Having addressed a series of long-pending issues of modernisation and 'Make in India' initiatives, Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar can now seriously get down to the most critical reform related to professionalising the structures of the Ministry of Defence. In the recent past, some path-breaking initiatives have come to light. Some of these are worthy of note. The defence procurement policy document has been almost completed and most of it has been placed in the public domain. The transparency of public policy is fundamental to the success of his contribution to the nation.
In a reasonably short period, 24 items of various categories have been awarded for indigenous design and development by the private sector. Checks and balances for completion of time-bound projects along with necessary incentives have been stipulated. This includes missile targets, smooth-bore gun barrels for tanks, diesel propulsion plants and many other systems including the manufacture of 100 new mobile artillery guns to L&T.
The selection of strategic partners from the private sector for long term partnerships has progressed with private sector experts leading the study group. Such a study was unimaginable in the old structures of the Ministry. Suspicion and excessive secrecy were tools used to wrap all such discussions in a packet called security considerations and national interest. The 'blind leading the blind' was the order of the day.
Sceptics, as always, question innovative and path-breaking processes but to take bold decisions and free us from the shackles of the pre-reforms era, is by itself a strong message to all. The Ministry of Defence has for too long been led by pusillanimous ministers with little or no inclination to expedite the process of decision-making. They were ably supported by bureaucrats, who were in many cases in transit to greener pastures.
The three wings of our armed forces continue to function as attached offices of the ministry. By definition and existing business rules, they have no role to play in decision-making at the MoD.
In the backdrop of the above, two recent decisions taken by the leadership have raised eyebrows. The first was the outright purchase of a reduced number of Rafale fighters and the second was the push for the acceptance of LCA Tejas, the Indian fighter — much delayed, but which attracted sufficient eye balls at the Bahrain air show.
Given the depleting force-levels of the Indian Air Force, the option to arrest the decline can only be through an expeditious induction route, while simultaneously pursuing the medium and long-term induction strategy.
Under the earlier dispensation, this was done in the case of the Indian Navy to buttress the decline of force-levels, by placing orders with Russia for the Talwar Class Frigates and Italy for fleet tankers. Except that in the case of Rafale, the heads of governments jointly arrived at a decision with no middlemen to siphon off commissions. It could not have happened without the concurrence of the Air Force and the resolve not to vacillate or equivocate. That is a big change in the style of leadership. The consultative process was matched by the ability to take decisions in national interest.
Next is the decision to sell the Brahmos missile to Vietnam.
The strategic dimension of this decision is considerable in the geopolitical context and the Chinese intransigence in matters of concern to India. Becoming a member of MTCR clears the deck for sale to other Southeast Asian nations that wish to strengthen their maritime capabilities.
The above must be seen in the context of Exercise Malabar with Japanese participation, concluding agreements with Iran on Chabahar and soft power measures brought to bear in West Asia and Afghanistan. Reforms in the decision-making process and directions given to the armed forces cannot be led either by the armed Forces or the bureaucracy. All such attempts in western democracies have been led by the political leadership.
Why then did we vacillate in 2002, when the Group Of Ministers strongly recommended wide-ranging changes in the manner in which the MoD functioned? It was because there was insufficient domain knowledge on matters concerning national defence, both in the bureaucracy and among the leadership, save a few.
As a witness to the whole process, it can be said with certainty that two eminent personalities played a vital role in arriving at the recommendations of the committee of defence management: Arun Singh, arguably the most knowledgeable technocrat on matters military and Jaswant Singh, a former soldier whose scholarly pursuits on India's security are quite unmatched to this day. Such was the mastery over the subject of reforming the structure of the MoD that it is fair to say that both the military and the bureaucracy were unable to match wits with them.
With the departure of these worthies, the process was dismantled by short-sighted senior military leaders who were too busy guarding their turf and a very relieved bureaucracy that had no stakes at all in reforming the structure.
That Parrikar, who has been at the helm of affairs, has revived the process to reform, has currently been a subject relegated to foot notes. One reason for underplaying his resolve may well be the creation of additional sub-committees. They are seen as mere delaying tactics to avoid taking a difficult but necessary decision. If Parrikar were to consult Arun Singh, perhaps he would be wiser in his attempts to push for the much-needed reforms and to avoid potholes on the path to ruthlessly implementing them.
Remember, reforms for MoD is what GST is to GDP.
The author is a retired vice-admiral of the Indian Navy and former chief, Southern Naval Command. Views expressed are personal