The military fraternity had a lot of expectations from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his NDA government, as they felt successive governments in the last two decades failed to consider their requirements.
But, after five years, when it comes assessing the Modi government's tenure, the military finds it a mixed bag. Bold decisions like taking on Pakistan-backed terrorism, carrying out the 2016 surgical strike, Balakot air strikes, key procurements including Rafale fighters and S-400 air defence missile systems have received lots of praise. But, at the same time, some believe that there has been too much rhetoric and too little substance. Allocation of lowest ever budget not aligned with modernisation requirements, to politicisation of armed forces and confused policy on Kashmir have been some of misses. Moreover, four defence ministers in a span of five years have also affected the decision-making to an extent.
Modi inherited from the outgoing UPA government a defence ministry besieged with scandal, and an Army desperately short of critical assets. Situation was so critical that even ammunition of tanks and artillery guns was in short supply—not enough to sustain ten days of war. Corridors of South Block, which houses the ministry of defence, was mired in multiple scandals—from the Ordinance Factory Board scam, Tatra-BEML military vehicle procurement, VVIP choppers and the Rolls Royce-HAL kickback scandals.
As the Union government continues to put the country's defence preparedness on the list of their top priorities, budget constraints have always stuck out like a sore thumb. While presenting the Union budget last year, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had mentioned allocation for defence as a priority, but he could only give a modest increase of 7.81 per cent. Major chunk of the defence allocation went to pay salaries and pensions, as, for the first time, spending on defence pensions went up to Rs 1.08 lakh crore. It was was a sharp increase of 26 per cent compared to the previous year. Besides, salary bill for the serving personnel came to Rs 1.15 lakh crore last year. In the year 2018-19, India spent only 1.57 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the lowest since the 1962 war with China. And China allocated 3 per cent and Pakistan spends 3.5 per cent of their GDP on defence. While India has 1.25 soldiers per 1,000 people, China has 2.23 and Pakistan 4.25.
The Standing Committee on Defence, in its report tabled in Parliament in January, highlighted that the budgetary allocations have not been enough for the Indian Army’s modernisation programme, to equip itself for a ‘two-front war’. The deposition of the vice chief of Army Staff before a parliamentary panel in March last year exposed the state of modernisation in defence, as he claimed that 78 per cent of Indian Army's weaponry is vintage.
Despite tall claims towards achieving self-reliance in the defence sector, India’s arms imports shot up 24 per cent between 2013 and 2017. No major contract under the Make In India category has really taken off, and critical defence procurement happened with no element of transfer of technology, and continues to top the list of global import of military hardware.
"Last five years, bold decisions have been taken in the procurement path. Earlier, there was indecisiveness in procurement and things were kept on hold for future. Rafale is the best example of fast decision making, keeping aside its political controversy," Laxman Behra, research fellow of the IDSA, said. “On the flipside,” he said, ”private sector has not yet got the required push, despite tall claims of promoting indigenous defence industry under the Make in India theme."
Besides Rafale, in late October last year, India signed a deal with Russia to acquire two Krivak III-class stealth frigates for $950 million. In October 2016, the two countries had signed another deal for four such frigates, two of which will be built in India through a technology transfer arrangement. Notwithstanding fear of sanctions from United States, India has gone ahead with an agreement to lease another nuke submarine from Russia.
After a nine-year wait, the Indian Army has finally started getting basic essentials like bullet-proof jackets. A Rs 639 crore deal to supply 1.86 lakh bullet-proof jackets was signed between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and private sector SMPP Private Limited last year. The delivery of the jackets has commenced. Indian soldiers are likely to get 72,000 Sig Sauer Sig-716 rifles to replace the INSAS rifles. The Army has managed to get the first artillery gun after three decades, with the induction of the M777 ultra light Howitzers and K9 Vajra; homemade Dhanush artillery gun is ready for induction. Last month, government inaugurated the production line of AK 203 assault rifle.
The deal for 15 Chinook and 12 Boeing AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopters was signed in July 2018. Only last week, the first lot of four Chinook helicopters have been inducted. Apache attack helicopters will soon start coming to India.
However, little has been done towards the IAF's depleting combat strength, despite the Rafale contract and upcoming production plan for LCA Tejas. The world's fourth largest air force, which had a strength of 42 Squadrons of fighter jets in 2002, will be down to 28 by 2020 and further down to 19 squadrons by 2042 if government does not take speedy action, according to an internal estimate of the IAF. Process of acquiring 114 fighter jets is still in its early stages.
Critical and important defence programmes like mid-air refueller and IAF's 1960s vintage Avro transport aircraft are still hanging in balance. No progress has been made in army's need for Light Utility Helicopters—a lifeline for soldiers posted at the world’s highest battlefield on the inhospitable Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas. The acquisition process went through three cancellations, the latest in 2014.
"It is a mixed bag. The positives demonstrated an unprecedented politico-military resolve to counter the Pakistan-sponsored proxy war, executing surgical strikes in PoK and airstrikes in Balakot. Focus on self-reliance in defence, promoting two defence corridors, impetus to modernisation and weaponisation of space are other abilities. Handling of Doklam, ensuring continued peace and tranquility with China, is another," said Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, former director general of military operations, when asked about the performance of Modi government.
Counting the negatives, he said: lowest ever defence budget not aligned with modernisation, politicisation of armed forces, not understanding the sensitivities of soldiers and withdrawing entitled rations, opening of cantonments, fighting against the NFU grant for the Army in Supreme Court, appealing against grant of disability pension to soldiers, four defence ministers in five years, not sanctioning CDS, which was in the manifesto, a truncated OROP, degrading status of armed forces in relation to other services and a confused Kashmir policy.
Brig Rajeev Bhutani (retd) claims that steps taken to provide best available weaponry to the forces are excellent. "Steps taken to equip the forces are bold and excellent. Government to government deals are the best and the fastest way to modernise the forces. It eliminates the cumbersome and lengthy process of formulating the GSQR and then going through RFI, RFP, trials on NCNC basis, technical bids, commercial bids, lowest bidder and so on."
He acknowledged Make in India for defence industry, calling it a great initiative. But, he said, no progress has taken place because of procedural constraints. "Here also, the need is to identify a particular equipment from a country, and if they are willing to transfer the technology. The rest should be left to the government. Remember, any foreign OEM that brings its manufacturing base to India has to see progress for another 20 years minimum," Bhutani argues.
While rating the government, former northern army commander Lt Gen HS Panag gives 3/10 to the Modi government as far as reforms and modernisation are concerned. "Too much of rhetoric and too little substance. Mostly bluffing the people on crucial matters on defence. The Balakot strike and Pakistan air force's response has exposed Pakistan's capability to respond in kind and we do not have the technological military edge to prevent Pakistan from responding. We have no military edge over Pakistan," Panag said.