The Millennium Special

The Past

The Present

Bittu Sahgal Admiral J G Nadkarni (Retd)

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The former chief of naval staff on Indian defence in the 21st century.

At the end of the century, when India's defence forces get down to making a balance sheet, their achievements will far outweigh the failures. On the whole, the armed forces have done quite well during the first fifty years of Independence.

On the positive side will be the defence of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947, the triumph of 1971 and the valour of Kargil. Indian assistance to Sri Lanka, Seychelles and the Maldives, the development of Agni and Prithvi missiles and finally the entry of India in the nuclear club will all be totted up on the credit side.

On the other hand we would like to put behind us the humiliation of 1962, the unnecessary and unsuccessful intervention in Sri Lanka, the growing use of the armed forces in internal security, the many failures of the R&D projects in making India self sufficient and the Bhagwat affair.

In the end India's defence forces will enter the new millennium as the largest defence establishment in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. And yet, one cannot but get the feeling that the progress and enlargement of India's defence establishment has been more a matter of accident than design, more of a muddled passage than a well planned journey, more ad-hocism and jump starts than smooth and steady progress.

India's defence forces cannot continue in the next millennium in the same confused vein. If defence intends to remain a potent force it must address itself seriously to a well thought out agenda in the coming years. Here is a list of ten things that India's defence establishment must do in the next century.

1. Carry out a detailed strategic defence review

The way ahead can only be chalked out when we know what we want to be and where we want to go. To its utter shame, no Indian government has ever thought it fit to review India's strategic and defence goals, to publish a white paper or to give detailed directives to its armed forces. India's armed forces need clear guidelines on their aims and objectives in the coming years. Of course, once completed it should be made public and not put to pasture on the shelves in South Block to gather dust. The SDR should logically lead to a defence plan.

2. Make a 20 year defence plan

A number of defence plans have, of course, been made in the past but have never been taken seriously. A defence plan to be effective needs wholehearted political and financial commitment. To ensure that defence is taken seriously, a five year defence plan, concurrent with the country's five year plan is essential.

In addition there must be a long-term, 20-year perspective plan. Defence spending should also be considered plan expenditure and there should be a defence member in the planning commission. It goes without saying that all plans need to be made public and subject to frequent scrutiny by the parliamentary committee on defence.

3. Take defence seriously

We spend nearly Rs 50,000 crore a year on defence. Yet neither our law-makers nor the average citizen take defence seriously. The defence budget is hardly debated in Parliament. No Opposition party thinks it necessary to detail a point made for defence. Both India and Pakistan are drowning in a sea of defence expenditure, which is making their economic development suffer. Yet there is not a whimper about it in either country. Unless we take defence matters with the seriousness they deserve we are unlikely to rein in defence expenditure.

4. Set arms limitation as an achievable goal

In the immediate post-Kargil era it appears a far-off dream. Yet both India and Pakistan will eventually have to come to terms about their weapons and defence expenditure. The economic well-being of their people can only be achieved if they limit their armament and defence expenditure. Both countries must at least proclaim it as their goal in the next century and work towards it.

5. Modernise the armed forces

The Kargil mini-war showed us how utterly out-of-date the weapons and equipment of our armed forces is. The fact that our services are long overdue for modernisation is well known. The problem is that with a bloated defence force little is available for modernisation after taking care of revenue expenditure. The armed forces can never be modernised until we cut down on their size. However difficult and unpalatable, this is the only way out.

The services also require to modernise their mindset. The 21st century will be an era of information and the Internet. Yet today our services are 20 years behind the world in computerisation. Radical measures are necessary to bridge the gap.

6. Make the people nuclear literate

Joining the nuclear club also brings in its wake a great deal of responsibility on the country's political leadership. During the heat of the Kargil campaign people were amazed to hear the prime minister declare "We are fully ready for a nuclear war." Really? Just a handful in the country are aware of the horrors of a nuclear bomb.

The first requirement of a nuclear power is to make its citizens aware of the results of a nuclear exchange. An enlightened population is the first defence against irresponsible threats and glib assurances. The government must use every means possible to educate the population on nuclear warfare.

7. Make Defence R&D more accountable

Forget the hype and public relations. In the last 50 years, the Defence R&D Organisation has become an even bigger holy cow than the defence forces. Its performance, to say the least, has been disappointing. Its 40 odd laboratories and 40,000 scientists have hardly a single major success to their credit. Its prestige products such as the Arjun tank and the LCA have become white elephants. Time and cost overruns are legend. Above all, the organisation is not accountable to anyone. Will a prime minister or defence minister in the 21st century have the courage to introspect this monolith?

8. Re-examine the policy of self-reliance

Since we adopted the mantra of self-reliance we are no nearer to it than we were 50 years ago. We are still reduced to importing not only major weapons and equipment but even snow boots from abroad. Ten years ago we finally threw off the shackles of a socialist economy.

The start of a new century is the correct time to re-evaluate our policy of self reliance. Let us not waste our hard earned money on silly projects like the LCA to satisfy a few scientists' egos. It would be better to concentrate on a few achievable goals and produce world-beating equipment.

9. Restructure the defence establishment

The need to restructure the defence establishment is well known. George Fernandes had promised to bring about a change "within one month" after the Bhagwat episode. Yet things remain the same. Unless we restructure the set-up in the South Block, give the services more autonomy and bring the service chiefs in the major decision making loop, we are not going to make much headway with the other requirements for the next century. The defence minister must resist the fierce pressures from the bureaucracy and bring about this change.

10. Modernise the defence budgeting system

India still follows a century-old budgeting system, more suitable to a baniya shop, than to a modern armed force. It is 40 years since Robert McNamara shoved the planning, programming and budgeting system down the throat of the Pentagon. Today it is the common system followed by most of the world's defence forces and many corporate offices. India's forces cannot hope to modernise until this system becomes standard. And the only way to do this is for the defence minister to force it down on the armed forces.

If they achieve even some of these goals, the Indian armed forces can have a bright future. Ignoring most of these will condemn them to struggle through a path of mediocrity.

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