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Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parrikar, Modi’s first and incumbent defence ministers respectively, perhaps hoped that the poor record of their predecessor AK Antony, India’s longest continuously serving defence minister, would help gloss their own record. Instead, it’s been quite the opposite.
Parrikar seems to have spent the last several months cleaning up what he insists is a fiscal and policy mess bequeathed to this government and overlooked by the dual-hatted Jaitley (who also served as finance minister). But is Parrikar leaving the place tidier than he found it, or laying down an unhelpful legacy of his own? Three areas are worth looking at more closely: the slashing of the much advertised 17 Corps, the sudden re-jigging of a deal to purchase France’s Rafale fighter aircraft, and, most importantly, the vexed question of reforming India’s military command.
Slashing the mountain strike corps
Two years ago, the previous Congress-led government announced its intention to raise a fourth strike corps, the 17 Corps. This, unlike the other three (1, 2, and 21), would be directed at China rather than Pakistan, and so configured for mountain warfare. It would comprise two infantry divisions, in addition to three artillery brigades, three armoured brigades, and a host of supporting land and air units. Mountain units aren’t as mobile as those that fight in the plains, and so require plentiful airlift, particularly helicopters, and light artillery. 17 Corps would be large, at around 80,000 men, and expensive, with a total bill running to well over $10 billion, $1.2 billion of which would have to be spent every year into the early 2020s. To put that in perspective, the Indian Army’s entire allocation in the 2015-6 budget was $16 billion. As Parrikar asked rhetorically, ‘where is the money?’ (The answer, though not the one he was looking for, is that it is tied up in Army salaries and other revenue).
Parrikar has responded by more than halving the size of 17 Corps to just 35,000 men, and proposing that the Army take a long, hard look at its current strike corps and other Pakistan-facing units. This will have mixed results. On the one hand, loudly raising new units on paper and then quietly slashing them sends a signal of weakness, even fecklessness, to your adversaries. Critics will accuse Parrikar of gutting India’s modest offensive capability against China even before it gets off the ground. On the other hand, downsizing also creates an opportunity to ensure that the pruned 17 Corps can now actually afford the equipment and supporting platforms it needs if it is to be combat effective.
The Rafale deal
The second choice, one in which Parrikar seems to have been largely uninvolved, is India’s unexpected decision in April to purchase 36 French Rafale fighters, multirole aircraft, in so-called ‘flyaway’ condition. The catch is that India originally wanted to buy 126 aircraft, and was using the leverage of such a large order to negotiate a substantial transfer of technology from France to India. Although the idea goes back years, it dovetailed perfectly with Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. It now seems that India effectively blinked, with nothing to be made in India and everything to be imported. In the last three years, Indian arms imports have grown by 56 per cent. This government is close to failing its first serious test at addressing that concerning trend.
The deal also places a huge question mark over what will become of the remaining 90 aircraft, required to keep the Indian Air Force at reasonable strength. Parrikar has suggested, almost off-hand, that India might buy another light, single-engine fighter to supplement the indigenous Tejas, as part of the process of replacing the ageing MiG-21. This could include the Swedish Gripen NG fighter jet, a cheaper but attractive aircraft that had lost out to the Rafale earlier.
Yet this throws up fresh problems. It would further increase the types of aircraft in the IAF’s inventory, something that has been an issue since the 1990s, thereby increasing the burden on training and maintenance. It is also comparing apples and oranges: the Gripen and Rafale have different strengths and weaknesses, so the optimal balance between them would depend entirely on the kind of air force India wants to develop. Parrikar has justified the deal by calling it ‘oxygen relief’ for the air force, but short-term impulsive buys will generate problems down the line.
Elusive defence reform
The government’s decisions on both the mountain strike corps and Rafale are bold choices, even if it’s unclear whether they are good ones. But a third area has been largely ignored. It is widely accepted that India’s civil-military relations and higher defence management are unfit for the purposes of a rising, ambitious power in the top tier of Asian military forces. Successive government-appointed committees stretching back decades and innumerable experts have made it clear that India’s three services must be stitched together with a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or equivalent post, sitting above the three service chiefs, who would be capable of giving the government coherent advice on military matters and imposing unity of purpose on the Army, Air Force, and Navy. As Anit Mukherjee, a scholar of Indian civil-military relations, wrote this month, ‘Left to themselves, they have not even been able to agree on training their musicians together, let alone pooling resources for joint training and logistics’.
In mid-March, Parrikar candidly acknowledged that ‘integration of the three forces does not exist in the existing structure’, and promised that ‘in the next two to three months my cabinet note with the recommendation for a CDS will go to the Cabinet Committee on Security for the final decision’. He added that ‘a CDS is a must’. This is extremely promising, but extreme caution is in order. If the minister is serious, he should draw on the wealth of studies and recommendations produced by past committees to set out his vision for defence reforms. Every past effort has foundered on political and bureaucratic opposition. Parrikar is likelier than not to go down as another minister who raised expectations of reform and fell short, unless he can persuade his prime minister to invest serious political capital here.