The Prime Minister gets sworn in on May 26 and he has a free hand in building his team. The question is, what will be his priorities? What requires immediate attention is giving a push to capital expenditure on infrastructure. The starting point is clearing policy bottlenecks that have been holding back project implementations. The land acquisition bill, GST, insurance, controlling food inflation, investment to boost agriculture and manufacturing, are all areas that require immediate attention. These are all on the domestic front.
On the International front, the BJP led government will need to strategise and redefine our foreign policy vis-a-vis the United States, EU, China, Russia, Japan, South East Asia, Middle East and the SAARC. Its handling of Pakistan will be crucial and watched very closely by both the domestic and international stakeholders.
Any rising power has to project its economic agenda on the back of military power. The current example is that of China, which is following an active foreign policy through economic diplomacy. China has been identifying countries that can supply its ever-hungry manufacturing industry with raw materials, and offering soft loans to host countries to develop local infrastructure, with buy-back arrangements.
In addition, the advantage that China offers is that it follows a hands-off policy with regard to internal politics of that country. In return, China expects to buy support for its position in the United Nations and other platforms, on several international disputes it is facing. This is backed with massive investment in China’s defence moderni\szation to project its emerging super power status. China has a clear and well-defined long-term policy that it began implementing two decades ago.
So where does India fit into all of this? Does India follow and compete with China in the international arena? Unfortunately, India has been reacting to Chinese moves on the economic agenda, i.e., it has been trying to fight for local raw material supply in various markets where China has made its entry.
India needs to define clearly its own strategic direction over the next decade, preferably the next two decades, and plan to align the economic, diplomatic and military policy to that objective. It will have to develop a coherent and stable policy, which will transcend domestic churn in politics. Irrespective of which political party comes to power, India must pursue its defined path.
Towards this, it’s important to modernise our defence forces on priority. To enforce our strategic objectives. India has been playing a major role in safeguarding the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which India regards, and rightfully so, its region of influence. To continue this, India has to ensure it has a fully functional Blue Water Navy, on both its commands, the Eastern and Western.
India woefully lacks the capability to simultaneously deploy assets in both commands, with adequate back-ups at port. The Navy is struggling to barely keep its assets afloat, with most assets at port, for service and overhaul, at any given time. The recent spate of accidents involving naval assets have only highlighted the problems the Navy is facing.
The Naval acquisition of Scorpene stealth submarines is way behind schedule, with even Pakistan ahead on this count. Most of the on-board naval hardware with the Navy are old, Soviet-era artifacts, and the retrofit programs are terribly behind schedule, for want of funds. With the second aircraft carrier due to be deployed for full service, India will still not have blue water capability to service both commands simultaneously, as one will always be required at port for service overhaul at any given point of time.
In the context of controlling the IOR, India has to be very clear on what we need to project and ensure that the government plans its operational, administrative and financial requirements accordingly. Successive governments have shown lack of vision that is backed by long-term planning and domestic politics have forced defence modernisation to take a back seat.
The Air Force faces the same problem. It’s taken over a decade from preparing an RFQ to conducting user trials for the much-needed Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) and the same is still being negotiated with the manufacturers of the eventual winner of the contract, the French Rafael fighter. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas is still going through its development phase and user trials and that leaves India vulnerable in the light combat area. Meanwhile, Russia has been playing hardball over pricing of its spares and retrofit costs for hardware supplied to all three services.
The Army is way behind the modernisation drive. While the much highlighted 155mm Howitzer acquisition is still being debated, India plans to buy outright 145 numbers of M777 155 mm light howitzer from the US in a government-to-government deal. This is urgently required for high-altitude warfare in both the Northern and Eastern fronts. In this field, there is some hope of indigenous development through joint ventures, being led by Tata, L&T and Kalyani group. The Howitzers being developed locally are in the ‘user trial’ phase and hopefully by the end of 2015, India shall be able to meet a part of this long-pending demand.
The Soldier Modernisation Program requires heavy investments, as does the new Strike Command being mooted for the Eastern command, to be headquartered in Panagarh, West Bengal. The objective of raising this command is to offer limited first-strike capability against China. The raising of this command alone will swallow an investment of around Rs. 60,000 crore. The command will be futile if it is not backed by road, rail and airfield development in the Ladakh, Arunachal and Assam regions. Although work has started to develop the necessary infrastructure, the implementation is way behind schedule and the new government is going to be hard pressed to raise resources to take this forward on schedule.
This raises the debate for a policy on the development of an integrated Military-Industrial manufacturing base in India. India is the world’s largest buyer of arms and our foreign exchange reserves have been drained on this account, at the cost of much-needed domestic development. Successive governments have been held hostage to vested interests that have ensured that India does not privatise or develop an indigenous defence manufacturing capability.
It’s time for India to unshackle itself from decades-old and redundant policies and encourage domestic production. This will give India an industrial platform for taking lead in innovation of weapons, materials and technology, while opening up a large sector for fresh job opportunities. The US and EU are very good examples of spin-offs from innovation in military research, which have had civilian applications. This could be an area where India can emerge as a decisive player, given its large pool of technical talent.
Narendra Modi, in his run up to the elections, has indicated support for an indigenous military development capability and now is his chance to walk the talk. If the new government can initiate a clear policy direction within the first twelve months in office, then India could well see major investments flowing in the area in the next three years.
It’s time for India to turn a new leaf.