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Five challenges that await new defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman

Modernisation, military reforms and a hostile neighbourhood will test India’s first full-time woman defence minister.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2017 13:18 IST
Rahul Singh
Nirmala Sitharaman signing the register after taking oath as a cabinet minister in New Delhi on Sunday.
Nirmala Sitharaman signing the register after taking oath as a cabinet minister in New Delhi on Sunday. (PTI photo)

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the surprise pick of Sunday’s reshuffle of the union council of ministers, has her task cut out as India looks to modernise its military and build more equipment at home to cut dependence on imports.

The 58-year-old Sitharaman is the first woman to be the full-time defence minister of the country. Indira Gandhi held the portfolio 35 years ago when she was also the prime minister.

“I am overwhelmed. I understand the impact of the decision. It is a huge responsibility,” Sitharaman, a trained economist, said after she was promoted to the cabinet.

The five big challenges that await the new Raksha Mantri:

1 Modernisation

Sitharaman’s promotion complements the reputation she built as a tough negotiator in the commerce ministry.

She will be charged with carrying out a modernisation programme of one of the world’s largest armies before parliamentary elections in 2019.

The government is pushing to build fighter planes, submarines and helicopters in the country. The minister will have to take forward the Make in India programme to cut dependence on imported weapons and systems.

India is the world’s largest importer of arms as state-run ordnance factories struggle to meet to meet the shortfall in ammunition and churn out poor quality of products. Efforts are on to revamp the Ordnance Factory Board, which oversees 39 manufacturing units.

2 Reforms

The minister will be tasked with ushering in military reforms, including creation of a chief of defence staff as principal military adviser to the government, restructuring the Defence Research and Development Organisation and set up special operations, space and cyber commands to fight future wars.

Restructuring of the army has already begun. At least 57,000 soldiers are being redeployed in combat roles to sharpen the force’s fighting edge.

The revamp is aimed at improving the army’s tooth-to-tail ratio -- the number of personnel (tail) required to support a combat soldier (tooth). The army has around 40,525 officers and 1.15 million other ranks.

3 Volatile borders

India is surrounded by hostile neighbours, with significant parts of the frontiers with Pakistan and China not clearly marked. Cross-border skirmishes are common with Pakistan while experts warn that the latest India-China standoff over Doklam across Sikkim could resurface in other sectors.

These factors will test Sitharaman who has a calm head and speaks in a measured tone, a big plus in face of shrill rhetoric that keeps emanating from China.

China is strengthening its navy and has stepped up activity in the Indian Ocean, which India considers its backyard. The Indian Ocean also figures prominently in President Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative to build a new Silk Route.

4 Funds for big buys

For military to modernise, funds have to flow. In August, the defence ministry sought an additional ₹ 20,000 crore from the finance ministry to upgrade the military’s capabilities.

The Indian Navy recently released two requests for information (RFI) as it plans to float global tenders for 234 helicopters, costing more than $5 billion, by middle of 2018 to replace its outdated Westland Sea Kings choppers and French-designed Chetak helicopters.

The air force in the next two months is likely to release a request for information to build single-engine fighter planes to help scale up its combat capabilities.

The warplanes will be built by an Indian firm with a foreign contractor under India’s strategic partnership model that seeks to bring in high-end military technology for manufacturing cutting-edge defence equipment.

5 Gender bender

Sitharaman takes over at a time when India is set to get its first women fighter pilots. She will be expected to push for a greater role for women in the military, including opening new combat avenues in the army and navy.

Gender parity in the armed forces has been a raging debate since India began recruiting women to non-medical positions in the military in 1992.