Change of Guard at India’s Ministry of Defence; MP Nirmala Sitharaman country’s new Defence Minister.

While the nation prepared for celebrating its 71st Independence day, the Union Government began the humongous process of a cabinet reshuffle, with every eye transfixing on PM Modi’s pick to head the mammoth Ministry of Defence.

Infusion of a new face to MoD was imminent as it had limped without a full time leader over seven-odd months. The ever well-versed political and military circles took their shot at guessing Modi’s pick to head the MoD, senior leaders heading powerful portfolios such as Nitin Gadkari and Suresh Prabhu led the race until the last minute of the announcement.

However, the decision rolled out by the Government surprised everyone. The Modi-Amit Shah pair had pulled through yet another out-of-the-blue move with the appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as the country’s Defence Minister. Her elevation to the key ministry indicated crucial changes. MoD, besides getting a full time guard was also set to be led by a woman for the first time. With the aforesaid move, NDA government had successfully shattered a glass ceiling.

It was a fast rise through the ranks, from being selected as a Member of Parliament to a Minister of State and then as the Raksha Mantri. Within hours she had been elevated to the coveted Cabinet berth and onwards to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). This phenomenal rise has never been witnessed before and her appointment to lead the world’s second largest military force stood testimony to the trust, the ruling party’s top leadership has bestowed upon her capabilities.

An economic graduate backed by sound international business knowledge, the new Raksha Mantri (RM) has the right qualities to usher in a new era at the MoD. Addressing the media after her coronation, she said that boosting the armed forces preparedness and welfare of the forces would be her key priorities. Setting course towards meeting her goals, on her first day at the office, the RM ordered for daily briefings with all three service chiefs and senior MoD officials. An increased interaction between the top echelons on a daily basis is bound to add traction into stagnant defence deals.

In subsequent meetings with MoD officials, she emphasised upon the need to add life to the ‘Make in India’ initiative, which she said, held the right potential to make India as a self-reliant defence equipment manufacturer. Her decision to conduct Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) meet every fortnight is bound to reduce the acquisition timeframe.

Apart from the challenges in handling the ministry, the RM is also responsible for keeping abreast with the current security situation across the borders by making field outings to forward posts. Mrs. Sitharaman has taken this head-on. In her three weeks at the helm, she has visited more forward troop positions than those visited by her two immediate predecessors combined.

As the RM comes in terms with the nuances of the ministry’s working, a mountain of challenges awaits her.

Border Management

Appointment of Mrs. Sitharaman comes at a time when India is precariously treading through increasing hostilities along its Eastern and Western front. While it was the Doklam stand-off with the Chinese in East, the Indian Army is involved in a far more dangerous battle against Pakistan in combating terror on the West.

For forward deployed troops, staunch decisions coupled with increased interactions through visits to forward positions would be a great morale booster. These visits will also provide a platform for dialogue between all hierarchies. And, observations made here could undoubtedly be used by the RM to better her commitment to the forces.

Breathing life to Make in India

Defence manufacturing is one of the key focus areas in the government’s Make in India initiative, which it expected to be the magic wand in making India as a self-reliant manufacturer. However, after almost three years since the introduction of the initiative, there has been very less progress especially in the defence arena. Revival of proposals, drawing in foreign investment and technology from Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) will be a vital mission for the RM.

To realise the earnest potential of Make in India, Industrial experts believe that to realise the aforesaid focus points, drastic changes might have to be incorporated from the level of policy making. Cutting the bureaucratic red tape and increasing the synergy between the developer and the user would be effective. In fact, a change here could jump start indigenous development and manufacturing of defence equipment.

Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, India, Defence, Defense, INS Hansa
Raksha Mantri Nirmala Sitharaman receives her maiden guard of honor at INS Hansa, Goa; Courtesy – DPR, MoD.

Adding Traction to the SP Model

In May, 2017, MoD introduced the long awaited Strategic Partnership (SP) model, charting the course for procurement of equipment from Foreign OEMs in six key verticals.

Since introduction of the model, the private sector has been strongly seeking for more clarity in regard to the functioning of the model. State-run PSUs are pitching for a reboot to the program to create a level playing field. Multiple foreign OEMs such as Lockheed Martin, Saab and Boeing, which are in line for supplying equipments to the forces, have also called for increase in dialogue.

For instance, Pratyush Kumar, Chief of Boeing India, speaking recently at a seminar organised by Centre for Air Power, quipped that the private sector of the nation was in a nascent stage to absorb the complex technology that would flow into the country under the planned deals. Mr. Kumar went on to bat for the inclusion of the state-run PSUs such as HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) for hassle free technology absorption.

The SP model would yield dividends, only if all stakeholders of the industry and also the users agree in unison for the provisions made under the model. As the RM, it falls up on Mrs. Sitharaman to bridge the gap by addressing the concerns being raised by all quarters.

Boosting Defence Preparedness

Repeated reports by the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence have highlighted the critical short fallings being faced by the forward deployed troops. The CAG reports in particular have expressed grave concerns regarding the shortage of even basic war making equipments with the army, such as ammunitions for rifles, tanks and howitzers; automatic rifles, mortars, anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank missiles. The air force and navy have their due share of concerns.

A recent CAG report has made disturbing observations that India currently lacks the capability to conduct prolonged wars and notes that the War Wastage Reserves (WWR) is enough to sustain only 20 days of conflict. While MoD refutes these claims and signal that WWR levels are at satisfactory levels, senior officials unanimously agree that there is a shortage of critical equipments across all three services.

As hostilities increase across India’s borders, it is imperative that Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman at her new capacity works towards boosting the defence preparedness of the forces through the acquisition of requisite equipment.

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