India’s Defence Sector is Looking for a Visionary Modi

A Chinese commentator scornfully, or in praise (it is not clear which), called Narendra Modi “a pragmatist, not a visionary”. Pragmatism in the context of the over-bureaucratized Indian state translates into the Prime Minister being led by his nose by the babus. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, whose IIT engineering credentials led many to expect a problem-solver, is proving himself neither a pragmatist nor a visionary, only a ‘please-all’ politician, seemingly approving every military hardware procurement proposal sent his way — the unmet demands of the armed services easily exceed rupees fifteen lakh crore. In the financially straitened circumstances the government finds itself in, the treasury has funds enough for only a few of the goods our uniformed services have indented for. Given the vagaries of the system, no service can be sure it will get what it wants.

Prioritising Expenditures -The Way Ahead

The reasonable way out in this situation is to prioritize expenditure programmes, something apparently beyond Parrikar or, even his boss, Modi (to wit, the latter’s off-the-cuff decision whilst in Paris to buy 36 French Rafale combat aircraft. It will keep the French aviation sector in the clover at the cost of competitive bidding, transfer of technology — to help his own “Make in India” policy, and of choosing the most economical Su-30MKI option that Parrikar, incidentally, was partial to).

The transactions for the US-made C-17 and C-130J airlifters and the P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft and for the Rafale fighter showed foreign arms companies and governments how to crack the frustrating puzzle of India’s defence procurement system: approach (earlier Manmohan Singh, now) Modi for multi-billion dollar government-to-government (G2G) contracts.

No problems, no hassles, happy customer, happier suppliers. This method works because, in the absence of a mechanism in the Government of India for inter se prioritization, all defence acquisitions decisions are essentially ad hoc any way, and made by the prime minister and/or finance minister and/or defence minister, using metrics of their choice.

But the G2G route still being an exception, the outcome in terms of actual armaments materializing normally from the procurement pipeline today is no different from when Parrikar’s Congress party predecessor A.K. Antony held court. Antony refused to make any decision attended by the slightest whiff of corruption. Given the nature of the international arms trade and the commission-baksheesh-good times habituated Indian system managers, this was akin to seeking a virgin in a bordello.

So, Antony stayed out of the cat-house, cut no deals and, by the end of his term, had reduced the armed services chiefs to a bunch of blithering hand-wringers. But, in his seven years, at least, he made no howlers.

The Please-all Mr Manohar Parrikar

Parrikar, on the other hand, has proved he is no Solomon. Called on to decide which of two women was mother of a child claimed by both he would probably have cleaved the baby down the middle! That is what he did with the new 17 (Mountain Strike) Corps under raising.

Saying the fund crunch mandated it he halved its strength to 35,000 troops and saved Rs 32,000 crore. It, presumably, is another example of “wise use of money” that he said led to the purchase of only 36 Rafales (as against the requirement of 126 aircraft). For all the good the two Rafale squadrons and the truncated Mountain Corps will do, he might as well trash them both.

What it reveals about Parrikar and the BJP government is that, like Antony and the Congress regime before them, they are not applying their mind, perhaps, because it requires a broader perspective and a threat-reorienting political decision they are fearful of making. China is emerging, finally (whew!), as the consensual main-threat.

Hence, rationally speaking, the army’s three strike corps for the Pakistan front absorbing 17%-22% of the annual defence budget should be rationally reconfigured to one composite armour-mechanized corps for contingencies in the west, with the funds and manpower thus freed up switched to form three offensive mountain corps for operations in Tibet to keep the Chinese forces there honest.

Why is this so difficult for Messrs Modi and Parrikar to understand and act on? As I have been arguing for over two decades, it is not the scarcity of resources but their misuse, owing to a complicit Indian government and military that is the problem.

Time for an Overhaul

The mismatch between resources and requirements will only grow especially in the face of demands by powerful legacy combat arms, such as the plains/desert-limited armoured and mechanized formations, including a massive self-propelled artillery element, that are irrelevant to 21st Century warfare transitioning to network-centred, robotic, remotely-controlled, long range, precision munitions. Then again, the Indian armed forces are pretty antique, as is their thinking and, in that, they are in sync with the government.

