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India’s defence ministers, her weakness

Of all the ministries, defence is of considerable importance. However, it has never been accorded the attention it requires. Starting with Baldev Singh, this ministerial berth has rarely been occupied by an appropriate dignitary. Krishna Menon’s contribution to the 1962 debacle was substantial. Writes Lt Gen Harwant Singh (retd).

chandigarh Updated: Nov 28, 2014 11:22 IST
Lt Gen Harwant Singh (retd)

Of all the ministries, defence is of considerable importance. However, it has never been accorded the attention it requires. Starting with Baldev Singh, this ministerial berth has rarely been occupied by an appropriate dignitary. Krishna Menon’s contribution to the 1962 debacle was substantial. YB Chavan, who replaced him, did his best but allowed himself to be tied down in bureaucratic squabbling in modernisation of the military and force accretion in the army. Thus, in 1965, Indian Army faced larger and state-of-the art tank fleet of Pakistan and was constrained to field mountain divisions in the plains sector of Jammu and Kashmir. These divisions were neither equipped, nor trained for plains warfare. The corps headquarters, which led the offensive, was not raised fully when it had to join the fight. Indian Air Force, too, was not well placed vis-a-vis the Pakistani counterpart. If at the end of this conflict, Indian Army ended up on top, the credit rests with the troops, their commanders, and luck entirely.

In 1971, the main fighting was confined to what was then East Pakistan, where again superior strategy and Pakistan’s enormous disadvantage came into play. Kargil saw first the initial discord between the army and the IAF and, later, the lack of proper equipment with the army, when the-then army chief was constrained to remark: “We will fight with whatever we have.” Kargil was a minor action, where limited troops were deployed, and even then the resources fell short. As of now, the state of the military (all three services) is an area of concern.

Long history of neglect

The national security has a very long history of neglect, going back over a millennium. The point that emerges from repeated military defeats is that historically, national security has been a low-priority area. Even after independence, military has never been given neither the essential wherewithal it requires to fulfil its commitments nor a defence minister (barring two or three) who has adequate grasp of national security issues and the relevance of hard power in the viability and sustenance of soft state.

CDS system much needed

Post Kargil, a number of committees were constituted and these put out some important recommendations, which have since been hanging fire. The most important recommendation has been about adopting Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) system in its full spectrum. This was, later, diluted by Naresh Chandra Committee. The possibility of the full exploitation of India’s military potential continues to remain elusive. The creation of Integrated Defence Headquarters in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is a meaningless exercise and bureaucratic solution to sidetrack the inescapable requirement of the CDS. This arrangement just cannot meet the imperatives of future conflicts, more so the demands of a two-front conflict and the ominous threats that could emerge in the Indian Ocean region. India can ignore the imperatives of bringing in CDS system in its full form at its own peril.

Anthony era among the worst

AK Anthony brought little credit to this ministry. His sole contribution has been to blacklist each and every supplier of arms and choke military modernisation completely. The Ministry of Defence is staffed by generalists who have little knowledge of security-related issues and matters military. The biggest joke on the nation being that it is the defence secretary who alone stands responsible for the defence of India. In the MoD, authority and accountability are not synonymous.

The defence infrastructure along the northern border has huge gaps. The modernisation of defence forces is the crying need for close to three decades now and yet little has been done in this very vital area. The recent allocation of Rs 80,000 crore for a range of equipment is a welcome move, but it will take a decade for all that equipment to get into the hands of the troops and will only meet glaring shortages.

False sense of security

To have a very large military without the essential wherewithal serves little purpose and can give us a false sense of security. This sad state of affairs has been brought about by an apparent neglect of this otherwise important ministry, both by placing a somewhat inapt minister and inappropriate staff repeatedly.

An ineffective defence minister cannot drive home the imperatives of adequate fund allocations for this ministry. Consequently, fund allocations to this ministry have been totally inadequate: generally less than 2% of the GDP (gross domestic product). One hopes the new defence minister will seek early reversal of this persistent neglect. With that kind of fund allocation, the debate on the distribution of resources between capital and revenue expenditure is meaningless.

We remain largest importers of arms

Even decades after creating Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), India remains the largest importer of defence equipment, which is low-grade generally. The DRDO has failed to demonstrate its prowess even in the field of reverse engineering and absorbing transferred technology. It functions directly under the MoD and is neither responsible nor accountable to defence headquarters.

Parrikar has to learn on job

All eyes are on the new defence minister, who is known for his competence and efficiency. Manohar Parrikar enjoys the reputation of a man who can grasp issues quickly. He understands the problems agitating the minds of the serving and retired defence personnel, but lacks the experience of how the central government functions, so he will need some time to understand the ways of the bureaucracy in South Block.

He is new to national security issues and, therefore, has to learn on the job, with no time to lose. He has made the right start by clearing the acquisition of long-required artillery guns. He should not rely entirely on bureaucratic advice but have structured interaction with the services chiefs. He will have to attend to the pressing problems of both veterans and the serving soldiers. The ministry staff does not seem to be alive to the deep bonding that exists between the serving and the retired military personnel. The maltreatment of one plays on the mind of the other, and affects the morale of the force.

Hostile environment

The security environment of the country—the bellicosity of our neighbours to the West and North, and the collusion between them—should be of serious concern to us. To add to this, the turmoil in the Middle East, the possible future developments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the most likely fallout of these on Jammu and Kashmir is something that the new defence minister should keep in mind.

(The writer, a former deputy chief of the army staff,is a commentator onsecurity and defence issues. The views expressed are personal)

First Published: Nov 28, 2014 11:17 IST