations will also remain blessed with a unionized 70,000 strong workforce.

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Shrinking defense budget

The biggest problem for defense reforms will be the shrinking defense budget. The Department of Defense brochure highlights a 10 percent increase in annual defense spending for FY22 (reportedly the highest in a decade).

However, the revised estimates of the last financial year were not taken into account. The net gain is only Rs 3,266 crore. There is a huge gap between the projections of benefits and the actual allocations. That was Rs 77.182 billion for capital expenditures and Rs 48.298 billion for revenue expenditures.

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Missing reforms

Surprisingly, there is no talk of restructuring and reorganizing the armed forces to optimize their size. Our payroll bills are higher than our allocation for investment. In view of the economic situation and development spending, the defense budget will not increase in real terms for the foreseeable future. Modern conflicts / wars require smaller and more agile armed forces with high-end military technology.

In East Ladakh, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed around six combined arms brigades. In order to counteract them, we had to set up almost four divisions with 12 brigades. That is the difference technology makes in modern conflict.

In summary, the Ministry of Defense has undoubtedly taken a number of important political initiatives to reform and modernize the armed forces and arms production. However, the reforms are not holistic and coherent as they do not emerge from a national security strategy for future conflicts / wars. There is also a mismatch between intent and defense budget. It would be advisable for the Defense Minister to formalize an overarching coherent strategy with budget projections for the transformation of the armed forces and the defense industrial complex with pragmatic timetables, rather than issuing “feel good brochures” highlighting standalone reforms.

Lt Gen HS Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. After his retirement he was a member of the military tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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