The Priority List For Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman

Published in Bloomberg Quint 5 September 2017, at

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Nirmala Sitharaman’s elevation as the Union Minister of Defence was met with deserved applause for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, more predictably, a spate of news stories highlighting the “gimme” attitude of the military, with each armed service pitching its set of wants. Television channels meanwhile indulged in symbolism, portraying her – as a strappy, no-nonsense, ‘Durga’, presumably, ready to lay waste adversaries. There are the Mahishasuras to slay, many of them, she’ll find lurking in her own ministry and in the military. That should keep her busy for a long time. But, hopefully, Sitharaman will bring to her job the attributes that high-achievers of her gender are justly appreciated for – practical good sense, capacity for multi-tasking, and natural tact to make the demons smile even as she plunges the Trishul into them.


Firstly, the new defence minister has to inoculate herself against being overwhelmed and beguiled by technical jargon and minutiae and military pressure – all of which can get brains to freeze, as has regularly happened with her predecessors.


Secondly, she needs to set her goal. Does she mean to be transformational, or merely fill a South Block ministerial chair?

If transformation is what she has in her mind then it will require her to radically change the way the Ministry of Defence and the Indian military think, prioritise, and make decisions.

She’ll be upending a hoary system that, astonishingly, has been persisted with despite routinely making the wrong choices, misusing scarce national resources, and digging the country ever deeper into a strategic hole. It will require her to stomp and repeatedly on a whole bunch of very big toes. But the rewards of doing so for national security in the medium and long term will be immense.


Thirdly, Sitharaman needs to rejig the policy-making scheme to reform the functioning of the senior bureaucrats in her ministry as well as senior armed services officers she will be dealing with. The Government of India, as she’s well aware, follows a quaint tradition of civil servants making policy by defining the policy choices for the minister, thereby reducing their political bosses to ciphers.

Articulating policy is solely the minister’s task, and she will have to assert this prerogative, see to it that it is implemented within the time-frame that she sets.

She will have to hold the civilian officials and uniformed officers up and down the implementation loop, starting with the Defence Secretary, accountable for failure to achieve targets, shortfalls, and lapses. She would benefit from specialist advice and consider for this purpose having outside experts – not retired babus and the like – whose expertise she can tap. The premise here is the Ministry of Defence civil servants are mostly generalists, lack the technical expertise to render any counsel, leave alone write up policy choices. And, in this respect, to rely on technically competent military men may be to risk getting advice that is influenced by parochial service and combat arm biases.

Fourthly, this necessitates the Minister getting two policy fundamentals right.

Should China or Pakistan be the main threat to orient the military?

If she believes the latter poses the greater peril, she can save herself a lot of bother and carry on with the system in place. Additionally, if she believes that arms self-sufficiency-wise the country is doing fine by importing capital weapons platforms where it can and, where it must, cutting deals for assembling foreign weapons systems or manufacturing them under license, albeit mouthing ‘Make in India’ rhetoric, then the Minister needs to do nothing at all; the existing defence public sector units-dominated defence industry specialising in screwdriver technology can keep chugging.

If on the other hand, Sitharaman views China as the primary threat and feels that the wasteful habit of importing armaments is not the answer, not even in the short term, then the following are the priorities for her to consider.


1. Three Offensive Mountain Corps

The Doklam episode ended well this time around. But to deter China from using massive blunt force in the future, the desperate need is for three offensive mountain corps, each with an armoured division. The resources can be obtained by rationalising the present three strike corps into a single, large, composite corps for any Pakistan contingency because ‘Cold Start’ realistically is a No Start strategy, and shifting the freed up human and materiel resources to speedily raise two additional offensive mountain corps, to enable taking the fight to the People’s Liberation Army on the Tibetan plateau.

2. Indigenous Submarines

Project 75i to build yet another foreign diesel submarine from imported design makes no sense when a basic design by the submarine design directorate in the Indian Navy is available to work on, and an Indian company, Larsen & Toubro, has successfully constructed the far more technically demanding titanium-hulled Arihant-class nuclear-powered submarine.

The contract with the selected foreign ‘strategic partner’ could then be restricted to jointly translating the Indian navy design into engineering drawings and to fill other specific design and technology deficiencies.

