SOURCE: The Tribune
To be self-reliant, the government’s announcement on May 16 virtually banning defence imports — a boost for Make in India — and allowing 74 per cent FDI in JV through the automatic route, are near revolutionary steps, but requiring the defence procurement procedure (DPP) to be revised for the nth time. These radical policy changes will not be easy to implement and will undermine defence capabilities in the short and medium term.
Therefore, CDS General Bipin Rawat’s extraordinary statement earlier this month, charging the armed forces with “misrepresenting their operational requirements to indulge in large weapon import” was embarrassing for the armed fraternity, though pointedly in sync with the government which has been advocating Make in India, a grandiose project for indigenising weapons production that is bereft of any home-grown technology and adequate production base.
General Rawat said the armed forces should accept weapons from the domestic industry even if they meet just 70 per cent of the desired technology. The admission includes curtailing operational missions and objectives: “We are not expeditionary forces that have to deploy around the globe. We have to guard and fight only along our borders and, of course, dominate the Indian Ocean.” He added: “Covid-19 has affected everybody. We need to be realistic, start adjusting and have a major relook at our operational priorities and what we actually need.” This was a painful overview of the existing defence planning, weapon acquisition and their prioritisation procedures for which he too, as former Army Chief, is accountable.
It is understood that veterans and serving officers were perturbed with General Rawat’s accusation that the services have been exaggerating
military threats and that they should fight with weapons with less than the stipulated General Staff Qualitative Requirement.
General Rawat’s self-flagellation was also prompted by a defence
official disclosing that the defence budget was likely to be slashed between 20 and 40 per cent. As salaries and pensions cannot be cut, defence modernisation will take the hit. This will put a freeze on any new deals and even funds earmarked for paying instalments in the existing contracts could be deferred.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) could also be partly to blame for the ‘noise’ as it has been rating India for the last five years as the world’s second biggest arms importer after Saudi Arabia, accounting for 9.2 per cent of total global arms imports. Even so, India spends on an average on defence, just 1.6% of GDP, minus pensions and salaries, which is one of the lowest among the developing countries, given its two unsettled borders and attendant challenges.
What General Rawat said amounts to a critique of how the country arrives at its defence and security threats, challenges and opportunities. No overarching review coupling defence, diplomacy, technology and economics in the shape of a comprehensive strategic defence and security review has ever been carried out. Nor has any white paper been produced. The Defence Minister’s operational directive which is originally drafted by the tri-services gets updated and issued after every five to ten years.
The last time one was refined was during the late Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s term, but one is not sure whether he finally signed the directive.
The strategic sweep of each service of the armed forces is varied. For the Navy, it is from the east coast of Africa to the Malacca Straits. For the IAF, airspace over territorial India and the Indian Ocean region; and for the continental Army, it is land borders with China, Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, along with out-of-area contingency plans for the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The Indian Army has a manpower ceiling of one million. For the Navy, the ceiling is 60,000 and a target of 200 warships by 2027. The IAF has sought 42 combat squadrons, a figure born in the 1960s, not revised since and never achieved.
General Rawat’s impromptu strategic guidance on the diminished role for the armed forces has factored the impact of the pandemic on public spending. India’s ambitious plans to fight a two-and-half front war will need to be re-evaluated and its self-assigned role as a net regional security provider will also need a re-examination. The Indian Navy’s proposed role in the Indo-Pacific and any militarisation of the Quad will need to be shelved, with focus on the domination of the Indian Ocean region.
Further, General Rawat’s remarks, budgetary cuts and import ban will disrupt the 15-year long term integrated perspective plan and require a drastic resetting. The ground reality is this — the LoC has hotted up and infiltration in Kashmir is on the rise. Insurgency will increase exponentially as passes open. Similarly, the LAC has been activated in Ladakh and Sikkim and tension is escalating. Sikkim has a settled border and China accepted it as part of India in 2005. Although the Army Chief, General MM Naravane, has downplayed the two face-offs and rejected any linkage between them, the armed forces must be prepared for a pincer movement by all-weather friends Pakistan and China as well as another Doklam.
Hard power is needed to assert national interest by use of force. Evidently, in view of General Rawat’s pronouncements and the government’s new defence acquisition policy, full spectrum of capabilities and defence modernisation will be constrained by affordability of programmes in a post-Covid normal.
Instead of considering and announcing piecemeal reforms, like extension of colour service for soldiers, national voluntary service, integrated battle groups and so on, an integrated defence and security review is urgently required on achieving specific joint and individual force capabilities — something that the Defence Planning Staff, of which I was a member, modestly attempted in the mid-80s.
General Rawat’s challenge in a post-pandemic environment is daunting, but as the first CDS, he enjoys confidence of the government and knows his stuff.