After eight years of a “holding operation” by the risk-averse A K Antony, India’s longest-serving defence minister ever, the establishment needs to be jolted out of its status-quoist stupor. There is an urgent need to expedite the stalled procurement of equipment that is essential for the military’s combat effectiveness. The army desperately needs artillery guns, light helicopters and ammunition reserves. The navy must immediately have torpedoes, anti-missile systems and submarines. The air force urgently requires mid-air refuelling aircraft, airborne early warning and control systems, and Tejas light fighters to replace the MiG-21s and MIG-27s.
Given the new dispensation’s financial constraints, it must ensure procurements are genuinely urgent. It must not allow the ill-considered procurement of weaponry that is higher on cost than benefit. It must realise that procurement and reform choices it makes this year will echo for at least a decade. While Arun Jaitley has taken time off from his understandable pre-occupation with budget preparations to attend to some matters of defence, there is no substitute for a full-time defence minister immediately who can assess the situation and undo the wrongs of his predecessor. Indeed, the country’s defence is too serious a matter to be left to a minister who is unable to devote undivided attention to it. There are a host of acquisitions and other pending matters that are crying for ministerial intervention. The sooner the prime minister realises this the better it will be for preparedness.
With delays in procurement of weapons and equipment for more than a decade, along with the stalling of projects by the UPA regime, the new government must acquire weapons on a fast-track basis while taking steps to boost domestic defence production. Procurements that are lagging years behind have to be cleared fast. A culture of speed and efficiency needs to be nurtured. The morale of the armed forces that hit a new low under Antony needs to be boosted. A busy agenda awaits the government.