After Raksha Mantri Manohar Parrikar and Mr Jaitley, the new Rakhsa Mantri (RM) Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman, has her work cut out with new and bigger challenges facing India both geopolitically and within the borders. The threat of a two front war and cyber terrorism have become more real than at anytime in India’s history. Mrs Sitharaman brings with her a track record of having performed exceedingly well as minister for state in ministry of commerce. There are great expectations from her in her powerful post as Rakhsa Mantri which also makes her part of the Cabinet Committee on Security
The previous full time RM, Mr Manohar Parrikar performed well and was responsible for ushering in the new Defence Procurement Policy (DPP), and doubling the compensation for widows and families of soldiers who died while fighting for the country. In dealing sternly with Pakistan’s misadventures, he had ordered strategic strikes. He had also started several studies headed by retired generals to address the malaise of stagnation and suggest methods to move things in the right earnest. He had even remarked that he would get the services a Chief of Defence Staff ; a one point advisor to the RM. The pre-matured move of Mr Parrikar as CM of Goa was an untimely and unfortunate incident for the defence forces.
Mr Jaitely, although having taken defence as additional responsibility, has taken the process forward and had certain landmark achievements in the short term that he had. The Doklam incident was aptly handled taking a strong stand and was solved diplomatically by both external and defence ministries in synergy with each other. He ordered application of 65 point for action out of the 99 that the General Shekatkar committee had suggested for reducing the flab and revenue expenditure in the army. 57,000 army jawans have been identified to be redeployed from non-core functions onto combat duties. The retirement age of jawans is also being enhanced by two years in order to reduce the revenue expenditure. At present less than 20 percent of defence budget is available for acquiring the new weapons and equipment platforms.
Showing her administrative and leadership skills, the new RM has started with the right signals and has promised to meet the services chiefs on daily basis while attending the Defence Acquisition Council meeting once a fortnightly. She will review defence preparedness and allied issues of strategic interest in these meetings. Her learning graph is likely to be steeper considering her reputation in the previous ministry and she has already started sending the right signals. One of the most important things that she has to address is the strained and unequal civil-military relations by integration of the defence headquarters with the Ministry of Defence ; a move that has always been resisted by the bureaucracy. The experts must be made part of the decision making body as is prevalent in most western democracies of the world.
Preparing for a two front war is perhaps one of her biggest challenges. It is not a small threat to the country’s defence capability and strength. More powerful, immensely well equiped and battle hardy countries like the United States and United Kingdom have been worn down when fighting two wars simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan.
India’s ability to withstand a two front attack necessitates capacity building to reduce the conventional gap between China and India. China has 2.3 million troops which are almost double the number of troops India has. China has five times the number of submarines and tanks as India and twice the number of military aircrafts and war ships. The expenditure on defence forces in China at 216 millions US dollars is nearly four times that of 56 millions that India spends. Whereas India has strategic deterrence in place in terms of nuclear capability, recently acquired 36 Raffael aircrafts and the long range vector as strategic weapons ; the newly raised strike corps for mountains still has voids in terms of manpower and weapon systems which need to be filled up with despatch.
India must acquire a lift capability of one divisional size Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) at all times and five infantry/ mountain divisions should be converted into RRFs to be enabled to be employed in dual role. The airforce requires 45 combat squadrons for a two front war as compared to 35 operational squadrons held at present. With the induction of 36 Raffael, 272 SU-30 aircrafts by 2020 to form 13 squadrons and fifth generation Tejas aircraft being jointly developed by Russia and India and the already held MIG 29s and Mirage 2000 aircrafts, Indian Airforce will have a formidable punch. The Modi government has allocated US dollars 416 billion over five years for modernisation plan of defence forces.
The Indian Navy is three times the size of Pakistan Navy and has projected the need to have three operational aircraft careers along with the armadas with a total of approximately 350 ships to cater for a two front war. The new RM has for the time being shelved the ambitious plan that the navy had projected. This decision shows that Mrs Sitharaman is no push over and understands the economic constraints the government has.
The Indian armed forces are an organised and disciplined organisation and will quickly adept to work under a lady RM. They were very comfortable performing under Mr Indira Gandhi when she had the additional charge of the RM. The new RM epitomises the soft power of India and is likely to give a fillip to induction of women into the combat arms basing the case on merit. For now she has delegated the issue to the Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat.
The RM also needs to take stock of the cyber warfare that our adversaries have unleashed on us through social media defaming our security forces and creating a divide and straining civil-military and officer-man relations. Even if the new RM acts as a night watch women for the balance of the NDA first term tenure and carries forward the reforms which have already been ushered, she would have done well by the time the NDA government is getting into its second term.
On an emotive issue that touches the sentiment of every militaryperson and their supporters, the new RM must work towards ensuring that the defence forces regain the status and the respect they deserve and not be relegated to a position below the central police forces who have been given more relevance and teeth by the Home Ministry. The Seventh Pay Commission anomalies must be removed with all sincerity and the watered down One Rank One Pension must be restored to the original form. Unfortunately, both Parrikar and Jaitely gave lip service to these two important morale related issues. Armed forces of any democratic nation are the premier institution and should always be looked upto by other forces and the citizens. The Indian Army is the last resort of the state and can only be neglected at the peril of grave national security consequences.