|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
India is to have a new government shortly. It is, therefore, prudent to list out what should be the agenda for the next Defence Minister. At the same time, if the next Defence Minister is the same or 'like' the present one under UPA II who worked hard against the interest of Armed Forces, then any suggestions would be waste. Hopefully, that will not be the case and the country will have a full-time Defence Minister working for boosting India's military muscle, not the musical chairs played by NDA II and taking pleasure in degrading the soldier. The first priority of politicians being consolidating own power, the next Defence Minister needs to initiate two actions: first, take charge of India's defence by getting the 'Allocation of Business & Transaction Rules Act 1961' amended vide which the defence secretary continues to be in-charge of India's defence – carrying on with the British India legacy, and; second, reverse NDA II decision that for expenditure beyond 100 crore defence minister has to approach Finance Minister. The Armed Forces are 1.4 million strong and even the Northern Army Commander's annual Special Financial Powers are 100 crore.
The next priority action of Defence Minister should be to reorganise the Ministry of Defence (MoD) by inducting military professional and merging HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) into MoD. This will also fill the absence of an institutionalised strategy formulation set up in the existing MoD and kill the civil-military divide that is officially not acknowledged but actually has been growing drastically. Next, the Defence Minister must acknowledge the need for a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and push for it; considering HQ IDS has little powers and Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) is just a committee - the naked truth being committees are hardly suited to handle defence and affairs of Armed Forces. In backdrop of China's continuing territorial ambitions, consolidation at Doklam and the China-Pakistan collusive threat, bridging the conventional and sub-conventional asymmetry should be top priority. To this end, annual defence allocations must be to the tune of 3 per cent of the GDP for at least in next five years – as adverse asymmetry even prevents pushing India's national interests at the bargaining table. The system of arriving at the defence budget needs to be streamlined to ensure it is debated and based on operational requirements, not on whims and fancies of the Finance Minister. One way is to empower the Parliament's Committee for Defence to review Armed Forces pre-budget demands (like the Armed Forces Senate Committee does in the US) and then present the budget demand to the Parliament. Dispassionate scrutiny of utilisation of defence funds would indicate that almost 70 per cent is eaten up by the DRDO-OFB-DLSU's with returns that are hardly commensurate.
Governments are scared of privatising enterprises like ordnance factories fearing threat of strikes and for appeasing vote-banks. This needs to be seriously looked at in the interest of upgrading national defence. As important is the need to address that fact that civilian defence employees are on an average five times more expensive than their serving and veteran counterparts. The least that can be done is to combatize the civilian defence employees, which will better synergy and save money. The Defence Minister must also provide military advisers to the Prime Minister for advice on matters related to military security and provide necessary inputs for public statements by the PM. Half-hearted steps taken for the establishment of the Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) have been discussed in these columns earlier, which hardly meet India's sub-conventional requirements at the strategic level. The PM needs a National Operations Division (NOD), as well as, a Special Forces Cell under him comprising intelligence and special operations operatives to meet the strategic requirements.
There is urgent need to: review border control management, placing all forces in sensitive areas like Depsang and Chumar directly under command the Army and all international borders under MoD; upgrade border infrastructure; acknowledge pitfalls of defining an LTIPP without a National Security Strategy and Comprehensive Defence Review; urgent need for an RMA under the Prime Minister for which a draft Act of Parliament needs to be worked out jointly by the three Services and introduced in Parliament; accelerate capacity building for NCW in a specified timeframe. Instead of the dramatics of one defence procurement policy followed by another with cosmetic changes, India needs an integrated Defence Procurement and Production Policy (DP&PP), which the current Defence Minister could have coined given her experience in the Ministry of Commerce and industry, but did not. Hopefully, the next Defence Minister would concentrate on this. Finally, it is the welfare of the serving, veterans and their families. UPA II has earned the distinction of placing the Armed Forces below police forces. The Department of Ex-Servicemen (DESW) appears taking cynical pleasure in taking widows and disabled to court for their pensions – using enormous amounts of defence funds despite not having won a single case. This needs to be stopped and veterans or serving personnel on deputation inducted into DESW. Deliberate burial of the report of the government-appointed one-man Reddy Commission on OROP is evidence enough that the government and the Defence Minister are working against the welfare of soldiers and veterans. This is just one black spot on the current Defence Minister. There are many more including approving the anomalous affidavit introduced in the Supreme Court to deny the Armed Forces grant of NFU. Hopefully the next Defence Minister's main focus will not be grabbing defence land like Nirmala Sitharaman.