The challenges before the new Minister of Defence are formidable. Given her track record, the Indian armed forces are full of hope for better days ahead!
|By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)
Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, IAF
On Sunday September 03 this year, another barrier in the regime of defence in India was demolished when Prime Minister Narendra Modi elevated Nirmala Sitharaman, Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka, as the Minister of Defence to replace Arun Jaitley, who was only a part-time incumbent. Nirmala Sitharaman who now holds perhaps the most important political appointment that is critical to national security, is the first full-time woman Minister of Defence the nation has had since independence seven decades ago. Women holding high positions in the government is not new to India as in the past, the nation has had a woman President, a woman Prime Minister and any number of very effective Chief Ministers. Incidentally, when viewed in the global perspective, this development comes a bit late for India as across the globe, there are women holding the post of Defence Minister in 15 countries including in France, Italy, Germany and Australia. What is also significant is that Nirmala Sitharaman as the Minister of Defence, will be a part of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). This body will now have two women Ministers holding extremely important portfolios, the other being Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs.
"It is indeed a breath of fresh air that an independent, full time Defence Minister has been appointed by the Government. I wish Mrs Nirmala Sitaraman the very best in her tenure as the Defence Minister of India. She has now joined a select band ladies in Europe & elsewhere who have been very capable Defence Ministers in their respective Countries.
I wish her Godspeed to steer the Indian Armed Forces in their pursuit to achieve excellence in their Military modernisation project, Operational preparedness & Combat edge."
Nirmala Sitharam is extremely articulate and though not a political heavy weight, she has been described as "very competent". Her elevation from the status of Minister of State to the position of a Cabinet Minister is seen as Prime Minister Modi's perspective of preferring "Performance over Politics".
Elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman from the status of Minister of State to that as Cabinet Minister, is seen as Prime Minister Modi's perspective of preferring "Performance over Politics".
While the appointment of Niramala Sitharaman has been described by some analysts as a "Master Stroke by Prime Minister Modi", for the new incumbent, there are mountainous challenges ahead. Jammu and Kashmir continues burn with increasing ferocity and the Pakistani forces continue to violate the ceasefire as well as their transgressions across the Line of Control, with unfailing regularity. In the North East, even though the face-off with the People's Liberation Army at Doklam in Bhutan appears to have subsided, it may well be a temporary phase in the escalating tension along the India-China border. The armed forces of the nation would have to be prepared to handle fresh incursion by the Chinese forces either after the ongoing BRICS Summit or during the summer of 2018.
Apart from the rising tension with Pakistan and China and the possibility of coordinated action by the two adversaries, the new Minister of Defence will have to address the long pending issue of modernisation of the Indian armed forces that continues to be in somewhat of an uncertain state. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is particularly in a precarious state with its fleet of combat aircraft deficient by 200 platforms which is equivalent to ten squadrons as against an authorised level of 42 squadrons. With all efforts to acquire combat aircraft in large numbers to not only make up for the existing deficiencies but also to replace the fleets of MiG-21 Bison and MiG-27 aircraft that are to be retired from service in the next few years. This requirement is urgent in the context of the aggressive behaviour by the adversary in the North.
Apart from the shortage of combat platforms, the Defence Minister would have to push projects related to the development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and the Medium Transport aircraft (MTA). Both these projects launched in collaboration with the Russian aerospace industry, have been languishing and there appears to be no reason for the IAF to be optimistic. The IAF badly needs aerial tankers that would serve as force multipliers. Unfortunately, the tender for aerial tankers have been cancelled twice by the Ministry of Defence after the final selection was made through the laid down tendering process, leaving the IAF in the lurch.
On the domestic front too, the IAF has little to cheer about. The Light Combat Aircraft Tejas that has been under development since 1983, is not yet available in the numbers required to mitigate deficiencies in the combat fleet. The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, an ambitious project to develop a fifth generation fighter aircraft with stealth features, has been in the concept state for several years. This needs to be converted to reality without further dithering and delay.
Indeed the challenges before the new Minister of Defence are formidable. Given her track record, the Indian armed forces are full of hope for better days ahead!.