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On May 26, 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government completes a year of governance. Surprisingly for a nationalist party-led government, national security and defence have occupied scant space while showcasing its achievements. On hindsight, perhaps rightly so, because a lot more could have been done after United Progressive Alliance rule where its Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s sole objective was to prevent scams and follow a policy of “do-little”.
Under the NDA, one has to look at defence from the initial tenure of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley having additional charge of defence, which was not a good idea, to it being given to Manohar Parrikar. Once embedded in South Block, all eyes were on Mr. Parrikar who said that his speciality was quick decision-making not realising that the office of Chief Minister of Goa is a far cry from the complex intricacies of managing the country’s defence. Last week, in one of the many conclaves celebrating 365 days of the government, BJP president Amit Shah was heard saying that when compared to the UPA government which submitted to Pakistani firing on the Line of Control (LoC), the NDA government’s response to such aggression has been more robust and muscular: bomb for bullet and other stirring similes. However, this reflects a distorted understanding among the political class of the dynamics of the LoC.
Some positive thinking
In contrast, Mr. Parrikar appears to be thinking out of the box; at another conclave, he suggested that “we have to neutralise terrorists through terrorists only. Why can’t we do it? We should do it. Why does my soldier have to do it?” He is probably and indiscreetly mixing up covert operations with Ikhwanis(counterinsurgents) who are made up of surrendered terrorists who were unsuccessfully employed earlier to fight infiltrators and resident terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistani and local terrorists not only inhabit the State but also regularly make infiltrations to keep the pot boiling, employingfidayeen attacks, using improvised explosive devices and carrying out ambushes causing casualties to soldiers and civilians. In 2014, the Army killed 110 terrorists on our side of the LoC.
Mr. Parrikar may not have been fully briefed of past operations; still, his idea has to be extended by putting in use a plan that was given in 2003 to then Defence Minister George Fernandes to do precisely what Mr. Parrikar has in mind and more, i.e. covert operations to deter cross-border terrorism. A lack of political will led to that plan being abandoned. When Gen. V.K. Singh, now Union Minister of State (Statistics and Programme Implementation, External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs) was the Indian Army Chief, he had belatedly raised a special operations wing, Technical Support Division (TSD), which was prematurely discovered and disbanded when Gen. Singh confronted the government over his age issue. The TSD did some useful work across borders as the inquiry by the Army later revealed.
Speaking in Mumbai in January after releasing the Hindi weekly, Vivek’s special issue on national security, Mr. Parrikar described Pakistan’s clandestine activities which saw a dramatic operation in the Arabian Sea where an Indian Coast Guard ship intercepted a “suspect” Pakistan fishing boat on the night on December 31 near the maritime boundary of the two countries, some 365 kilometres from Porbandar in Gujarat and lamented that “some former Prime Ministers had compromised the country’s deep assets”. The allusion was obviously to Prime Minister I.K. Gujral who had ordered the dismantling of strategic assets created inside Pakistan over many decades.
Employing unconventional operations and recreating deep assets implies creating tactical and strategic assets that are usable on both sides of the LoC/International Border which will impose deterrent costs. This is an idea whose time is long overdue. For example, the Israelis were able to halt suicide killings during the second Intifada by intelligence-driven targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders and potential human bombers. They would intercept them between their leaving the hideout en route to the designated target.
In May 5, following a meeting of Corps Commanders in Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) issued a press release accusing the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of stirring the pot in Balochistan, helping the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Afghanistan and fuelling the recent skirmishes in Karachi including the killing of Ismaili Shias. If RAW is doing an iota of what it is being accused of, it indicates that “deep assets” are being gradually reinstalled and that these are hurting Pakistan.
Reviving a post
Mr. Parrikar’s other positive but less embarrassing step is the resurrection of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) after the file was buried for posterity by his predecessor in the previous government. The former National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, said that after the Naresh Chandra Task Force had recommended creating an equivalent of the CDS in 2012 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had endorsed it, Mr. Antony would not comply: “he would not listen to the PM”.
It would appear that Mr. Parrikar’s big bang announcements are made only during conclaves. In March this year, in response to a question on the CDS, he said that he was “working on a mechanism” for the creation of a post for effective integration of the three services and that a note would be sent in the next two to three months to the Cabinet Committee on Security. He has also announced that the new Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) chief and Scientific Advisor would be appointed by the end of this month. Therefore, have ‘achhedin’ started for the Ministry of Defence? Probably not.
Modernisation and capital
The government claims credit for clearing defence acquisition projects worth Rs.1 lakh crore but few contracts are likely to be signed. The reasons why these will not materialise any time soon are the long-delayed revised but complex Defence Procurement Procedures including offsets; a lack of clarity on ‘Make in India’, and a paucity of funds for defence modernisation though Mr. Parrikar insisted at the conclave that there were sufficient funds. However, Defence Secretary R.K. Mathur told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence last month that not only was the Ministry unable to use its allocated capital budget but that it was insufficient. He added that capital funds must be allocated to maintain the 30:40:30 ratio in the quality of military equipment — 30 per cent for state-of-the-art equipment, 40 per cent for current holdings and 30 per cent for equipment moving into obsolescence. Last year, Rs.6,630 crore of capital was returned unused, presumably ordered to be returned, which is an annual ritual for balancing the fiscal deficit. This year, Rs.6,070 crore has been allocated for “new items” while Rs.71,336 crore will go towards previously committed liabilities. Rs.6,070 crore is a paltry amount for modernisation. This year’s defence budget is the lowest for many years.
In order to create money for modernisation, Mr.Parrikar has innovatively used the guillotine by excising the Rafale fighter aircraft deal from 126 to 36 fighters and has saved Rs.65,000 crore from the original cost of Rs.90,000 crore. Similarly, by freezing the raising of the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), he has stalled strategic deterrence against China. Mr.Parrikar’s unconventional alterations of capability development reflects ad hocism and a lack of integration in the planning process. It also shows that Service Chiefs can be easily browbeaten to cut their operational programmes; worse still is that these programmes haven’t been thought through by the services.
This is bound to lead to inevitable improvisations and half-measured capability building. Notwithstanding Mr. Parrikar’s carry-over compulsions, he must find a better method of budgeting for wise spending and raising the political pitch for enhanced allocations to meet the challenges of a two-front scenario. For now, the conventional deterrence against China is on hold — so much for bridging the capability gap.
In a rare public outburst last week, Mr. A.K. Antony criticised the government by raising several questions over the Rafale deal, wondering whether the Finance Ministry and the Defence Acquisition Council were taken on board while clinching the agreement with France. At the briefing, he also tore into government claims on defence preparedness accusing it of committing the “anti-national act” of compromising the nation’s security by downsizing the MSC on the Chinese border. “A weak man cannot safeguard national interests. We don’t want war, but should be in a position to protect our country,” he said, appealing to the government to reconsider the decision and which was also a reflection of the erratic planning and budgeting process. This raises serious questions about higher defence management and nails the original blunder in the government’s Rules of Business that arrogates to the Defence Secretary the responsibility for the defence of India. No Defence Secretary has ever been held accountable: not for the 1962 war with China, Kargil or the outstanding disparity in defence preparedness between China and India.
The civil service is the biggest impediment for defence reform as such a move will diminish its status and importance in the civil-military calculus. Mr. Parrikar must rebalance this equation.
Other than some positive ideas, there is little to celebrate in defence. especially as Mr. Parrikar’s well-intentioned expertise in decision-making is being questioned.
(Gen. Ashok. K. Mehta is a founder member of the erstwhile Defence Planning Staff of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in the Ministry of Defence.)