Three Years of the Modi Government

Defence under the NDA Government

15 Jul, 2017    ·   5322

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra analyses the state-of-affairs in India's defence sector over the past three years and argues that there has been more continuity than change

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India has been seen to be very assertive on national security. On closer analysis, however, the BJP's track record over the last three years reveals continuity more than change. 

Procurement and Economics
For example, in the purchase of the Rafale fighter planes, the initial requirement for 126 aircraft was reduced to a mere 36, casting doubts on the combat efficacy of the type due to reduced numbers. No action seems forthcoming on the alarmingly depleting combat numbers of the fighter fleet. Other deals including the Apache and Chinook transport helicopters, and two different howitzer barrel types - the M777 and the K-9 - were done without retiring current equipment, causing both capacity duplication and complicating logistics. Surprisingly, the howitzers bypassed competent indigenous private sector vendors in favour of external vendors despite the on-paper commitment to indigenisation. The recapitalisation of the navy similarly continued on the path set by the previous government, based on indigenous hull designs but with the overwhelming majority of high-value-additions on board - the engine, weapons and electronics - coming from abroad. As before, there seems to be no standardisation of parts to create the economies of scale required for local production. 

What is surprising is that a government that touts its economic credentials has done nothing to rationalise the extraordinarily wasteful patterns of defence spending or enforce fiscal discipline on the military. It remains to be seen if the recently released ‘Strategic Partnership Policy’ will in fact be implemented unlike its predecessors.

Unlike the previous administration, both internal security forces and the military seem to feel a greater sense of confidence in their ability to carry out 'out-of-the-box' operations. The clearest example of this has been the logical and legally justified use of a human shield in Kashmir with both the army and government backing the officer who carried it out. This is both a morale booster and a sign that this government, unlike the previous dispensation, is willing to give local commanders much leeway so long as they act within the law. 

Similarly the government has also displayed greater confidence in making public cross-border punitive strikes into Pakistan. The previous administration, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), claims it too authorised such strikes but did not trumpet them openly. As several commentators noted, both announcing and not announcing such strikes come with a set of advantages and disadvantages. However the 'bold' BJP seem to have been just as unsuccessful as the previous UPA in being able to dissuade Pakistan from using terror as a tool of state policy, continuing to use staid force-on-force options, not being able to push the military to think out-of-the-box.

On the other hand, as several commentators have observed, India’s internal security is not getting attention. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) - the country's primary counterinsurgency force, was without a director for months, getting one only after the 2017 Sukma attack by Maoist terrorists on CRPF personnel in a repeat of the previous Dantewada and Darbha massacres, continuing a pattern where internal security forces seem to go in blind without proper equipment, planning or intelligence. While the prime minister has called for greater intelligence cooperation between agencies, movement on the ground is hard to see.

Public Diplomacy 
The public diplomacy angle of security operations - both internal and external - has been severely lacking. The frequently justifiable use of force has been eroded by the lack of articulation by both the home and defence ministries as well as by the military. For example, the use of pellet guns - critical in crowd control in Kashmir - faced a serious public opinion challenge in the Indian press. The government though, instead of laying out the tactical and legal case for the usage of such weapons, seems to have retreated into a shell with the home minister counselling avoidance of the use of these weapons, providing no alternatives.

Defence Diplomacy
Defence diplomacy has seen continuity with the UPA. There has been no progress on the communication and logistics agreement with the US. This means at least three things: 70 to 80 per cent of the combat effectiveness of the equipment purchased from the West remains unavailable to the Indian armed forces despite high premiums paid on them. Equally, it severely limits the learning to be gained in joint exercises with the West as restrictions on data and intelligence-sharing limit joint-ness. Moreover, the more sensitive electronic warfare algorithms developed from an extensive surveillance programme of common adversaries remain out of India’s reach.  

What is worrying is there is not one single factually argued rationale against the signing of these agreements or a cost-benefit analysis that has emerged in the Indian public sphere where the BJP seems to have picked up the worst strains of the UPA's reflexive ‘anti-Americanism’, talking about 'strategic autonomy' and 'mistrust' in obstructive, goal-post shifting, esoteric terms without bothering to propose a tangible path forward. 

Similarly the cross border "surgical strikes" by the army in September 2016 were ridiculed mostly because the effects of said strike were not made public in order to gauge their effectiveness. This repeats a pattern seen with the sinking of a "terror boat" in 2015 - which was also characterised as hype. Clearly then the NDA is either relatively immune to a negative news cycle, or does not seem to learn from mistakes. Sadly this conveys the message, perhaps incorrectly, that it is spin-doctoring failures.

Human Resources
The general pool of human resources available to security forces in the country remains abysmal. The BJP has shown no more interest in reversing this situation than past governments. There seems to be no willingness to shift from quantity to quality - investing instead on training and transforming the military into a 21st century fighting force, with the military remaining a lumbering 1940s-style beast. The government does not seem to comprehend that it is human investment that leads to technological advances and not the other way round. 

Clearly, three years of the NDA government have been a disappointment for the security management of the country. Defence planning is a sphere where India's capacity deficit is acute, and the BJP's capacity deficit on this score seems worse than the national average. While it is not performing worse than the previous government by any stretch of the imagination, it is certainly not performing any better either, carrying on the same pathologies. This is despite the BJP's legislative majority and the fact that none of the course corrections require any form of legislation. Clearly then the 'strong on security' tag is much undeserved.