By Murli Menon*
Thus India has its first ever woman defence minister. Having an otherwise uninitiated but statedly beyond reproach integrity-wise, Nirmala Sitharaman as the defence minister could well turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the armed forces, provided of course Ms Sitaraman has her own counsel and does not overly let the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) run her ship. The lack of a full-time defence minister had been badly felt, especially during the Doklam standoff and border tensions with Pakistan. Any country, more so one the size of India with its many faceted threat perceptions, does not have the luxury of not having a regular incumbent at the helm of its defence affairs.
What should be Sitharaman’s priorities? The first would be to temper and objectivise the long pervading bad blood between the bureaucracy and the military. A no-nonsense minister should be able to send the appropriate signals regarding how her ministry needs to be run to achieve national interests and not parochial ones of either the bureaucracy or any particular service. Inter-service rivalry needs to be moderated, which, at times, has been fanned by vested interests in the defence ministry, and a long-term track for perspective plans drawn up in all fields of military endeavour, from acquisitions to training, HR to welfare. It is indeed unthinkable that an experienced and versatile armed forces such as India’s has still not put in place a periodic operational review – such as the US’ Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) – to bring out possible flaws in cadre management, organisation, and other matters. The ongoing army restructuring as mentioned in the media would be part of such a periodic exercise. Never having done the exercise before, even a decade-wise review may be sufficient. Such a periodic review would help in maintaining the teeth- to- tail ratio and improve overall fighting efficiency.
Any new incumbent to the defence portfolio is bound to be given a series of presentations by the service chiefs, defence secretary, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief and others. Sitaraman must ensure that her ministry’s operational directive is effectively crafted to counter land, sea, air, space and cyber-based threats. The defence minister’s job is to task the army, navy and the air. In newfangled domains such as space and cyber/information warfare especially, innovative thinking needs to be encouraged to stay up to date globally. A strong handicap for India’s defence forces has been the lack of a chief of defence staff (CDS). Although political ambivalence and service rivalries precluded the CDS becoming a reality hitherto; India finally seems close to the political acceptance of a four star CDS. Sitaraman needs to push this for quick implementation so that her government can get single-point professional advice on military matters. An integrated defence ministry with civilians and uniformed personnel working side by side should be the ultimate objective.
Issues plaguing defence acquisitions will also have to addressed. The ill effects of Bofors, Augusta and other PR fiascos such as Sukhna/Adarsh scams need to be addressed squarely but not with paranoia. Matters, especially those to do with defence, do not lend themselves to delays in decision-making.
Another priority for the minister would be to enforce accountability at all levels of the ministry. Whenever there is a proven professional weakness exhibited by any level of military leadership, punitive and corrective measures must be taken promptly. There has been a tendency in the past to hide operational weaknesses, be it in Kargil or elsewhere. The minister has to ensure that the highest standards of military leadership exist in all branches of the armed forces. Besides rank weaknesses in leadership, security breaches in the sensitive ministry also need to be countered. Performance audits and use of technology must be adopted to ensure that there is no breach in security, especially in defences acquisitions. Over the years, big ticket defence deals accompanied by kickbacks to individuals and the coffers of the ruling party have become a given. This culture has to be changed through increased transparency and stringent punitive measures against defaulters.
Another important matter would be the induction of women in combat roles in the military on account of equality considerations and the dire shortages of officers in the three services. Perhaps short service options for women could be retained for those who wish to opt for it; and no able woman aspirant should be kept away from combat duties in the army, navy, air force or the coast guard.
India’s ordnance factories need a serious review of their efficiency indices and contribution. In this context, a national military strategy is essential. This is the starting point for India’s national security doctrine, single service and joint doctrines, as also finding expression through the defence minister’s operational directive to the service chiefs. There is also a crying need to rationalise and review the archaic manual of aid to civil authority. Since the Home Ministry now has numerous forces under its writ to quell public disorder and manage disasters, the armed forces should only be called on in dire situations, and their services need to be paid for by the government – state or central. A related issue is the dress/accoutrements – it is understood that in the recent Jat agitation the army had to identify themselves using placards, as several Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) cadres were wearing similar combat fatigues.
The final issue for the agenda is the DRDO’s performance and accountability. For far too long the defence forces have been kept as captive customers for substandard products made by India’s public sector defence industry. With private players like Mahindra and Reliance increasingly entering the arena of defence production, DRDO needs to be charged with competitiveness and innovation to match global standards in cutting edge technologies rather than spending tax monies on mundane hardware such as the Indian new small arms system (INSAS) rifles, or operationally unviable efforts such as the Arjun main battle tank (MBT) or the light combat aircraft (LCA). Defence is no more a luxury for India but an absolute necessity not only to secure the country’s frontiers but also to contribute to its overall development. Nirmala Sitaraman has the opportunity to orchestrate a transformation in India’s defence capabilities, including indigenous industry and the Indian military’s overall efficiency as a viable fighting entity.
* Murli Menon
Former Indian Air Force (IAF) officer