There is a new government in power and there are expectations that it will be able to give India’s moribund defence policy a new direction. These hopes have been heightened by some of the right noises the prime minister and defence minister have been making since assuming office. The focus on defence in this year’s budget is a welcome change from the perfunctory increases in the allocations over the last several years. It underscores that this government remains committed to military modernisation which was losing traction under A K Antony, without doubt the worst defence minister India has ever had. The attempt to do away with anomalies in pensions to ex-servicemen under the One Rank One Pension policy and the announcement of the construction of a war memorial and a museum is heartening and should go a long way in assuaging the concerns of the community.
The increase in FDI cap to 49% from the present 29%, though welcome, is unlikely to be a game changer. It is a welcome first step but hopefully this will be complemented by other moves to make the defence PSUs in India more accountable. And ultimately, it all comes down to setting a strategic direction for Indian defence. That’s where the focus should be from now on. The prime minister can start by promptly appointing a full-time defence minister, allowing Arun Jaitley to focus solely on finance.
Traditionally, it’s the glamorous issue of resources that tends to hog the limelight. But the Indian defence sector suffers from some fundamental vulnerabilities and unless they are rectified, no amount of resources will make a difference. For a nation that has been one of the major defence spenders over the last few years, having embarked on an ambitious plan to modernise its largely Soviet-era arms since the late 1990s, and is acknowledged as the fourth-largest military power, it was striking when after the Mumbai terror attacks it came to light that one of the reasons why India did not dare use the military option vis-à-vis Pakistan was the reluctance of Indian Army’s leadership to go to war with an inadequate and obsolete arsenal. This lack of any credible military option against Pakistan has brought into sharp relief the fundamental weaknesses of Indian defence policy.
The then Indian prime minister had declared in his address to the nation in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks that his government “will go after these individuals and organisations and make sure that every perpetrator, organiser and supporter of terror, whatever his affiliation or religion may be, pays a heavy price”. He also suggested he would “take up strongly with our neighbours that the use of their territory for launching attacks” will not be tolerated and that “there will be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them”. By doing so, he raised the stakes without realising that he doesn’t have very strong cards to play. The nuclear aspect is important because it is part of the reason that elements within the Pakistani security establishment have become more adventurous. Realising India will be reluctant to escalate the conflict because of the threat of it reaching the nuclear level, sections of the Pakistani military and intelligence have pushed the envelope on the sub-conventional front, using terror groups to launch assaults on India. For India, it presents a structural conundrum: nuclear weapons have made a major conventional conflict with Pakistan unrealistic, yet it needs to find a way to launch limited military action against Pakistan without crossing the nuclear threshold. Nuclear weapons have allowed Pakistan to shield itself from full-scale Indian retaliation as well as to attract international attention on the disputes in the subcontinent.
The Kargil conflict of 1999 first exposed Indian vulnerabilities as Pakistan realised India doesn’t have the capability for quick and effective retribution. The then Indian Army Chief had famously commented that the forces would fight with whatever they had got underlining the frustration in the armed forces regarding their inability to procure the arms they needed. Only because the conflict remained largely confined to the 150km front of the Kargil sector did India manage to gain an upper hand by throwing the Pakistanis out of its side of the LoC. Then came the stand-off between the two armies across the LoC after the Indian parliament was attacked in 2001 and again India lacked the ability to impose any significant cost on Pakistan quickly and decisively because of the unavailability of suitable weaponry and night vision equipment needed to carry out swift surgical strikes.
These crises forced the government to act and India saw a rise in its defence acquisitions briefly. Soon the old mindset took over and political compulsions overshadowed defence requirements. When the UPA came to power, it ordered investigations into several arms acquisition deals of the previous government. A series of procurement scandals since the late ’80s have also made the bureaucracy risk-averse, delaying acquisition. India’s defence expenditure as a percentage of the GDP had been declining and large part of the sum was being surrendered by the forces every year given their inability to spend due to labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures in the procurement process. Pakistan has rapidly acquired US technology over the past eight years under the garb of fighting the “war on terror” while the modernisation of the Indian army has slipped behind a decade.
Given the outcry after 26/11, the government did take some short-term measures. But the underlying vulnerabilities of the Indian defence policy remain. Unless effective institutions are put in place to impart long-term strategic thinking to defence and security issues, India will continue to face similar problems that it had in the past. It was hardly any surprise, thus, that after the terror attacks in Mumbai—as grave a national security failure as some of the previous crises like the Kargil fiasco—the Indian strategic elites returned to the same old debates about what kind of institutional reforms are needed to prevent such tragedies. Yet, consensus continues to elude India though as is the case after every crisis, some tinkering with the existing institutions and laws has been resorted to. Besides, the temptation after every crisis is to have new structures, if only to demonstrate that “action” is being taken, but the existing national security organisations remain under-funded and understaffed. It’s not clear if the new ones will be any more effective in the lack of an overarching institutional overhaul.
The Modi government has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It should seize the moment and redefine the contours of Indian defence policy.
The author is a professor in international relations, department of defence studies, King’s College, London.