With only 20 months left for the new defence minister to justify her appointment, Nirmala Sitharaman faces an uphill task to meet the expectations of the defence community. On assuming charge on 7th September from Mr Arun Jaitley, as the first full-time woman defence minister of the country, she spelt out her priorities as military preparedness, sorting out long pending issues, Make-in-India and welfare of families of soldiers. Significantly she said that she will be addressing all pending issues in consultation with the Prime Minister and the cabinet.
She has been given this job at a time when her ruling party will shortly go in election mode for the next parliamentary elections hence her window to perform will be very narrow. The Integrated Ministry of Defence Headquarters, which she will be spearheading till the 2019 general elections, has multifarious jobs to complete. From armed forces modernization to the reform in Higher Defence Management and from structural reorganization of the three services especially the Army to strengthening border security, Nirmala Sitharaman will be facing challenging days ahead. With her image as a tough negotiator and efficient administrator in the Industry and Commerce ministry, the Defence circle is buzz with expectations.
"So that we benefit and also send these to the international market, we will ensure that Make-in-India is given full play for defence production."
—Nirmala Sitharaman, Raksha Mantri
The first full-time Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar under the Modi government was more focused on his home state Goa, where he ultimately landed, and the second part-time defence minister Arun Jaitley had the onerous task of looking after another heavyweight finance ministry. Hence, the decision making process in the MOD moved at snail's pace, though major policy decisions were finalized during the last three years, like the Strategic Partnership model for big ticket defence projects implementation under 'Make In India' programme of the Modi Government. However, because of this, major acquisition decisions were kept pending and the combat capability of the armed forces suffered heavily.
Though the war clouds on eastern front have dissipated a week before her assumption of charge, she cannot afford to rest. As the threat perception from both the fronts remain high, she will have to indulge in super-fast decision making in the days ahead to equip the armed forces to enable them to simultaneously thwart any coordinated evil designs on both the borders. If the then UPA government had gone ahead with the MMRCA tender for the Air Force, which recommended the French Rafale in February 2012, the IAF would definitely have started inducting them by now. The NDA government also dithered on the decision left pending by the UPA. Sidestepping the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, the Prime Minister personally intervened and requested the French President to order 36 Rafale to the manufacturer Dassault, which the IAF will start receiving from middle of 2019. But the IAF is not satisfied with only 36 Rafales as its squadron strength has gone down steeply to 32, whereas the sanctioned requirement is for 45 squadrons.
Similarly the Indian Navy, with gigantic responsibilities to safeguard India's maritime interests in the huge Indian Ocean, is left with only 13 diesel submarines. The Indian navy has sought six additional submarines, which the government has decided to be India made under the Strategic Partnership model. The new Defence Minister will have to act fast to award the contract for the 'Made In India' Submarines.
Filling the yawning gaps in the fighter aircrafts and submarines requirements are only the tip of the iceberg. The armed forces suffer from deficiencies in many critical areas, for which the Defence Acquisition Council has been gradually releasing clearances, but these projects are yet to see any action on ground, without which the three Services do not feel confident. To get going all the projects on the ground, under the Strategic Partnership model, within a span of 20 months will be a difficult task to execute for the new defence minister. By the time these decisions reach their finality, the government may feel reluctant to give final go ahead in view of election related controversies. The SP model is vulnerable to judicial intervention as there are many aspects of the model which will give sufficient ground to the parties not winning the tenders to derail the projects from execution. The Overseas Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) have also expressed doubts and concerns relating to the 49 percent limit on the foreign equity participation.
Nirmala Sitharaman's acumen will be tested on the platform of the SP model on which the future of major Make In India projects like the fighters and submarines hinges. The armed forces want these platforms immediately. For them it does not matter, where from those systems will be delivered to them. The new Defence minister will have to ensure that the armed forces does not face Kargil like situation once again, when the services headquarters had to run from pillar to post to acquire critical spare parts. Probably in this backdrop she asserted that the Indian Armed Forces received all attention in terms of giving them every necessary endowment and equipment to perform their duty.
Nirmala Sitharaman realises the significance of indigenous defence capability "so that we benefit and also send these to the international market. We will ensure that Make-in-India is given full play for defence production." Achieving self sufficiency in defence equipments has been a goal of all the previous governments, but lack of political will, sufficient financial backing and administrative efficiency has derailed all the indigenisation plans. The proposed Strategic Partnership and 'Make in India' plans of the NDA government have been welcomed by the industry but have asked for major policy changes. Nirmala Sitharaman will have to use her expertise and wisdom gained from the Industry and commerce ministry to make the SP and 'Make in India' policy more rational and attractive for the Overseas Equipment Manufacturers.
The modernisation of Indian armed forces has been made to wait for the 'Make in India' and Strategic Partnership policy for long and it is high time that the new Defence Minister acts fast to give effect to her priority of military preparedness.
(The Writer is a Strategic Analyst)