Defence Disappointingly though, the bureaucratic grip on the MoD remains strong , AFP

India must be ready to face a two-and-a-half front war, warned chief of army staff (COAS) General Bipin Rawat not long ago. He meant Pakistan, China and internal insurgencies. More recently, General Rawat said India would not be deterred from “crossing the border” by Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. That drew an angry response from Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, challenging General Rawat to test Pakistan’s resolve.

Given the grim reality of being surrounded on two sides by hostile neighbours, Pakistan and China, as well as a Maoist threat, India’s defence preparedness, weapons purchases and overall military strategy are crucial. Over the past three years, the paramilitary forces have done well to quell Naxal insurgents. CRPF casualties have declined. Maoists fatalities have increased. Many Naxalite leaders have surrendered. After a slow start, Home Minister Rajnath Singh has quietly emerged as a solid performer. In Jammu & Kashmir, the CRPF, J&K police and the army killed over 220 terrorists in 2017. The stick will continue to be wielded while interlocutor Dineshwar Sharma takes his bag of carrots to the Valley. This though is unlikely to work in a state where radical Islam has taken firm root.

General Bipin Rawat was right to criticise madrasas in the Valley where two maps – one of India and the other of Jammu & Kashmir – are pinned to the walls of every madrasa classroom. This reinforces the separateness Islamists want to indoctrinate in the youth of Kashmir. The state’s education minister, Altaf Bukhari of the PDP, told General Rawat to stay out of matters that doesn’t concern him. But it is General Rawat’s soldiers who are sacrificing their lives at the hands of terrorists, aided logistically by the same indoctrinated youth in the Valley’s madrasas. Bukhari should spend time on the LoC to understand the damage his party’s soft separatism has done. You are judged by the company you keep, and the BJP will be judged in the next state assembly election in December 2020 (J&K has a six-year term), by the company it has kept with the PDP since February 2015.

The most worrying aspect for Indian security lies within the Ministry of Defence (MoD). A key problem is weapons purchases. Senior army officers have warned of ammunition shortages that can constrain operations along the LoC. The army had to make emergency off-the-shelf ammunition purchases in late 2016 after the surgical strike on Pakistan to ease the shortage. Last month, the Indian Air Force announced that due to delayed fighter jet deliveries, the number of IAF squadrons had fallen to 33. India needs 42 air squadrons to fight a two-front war. The 36-fighter jet Rafale deal signed recently papers over the problem. India’s submarine programme is also well behind schedule. During my recent visits to some of India’s most technologically sophisticated facilities that are involved in India’s nuclear submarine programme, I saw first-hand how potent the Indian Navy will be in the future. But we live and fight in the present.

Weapons purchase delays have long been a bane of the MoD. A key reason is the absence of armed forces officers permanently appointed to this key ministry. Bureaucrats run the show. Many have little or no expertise in new weapons’ technology. Worse, many are corrupt. When he took over from Arun Jaitley as defence minister, Manohar Parrikar diligently implemented the policy that banned arms dealers, following a slew of defence-related scandals in the UPA government.

The CEO of one of India’s largest weapons manufacturers told me that Parrikar was the country’s best defence minister he had encountered in recent years. He understood the technical aspects, being an IIT engineer. He made quick decisions. And he was scrupulously honest. After Jaitley again temporarily took over the defence portfolio, when Parrikar went to Goa as the chief minister, things drifted, according to the CEO of a this blue-riband defence manufacturer. Fortunately in a cabinet reshuffle last year, Nirmala Sitharaman was appointed as the defence minister. Though she has no domain experience, Sitharaman has been fairly proactive. 

Disappointingly though, the bureaucratic grip on the MoD remains strong. The cancellation of a $500 million contract for Israeli-made Spike anti-tank missiles on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India demonstrates the cussedness of MoD officialdom. Fortunately, the deal could soon be revived and will help the Indian army tackle the Pakistani army’s long-range anti-tank missiles.

The MoD’s whimsical decision-making is not restricted to delays in arms purchases. The recent decision to cap educational grants to children of armed forces martyrs to Rs. 10,000 a month shows the small-minded, mean-spirited way the MoD sometimes functions. Only a few martyrs’ children exceed the Rs 10,000 a month cap. The extra outgo, had the cap not been imposed, would be less than Rs. 6 crore a year.

Sitharaman, despite her sincerity and intelligence, has not yet been able to reform the MoD’s ecosystem calcified through years of patronage and corruption. This must change. The first reform should be to give the armed forces permanent representation in the MoD. If India is to prepare for a two-front war, the MoD needs to learn some hard lessons from General Rawat.