Defence: The disjunct between words and action
PM Modi’s emphasis on the military as a “future force”, is timely but operationalising it will be a challenge
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi addressed the Combined Commanders Conference (CCC) at Kevadia, Gujarat, on March 6, and in his characteristic manner, departed from tradition by directing that personnel below officer rank (PBOR) would also be part of the deliberations.
This the first time that the annual conference, where the PM meets the combined top brass of the Indian military, included Junior Commissioned Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers (JCOs-NCOs). It is a radical departure in form but vintage Modi. Whether this kind of inclusiveness will have meaningful long-term benefits to the national security agenda of the CCC remains moot and can be gauged only much later.
It may be recalled that in his first term, PM Modi recast the CCC template with a flourish when he moved the venue from the staid confines of Delhi to distant Kochi. The commanders met on board the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, in December 2015 and the PM gave a clear-and-strong signal to the commanders about his national security priorities. In the 2014 election campaign, Modi, the candidate, berated the United Progressive Alliance government for its somnolence at the wheel in relation to the defence sector and resolved that if elected, he would make amends — swiftly.
Thus, the December 2015 CCC was rich in detail about what Modi, now the PM, would focus on with characteristic resolve. The excerpts from the PM’s address, released by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), at the time constituted a comprehensive document of about 2,350 words.
In what could be yet another departure, the gist of the PM’s address to the CCC this year was communicated in a short 350-word PIB release. This was disappointing, for with the Galwan face-off of mid-2020 and the uneasy disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops still a work-in-progress, the nation would have benefited from a 2015 kind of elucidation by the PM about the challenges to India’s national security and the blueprint that the higher defence apex would be reviewing. This would also have been valuable, given the fiscal constraints that the pandemic has imposed on the national exchequer and its attendant implications for the material state of the Indian fauj.
At Kevadia, the PM “stressed on the importance of enhancing indigenisation in the national security system”. Furthermore, dwelling on the rapidly changing technological landscape, he “highlighted the need to develop the Indian military into a future force”. The need for India to enhance indigenous efforts at providing major military inventory and capabilities has been an abiding theme from the era of PM Indira Gandhi to that of Manmohan Singh, but the results have been well below the median.
While there have been some islands of success — for instance, missile and space capability, as also in the nuclear domain (including submarine propulsion) — the stark reality is that India is yet to design and manufacture even a personal weapon (rifle) that would be of international standards.
Having inherited a deeply inefficient public sector defence research and development (R&D) and manufacturing ecosystem, PM Modi, in his first term, made indigenisation a priority, along with an overhaul of defence procurement that moves at a glacial pace.
In 2015, Modi asserted, “We will soon reform our procurement policies and process. And, our offsets policy will become a strategic tool for improving our capabilities in defence technologies.” Six years later, the results apropos indigenisation have been modest, though many projects are in the pipeline and expected to reach fruition — hopefully soon.
The intractable nature of the Indian defence bureaucracy and its tenacious reluctance to adapt to change has often frustrated the PM and he has urged the system to review its own track record and improve itself. This exhortation was evident in Kevadia 2021 where the PM “called for a holistic approach, focused on breaking down civil-military silos and on expediting the speed of decision making”.
To his credit, Modi took the long-delayed political decision to revamp India’s higher defence organisation and move towards synergising army-air force-navy capabilities by creating the post of a Chief of Defence Staff and theatre commands. But this is still a work-in-progress and some changes that have been mooted will have to be reviewed and calibrated astutely.
The PM’s emphasis on the Indian military as a “future force”, predicated on the changing technological landscape, is timely and welcome. The current profile of the Indian military with its large manpower content (this is particularly true of the army) will have to be transmuted in a manner whereby the resultant force is threat-relevant, effective and affordable. Technology is the key and translating the PM’s vision will be a complex human resource and fiscal challenge.
On current evidence, the bench strength of team Modi in the defence sector is wafer-thin and having four defence ministers in the first term is case in point.
But it is the fiscal constraint that remains daunting. On March 8, Parliament was informed that in FY 2021-22, the capital budget for defence had been slashed by a whopping ₹76,553 crore.
The Indian fauj remains caught between a rock and a hard place, and the PM will have to do more to translate his words into action.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal