Despite his good intentions and out-of-the-box approach on defence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will, ironically, be preparing India to fight the last war better. Reason: No one has told him that like other ministries, even defence needs a policy, which he has to formulate, before acquisition of armament begins. Otherwise, it will be putting the cart before the horse. The best thing about making a policy will be that the armed forces will be able to do more with less money as the defence services will be compelled to review their capacities, capabilities and doctrines.
Interestingly, no government since Independence has been sworn in without a full-time defence minister unless the prime minister has kept the portfolio with himself. In a first, the Modi government has an interim defence minister, which I would like to believe is how he wanted it. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, a close confidant of Modi, on assuming additional charge of defence, made it known that it is a temporary arrangement. Giving reason for doing so, he said in an oblique fashion that acquisitions are a priority for the government.
So what does Modi do? He kills three birds with one stone. By giving temporary charge of defence to Jaitley, he has ensured that critical procurements of the armed forces, which have been held up because of dithering of the previous dispensation and lack of funds, are expedited. Jaitley can now summon the two secretaries and instruct them to put their heads together; the defence man will tell what is required urgently and the finance man will provide for it.
If the Modi government can show a few procurements in the first 100 days in office, it will establish its sincerity on security matters, make defence services happy, and defence manufacturers ecstatic. Moreover, the move will vindicate the Modi doctrine of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. And, not to forget, the 1.6 million service personnel and multitudes of veterans will feel cared for, making the job of the full-time incumbent, when he comes, easier.
Meanwhile, defence experts, determined to have their foot in the door, have reeled out a long list of what the new defence minister ought to do on assuming office. The issues include financial commitment for defence plans, civil-military relations, growth of indigenous defence industry and so on.
While all the above are fine, will it make India secure against Pakistan and China? Will the defence services be able to fight a supposed two-front war? Will Pakistan get deterred and stop infiltration across the Line of Control? Will China end military adventurism on the disputed border? The answer is a question mark.
So what should Modi do? He should, along with members of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CSS), make a policy for defence. This will also be a first as no government in India has ever done this exercise, which is why the defence services have a free run, asking what they think is best.
The defence policy should identify India’s potential enemies, prioritise them, and decide the government’s assessment of their aims towards India. Based on this, the CCS should get a series of detailed briefings from the chiefs of the three service of their core strengths, and then craft a politico-military game-plan to meet external threats. It needs to be understood that the chiefs, by themselves, being operational players who are trained to make warfighting plans, will be prone to overstating their case for capacity and capability building, which should be curbed.
Because this does not happen, the nation ends up spending more on building warfighting capabilities that may not be compatible with future wars. Hence, there is a need for a defence policy that is crafted through politico-military synergy.
Pravin Sawhney is editor