In defence, time for tough decisions

“As India’s higher defence management is unfit to meet for the needs of an ambitious power in the top tier of Asian military forces, its three services must be stitched together with a Chief of Defence Staff.” File photo shows combat demonstration during the Army Day Parade in New Delhi.  

Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parrikar, the government’s first and incumbent Defence Ministers, respectively, perhaps hoped that the pitiful record of their predecessor A.K. Antony, India’s longest continuously serving Defence Minister, would make their task easier. Instead, it’s been quite the opposite. Mr. Parrikar seems to have spent the last several months cleaning up what he insists is a fiscal and policy mess bequeathed to the government and overlooked by Mr. Jaitley, who was, for a brief period, wearing two hats as Finance and Defence Minister. But is Mr. Parrikar leaving the place tidier than he found it, or laying down an unhelpful legacy of his own? Three areas are worth looking at more closely: the slashing of the much advertised 17 Corps, the country’s first mountain strike force; the sudden re-jigging of a deal to purchase France’s Rafale fighter aircraft; and, most importantly, the vexed question of reforming India’s military command.

Two years ago, the previous Congress-led government announced the >raising of 17 Corps, which, unlike 1, 2, and 21, would be directed at China rather than Pakistan, and therefore configured for mountain warfare. It would consist of two infantry divisions, three artillery brigades, three armoured brigades, and a host of supporting land and air units. Mountain units aren’t as mobile as those that fight in the plains, and so require plentiful airlift, particularly helicopters and light artillery. The 17 Corps would be large, with around 80,000 men, and expensive, costing well over $10 billion, $1.2 billion of which would have to be spent annually till the early 2020s. To put that in perspective, the Indian Army’s entire allocation for 2015-16 is $16 billion. As Mr. Parrikar asked, “Where is the money?”

Two out of three

Mr. Parrikar’s response has been to more than halve the size of 17 Corps to just 35,000 men, and to propose that the Army take a long, hard look at its current strike corps and other Pakistan-facing units. This will have mixed results. On the one hand, loudly raising new units on paper and then quietly slashing them sends a signal of weakness, even fecklessness, to your adversaries. Critics will accuse Mr. Parrikar of gutting India’s modest offensive capability against China even before it got off the ground. On the other hand, downsizing creates an opportunity to ensure that the pruned 17 Corps can now actually afford the equipment and supporting platforms it needs if it is to be combat-effective. It is better to have a smaller and more potent force than a large and flabby one.

Mr. Parrikar can turn this decision into an opportunity, but only if he focusses on explaining his intentions rather than on blaming previous governments.

The second choice, one in which Mr. Parrikar seems to have been largely uninvolved, is >India’s decision this month to purchase 36 French Rafale fighters, multirole aircraft that can defend the skies and strike targets on the ground, in so-called “flyaway” condition. The catch is that India originally wanted to buy 126 aircraft, and was using the leverage of such a large order to negotiate a substantial transfer of technology to India. Although the idea goes back years, it dovetailed perfectly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. It now seems that India effectively blinked. Nothing is to be made in India and everything will be imported. In the last three years, Indian arms imports have grown 56 per cent. This government is close to failing its first serious test at addressing that trend.

The deal also places a huge question mark over where the remaining 90 aircraft, required to keep the Air Force at reasonable strength, will come from. Mr. Parrikar has suggested, almost off-hand, that India might buy another light, single-engine fighter to supplement the indigenous Tejas, as part of the process of replacing the ageing MiG-21. This could include the Swedish Gripen NG fighter jet, a cheaper but attractive aircraft that lost out to Rafale earlier. But this throws up fresh problems. First, it would increase the variety of aircraft in the Air Force inventory, something that has been an issue since the 1990s, which increases the burden on training and maintenance. Second, it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges: the Gripen and Rafale have different strengths and weaknesses, so the optimal balance between them would depend entirely on the kind of Air Force India wants to develop. Without some public statement that clarifies India’s defence posture, it’s hard to judge whether Mr. Parrikar is following a carefully thought-out plan or, more likely, improvising. Mr. Parrikar has justified the deal by calling it “oxygen relief” for the Air Force, but short-term impulsive buys will generate problems down the line.

As the British politican Nigel Lawson once observed, “To govern is to choose. To appear to be unable to choose is to appear to be unable to govern”. The government’s decisions on both the mountain strike corps and Rafale are bold choices, even if it’s unclear whether they are good ones. But in a third area, the government has not chosen at all.

Wanted: unified services chief

It is widely accepted that India’s civil-military relations and higher defence management are unfit to meet the needs of a rising, ambitious power in the top tier of Asian military forces. Successive government-appointed committees stretching back decades, and innumerable experts have made it clear that India’s three services must be stitched together with a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or equivalent post, sitting above the three service chiefs, who would be capable of giving the government coherent advice on military matters and imposing unity of purpose on the Army, Air Force, and Navy. As the scholar Anit Mukherjee wrote this month, “Left to themselves, they have not even been able to agree on training their musicians together, let alone pooling resources for joint training and logistics”.

In mid-March, Mr. Parrikar candidly acknowledged that “integration of the three forces does not exist in the existing structure”, and promised that “in the next two to three months my Cabinet note with the recommendation for a CDS will go to the Cabinet Committee on Security for the final decision”. He added that “a CDS is a must”. This is extremely promising, but caution is in order. If the Minister is serious, he should draw on the wealth of studies and recommendations produced by past committees to set out his vision for defence reforms. Every past effort has foundered on political and bureaucratic opposition. If Mr. Parrikar does not wish to go down as yet another Minister who raised expectations and fell well short, this is the time to take his commitment seriously. If he gets this decision right, it will be remembered long after the Rafale is retired.

(Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a PhD candidate at Harvard University.)

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Printable version | Jul 18, 2021 9:21:54 AM |

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