A multi-billion-dollar process for armed forces' modernisation is currently underway. India's political class must deliver and not carry on with the piecemeal approach

As we enter 2021, India’s defence establishment must be hoping that the new decade will be better than the one gone by. In terms of new acquisitions and modernisation, the last decade was a dampener for the armed forces.

India’s biggest let down in defence in the last decade was the lack of political leadership.

Altogether, the defence minister’s chair underwent six rotation. There is no doubt that in the scheme of things, the defence ministry, which is part of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), is seen as less powerful and appealing than the home, finance and external affairs ministries.

The Antony Era

The longest political stability in the defence ministry came during the UPA government when A.K. Antony was in charge – from October 2006 to May 2014.

Though regarded as ‘Mr Clean’, Antony’s long tenure saw scams, crises, and an overall sense of sluggishness. Under his leadership, the defence ministry had come to a standstill with decision-making crawling at an abysmally slow pace.

When Antony left the ministry in 2014, the armed forces were still heavily dependent on systems that were acquired in the 1980s and earlier. Major acquisition projects such as combat helicopters, new submarines, fighter aircraft and howitzers, pending even before the beginning of his tenure, remained in limbo.

The creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), integration of the three armed forces and jointness remained just a dream under his tenure.

The only major success of Antony’s ministry was the signing of the deal for transport aircraft – C 17 and C-130J – from the US. But the fighting arms remained in a state of flux.

Antony’s political weight in the UPA as Sonia Gandhi’s confidante was huge but he never brought that to the ministry to push ahead with modernisation. His desire to remain ‘Mr Clean’ meant that no major decisions were taken even as arms dealers and middlemen continued to enjoyed considerable clout in the ministry.

Jaitley To Parrikar To Jaitley

When the Narendra Modi government came in 2014, it was sincerely hoped that the defence modernisation will get the required push.

Arun Jaitley was sworn in as the defence minister on 26 May 2014 but this was a dual charge because he was also made the finance minister, which seemingly became his primary job.

In just six months, Jaitley paved the way for Manohar Parrikar, chief minister of Goa at the time, to take over as the defence minister on 9 November. With an IIT background and a thinking mind, Parrikar brought in a fresh infusion of energy into the defence.

Not knowing the dynamics of the national capital was an impediment for Parrikar but then again, he was never the typical Delhi politician anyway.

As I wrote in 2019, Parrikar used to lament about the bureaucratic hold within the ministry, and often took officials head-on, assuming personal responsibility for many decisions.

It was under his leadership that the ball was set rolling on a number of key reforms, including the creation of the post of CDS, integration of the armed forces, induction of Tejas fighter aircraft, and the contract for attack helicopters among others.

But just as he had begun to settle in, Parrikar was sent back to Goa as the chief minister due to the political instability in the state in March 2017. But Parrikar anyway wanted to return to Goa. Everyone in the defence circles knew he was going back with joy, relief and guilt, besides a hint of despair.

One big setback for him was his inability to clear some of the reforms that he wanted to bring about in the defence ministry. Even though he was part of the CCS, he never carried the required punching weight in the Modi government compared to Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley or National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

Missed Chances

Upon Parrikar’s departure, Arun Jaitley was brought back to the defence ministry to hold the dual charge.

Jaitley’s tenure until 3 September 2017 meant that major reforms had come to a standstill since his focus was the finance ministry. It was in September 2017 that the ministry again got a full-time head in Nirmala Sitharaman, who was considered a lightweight in the pecking order.

As reported in 2019, Sitharaman’s tenure in the defence ministry was not an easy one because she succeeded Parrikar, who had won the confidence of both the industry and the armed forces.

She could never click with the armed forces or the industry and seemingly lacked the understanding of the intricacies of the defence ministry and its dynamics. The Rafale controversy tested her knowledge and subject expertise, and ensured that she was in the line of fire for a large part of her tenure.

Some Reprieve

It was only with the induction of Rajnath Singh in 2019 that the defence ministry once again had a full-time minister with the political weight to carry out reforms. Singh, who had led the modernisation of the central armed police forces (CAPFs) as the home minister in a splendid manner, knows that defence is a different ball game.

I say ‘splendid manner’ because the CAPF personnel are better equipped with arms and ammunition than an infantry soldier in the Army, who still relies on basic bullet-proof jackets and an INSAS rifle, which is a joke in modern warfare.

It is hoped that Rajnath Singh would be able to handhold the three Services in the next few years, which will set the foundation for the reorganisation of the armed forces into a modern and well-equipped fighting force in the coming decade.

There are a lot of pending proposals, which will need deft handling by the defence minister in a time-bound manner. India is set to introduce the theatre commands soon, which will change the way our armed forces function.

A multi-billion-dollar modernisation process is currently underway, and it involves the induction of new fighters, submarines, aircraft carriers, mid-air refuelers, tanks, armed UAVs, howitzers, assault rifles, helicopters.

All of this would need someone strong and smart at the helm of affairs in the defence ministry. Let’s hope that the Modi government will deliver rather than continue with the piecemeal approach.