Published in The Quint, May 16, 2015 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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5 Responses to India’s Defence Sector is Looking for a Visionary Modi

  1. Shaurya says:

    Parrikar has said at the India Today conclave that the monies saved due to non-execution of MMRCA would be used to buy the Tejas. Let us see.

  2. Atul says:

    Since you have mentioned in the last paragraph, it is actually quite funny to see Indian Army craving for inducting artillery guns. All sorts of SPG artillery, ultra light artillery and towed artillery is being peddled by foreign OEMs and there is no end to arguments and requests for their purchase.

    I said its funny because globally, major powers have started shifting from artillery induction towards guided bombs. So US Army is going ahead with SDB, JDAMS and GPS Guided Rockets in HIMARS and other MLRS systems. They figured out that there is only 6-7 kg of explosive in a 40 kg shell of 155mm artillery, whereas the explosive in a 227 mm HIMARS rocket is double than that. JDAMS and SDB have even more. So not only guided rockets are more efficient, they are also accurate and cheaper to produce while being extremely mobile. Their range is also double than the traditional artillery. Taking the cue, even Chinese PLA has not inducted 155mm x52 cal artillery much, even though they are exporting it left, right and center. Chinese PLA is more into rockets, guided and unguided, and has been going through iterative developments of Russian SMERCH 300mm while exporting to Pakistan, Turkey and everyone else.

    Instead of looking towards future of guided shells and rockets, MLRS of longer range and increasing mobility of firepower, Indian Army is looking for the “king of battle” – aka- artillery. Then again, strategic awareness and India are alien to each other.

  3. Shail says:

    The LTIPP was precisely the prioritisation you mention, before it died due to lack of budgetary and regulatory support. Also, lack of financial support, poor understanding application by the politico-bureaucratic elite would be a more truthful reason than perhaps antiquated thought by the Armed Forces. The western threat has not exactly gone away, and declining combat ratios and a creeping quality match up ( AMRAAMs, Attk Heptrs, F-16 Block 50/52 etc) is cause for concern. The time tested 3:1 superiority requirement of offensive forces, if diluted presumes that strategically we have agreed upon a defensive posture in the west even in a single front scenario.
    The 36 are of course stopgap, they barely replace losses. Tejas is not exactly confidence inspiring, especially against the Chinese. in most scenarios a Clean configuration fighter cannot even reach 10 km inside enemy airspace. Its basically for defensive Close air support and point AD in own airspace. Again an aircraft built with a defensive mindset, useless as a credible offensive weapon of any relevance in aerial warfare.
    AMCA…yes if it fructifies soon enough, which seems unlikely. Over reliance on Russians – very Dicey, Frenchies – Chors, HAL – nincompoops — beg pardon -INCOMPETENT Noncompoops ( cant even build an IJT), what are the short term alternatives?
    Why spend as a Nation on CRPF, CISF and a host of paramilitaries? integrate them with the military and rationalise the figure why have double the numbers under arms?
    The MSC decision may have other elements.
    In short while i am in broad agreement, but the immediate present and short term future does not present any immediate solutions. We appear to be dawdling along with the successive heirarchies hoping..” It wont happen on my watch” well i hope it doesnt, cause it it does it going to be grief

  4. Shaurya says:

    Parrikar now saying, when funds are available again, we will expand the MSC. He is freezing the MSC to what it is now @35,000 troops. What are we running here the defense of a country or a fly by night operation? LTIPP has presumable made this as part of their 15 year plan and DAC approved this in 2012, which is a 5 year plan. Are all these plans of the MoD completely useless? It is painful to know, that basic capacity building changes by the week of the day by the minister in power!!!

  5. Shail says:

    with no financial committment the LTIPP is just a piece of paper…UPA is as much to blame as the present lot

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