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What the Raksha Mantri needs to urgently do

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
November 10, 2014 14:09 IST
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Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. Photograph: PTI Photo'It is imperative to restore the dignity and authority of the services chiefs. Erosion of this has resulted in lowering of service efficiency. It is also time to end the practice of taking seniority as the sole criterion for appointing chiefs,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

On Sunday, Manohar Parrikar was sworn into the Narendra Modi ministry and given the Cabinet berth of defence. He takes over the mantle from Arun Jaitley, who had been handed the portfolio as an additional charge to the finance ministry.

However, the road ahead of Parrikar is not a smooth ride. He has several pressing issues ahead of him -- from the problems posed by our neighbouring countries to the very mindset that the defence ministry is a decorative post.

This mindset is well illustrated when a senior journalist on a television channel said that the defence ministry was not suitable for a capable person like Parrikar. Quoting then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao, the journalist called the defence ministry a 'salaam' ministry, adding that the minister had no real work, as he had competent service chiefs and a defence secretary.

The astonishing part was that none of the other participants contested this perception, which goes to show that the new defence minister has to live down not just the previous government's dismal record, but an even older Indian mindset that thinks national security is the sole prerogative of the armed forces and defence minister is a decorative post.

Parrikar has very little time as the AfPak region will soon turn more turbulent and China will begin to flex its muscles.

Additionally, in the last 10 years, the nation saw a defence minister more interested in preserving his 'Mr Clean' image, rather than doing the job at hand. Even more insidious, was that the previous government used delaying tactics to let the budgeted defence allocation lapse in order to show a lower fiscal deficit.

Furthermore, during the previous regime, the relations within and between the defence services reached a nadir with a service chief knocking on the doors of the Supreme Court, several generals going to court over promotions and even rumours of an attempted military coup.

Depleting naval and air force strength due to red tape and delay in taking decisions has meant that just when the regional situation is turning volatile, India's military strength instead of being increased, has actually depleted.

However, the nation's security weaknesses go deeper due to lack of clarity on what the 'real' challenges are and our response to them.

Security threats to India belong to three different spectrums. At the two extremes are a nuclear war and sub-conventional proxy wars/insurgencies/terrorism. In the middle is the 1971-style large land/air force battling out each other.

If we look at recent history, the last such conflict with Pakistan was in 1971 and with China in 1962. The 1999 Kargil intrusion was quite similar to an 'insurgency like' tactic of the 1965 infiltration by Pakistan. At that time it led to a full-scale conventional war. Yet, thanks to the nuclear deterrent in place, Kargil remained a highly localised conflict that did not spread even to other sectors of the Line of Control.

Conflicts like the ones in 1962 or 1965/1971 are a remote possibility in the present time. The bulk of defence expenditure and all our attention is devoted to the building of the military to fight least likely 'middle spectrum conventional conflicts'.

Is it any wonder that India's defence posture is one of the most inefficient and resource wasting sector of the economy? Fundamentally, the defence apparatus is still stuck in the British model of 'garrison army and expeditionary force'.

Defence planning left to the armed forces alone has become a collection and aggregation of 'worst case scenarios'. Modernisation has come to mean junior officers in the War Establishment directorate leafing through glossy defence magazines and forwarding the demands for import of the latest weapons!

The scenario is completed with the Defence Research and Development Organisation becoming a giant state within a State who passes off import substitution as research and indigenisation of components/import substitution masquerading as development.

India is sorely in need of a fresh broom in the defence ministry. Thankfully, the PM has a total mandate and no 'coalition compulsions' to appoint dead wood in crucial positions. A technocrat with sound managerial capacity as a defence minister was the need of the hour. Is an IIT-Bombay alumni like Manohar Parrikar the answer?

As a military historian, I find some very interesting parallels with late Robert S McNamara, President John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson's defence secretary from 1961 to 1967. Despite the criticism McNamara received on his handling of the Vietnam War, he is undoubtedly regarded as one of the most outstanding defence secretaries who revolutionised the American military.

When Kennedy took over in 1961, the US faced problems similar to that we confront today. The American strategy of 'Massive Retaliation' based on nuclear weapons (articulated by John Foster Dulles) seemed not to be working against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The Soviet Union under the nuclear umbrella began encroaching on areas of American influence. It used tactics of 'people's war' against which nuclear threats were useless. The US found that it did not have enough troops to find that kind of battle. Sixty percent of US budget was being spent on conventional arms, useless in counter insurgency. Sounds familiar?

McNamara instituted systems analysis as a basis for making key decisions on force requirements, weapon systems, and other matters. He introduced system analysis and subjected critical defence decisions in as broad a context as possible. We, in India, have the exact opposite of this, whereby many decisions are purely service oriented.

He introduced civilian analysts in force planning so that the military advice could be analysed from an independent point of view. He brought in the concept of five-year defence plans to take a long term view of the military force requirements -- a measure adopted by India as well.

In a retrograde step, the United Progressive Alliance government reverted to annual budget plans and lapsing of unspent funds thus overturning a sensible National Democratic Alliance government decision to stick to roll over of previous year's budget.

What this has meant in effect is that while the government has been making large allotments year after year and thanks to slow decision making, every year the defence ministry returns huge funds unspent. Over the years, finance ministers have used this as a trick to curb expenditure and show lower budget deficit.

McNamara also began the practice of the Development Concept Paper. This examined performance, schedule, cost estimates, and technical risks to provide a basis for determining whether to begin or continue a research and development programme.

He relied on systems analysis to cancel the B-70 bomber, as a replacement for the B-52. He stated that it was neither cost-effective nor needed. He expressed publicly his belief that the manned bomber as a strategic weapon had no future; the intercontinental ballistic missile was faster, less vulnerable, and less costly.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, one wishes to highlight two areas of immediate attention for the new defence minister.

First has to do with the repair of services/ministry relations. It is imperative to restore the dignity and authority of the services chiefs. Erosion of this has resulted in lowering of service efficiency. It is also time to end the practice of taking seniority as the sole criterion for appointing chiefs.

In the armed forces after the equivalent of a major's rank, all promotions are by selection and supersession is a norm, not an exception. While seniority can remain one of the criteria, it should not be the sole yard stick for the highest promotion.

The government should make a clear declaration to that end and evolve a suitable mechanism to make this an objective selection. This will mean that the so-called 'planning a line of succession' machinations will end. No other factor has done greater damage to the services cohesion than this.

The second urgent issue that brooks no delay is to have national science and tech institutes to help create new solutions to security problems.

The emphasis being on 'solutions,' and not mere products as is the practice now. The beginning could be made with the IITs and top tech college students visiting defence establishments and taking up projects for their graduation work. This will generate new technologies and equipment.

We can hope to be self reliant only when we generate our own defence technologies. Transfer of cutting edge military tech is a mirage created by the uninformed. No country will ever transfer cutting edge military tech unless they get something in return. This will also create competition for the DRDO and make it efficient.

But the immediate task is to have a re-look at the Government of India's 'Rules of business 1961' that places the responsibility of security of the country on -- hold your breath -- the defence secretary!

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Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
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