3. Bigger Role For The Tejas

The Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) has progressed sufficiently to now outfit squadrons of the Indian Air Force. Except that HAL capacity is not enough for rapid augmentation of the Tejas aircraft in the fleet. The Defence Research and Development Organisation or the Aeronautical Development Agency should be instructed to fully transfer light combat aircraft technologies, including source codes, to two select private sector companies, with HAL retaining production rights as well. It will increase competition, labour productivity all round, and guarantee quality control. Also, The Indian Air Force should be made fully responsible for the LCA project and the follow-on advanced multi-role combat aircraft program. The defence minister should also order the IAF order-of-battle to comprise three types of aircraft — LCA/AMCA, Su-30, and FGFA (with Russia only because no other country will collaborate on such a venture).

The Navy’s Request for Information for carrier aircraft should be terminated, and the naval variant of Tejas fast-tracked for carrier operations under the Navy’s direct supervision.

4. Indigenous Hardware

Hereafter, all major hardware should be indigenously designed, developed and produced in “mission mode” without debilitating requirements of L-1 “lowest tender”, etc. which have to-date undermined plans to make the nation self-sufficient in arms. “Mission mode” is the principal reason, Sitharaman may recall, for the success garnered by all the indigenous strategic military programmes – nuclear weapons, the Agni series of ballistic missiles, and the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. Further, all arms production should be shared with the private sector companies who, like the defence PSUs, should be free to export derated versions of all the products they make to generate revenue and amortize investment.

5. New Generation Brahmos

The Brahmos supersonic cruise missile is the weapon China fears most. The New Generation (NG) smaller, lighter, Brahmos has been designed by the Russians. This should now be produced, like the LCA, by farming out its manufacture to several private sector firms, besides the Brahmos Aerospace defence PSU, so that large numbers of this newer, more lethal, missile in all its variants including the air-launched new generation version, is available more quickly to outfit Indian forces and for accelerated exports to countries on China’s periphery to keep Beijing quiet.


Finally, in league with Sushma Swaraj in the Ministry of External Affairs, Sitharaman should push in the Cabinet Committee on Security for establishing and operationalising full-fledged military bases – with the cost shared between the two ministries — in our own Andaman territories in Campbell Bay and Komorta, in North and South Agalega Islands in Mauritius, in the Seychelles, Na Thrang on the central Vietnamese coast, and on the northern Mozambique coast, as a means of enhancing the country’s diplomatic reach and political clout. The capability for distant military operations will ensure that at a minimum the extended Indian Ocean is India’s lake.

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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13 Responses to The Priority List For Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman

  1. Ho Ho Ho. You are a cheeky fellow Prof. If she were to do this, the “uniforms” (leave aside the babus or the arms lobbies) will shunt her out. Much like Suresh Prabhu in railways.

    How she achieves similar outcomes, but indirectly by encircling the “interests” will hold key. This requires Modi & PMO directly, not Sitaraman. But….lets see.

    • andy says:

      Sitaraman is here only because Modi wants it ,so don’t laugh too soon.Regarding Bharats reccomendations if even the singular one of having external experts that dont have any vested interests like the babus and the uniformed personnel as advisors at MOD,is implemented it would go a long way in making India more secure.

      Vested interests and the habit of working in silos,irrespective of national interest has been the bane of Indian security interests for too long.We cant allow turf wars to dictate Indias defense preparedness anymore,is the MOD sovereign?,or the finance ministry sovereign?,or the home ministery sovereign?or are the babus and uniformed personnel above national interests?If not, then why act as if they are?Why’s the Indian national interest secondary always?Its only because we’re so used to taking bullshit from everyone and looking the other way when problems are staring us in the face that we loose sight of what India is today and what it should be 20years from now.

      The British left behind a looters mindset,pillage and plunder what you can from India thats what its destiny is and to hell with its people.This mindset takes over any tom,dick and harry that even tastes a semblance of power,go to any government office and interact with any lowly clerk to understand what I mean,all want to loot and pillage nothing else.

  2. raja says:

    After two decades,
    Europe will become Germany
    US will become Europe
    Russia will become China
    China will become US
    Pakistan will become India
    and India… will become today’s world!

    • Aban says:

      No country has ever built an industrial base by having an open door policy with regards to imports. From defence equipments to power plants,from metro railways to electronics to solar panels, if everything can be imported why manufacture. Why not have strict Trade policy and restricts imports. Or is the import lobby too big to be screwed.

  3. Adithya says:

    Always look forward to your insights Mr. Karnad. About time the emphasis on self-sufficiency took place.

  4. Venkat says:

    Wish to see above 5 points start to happen with in this term

  5. ResumeNuclearTesting. says:

    Sir, was reading your book Nuclear Weapons & Indian Security 2002 ed. and at page 320 and then again at page 376, you indicate that India had designed and deployed 100 kiloton fission weapons with a mass of 250-300kg. Is this the case still and how much fissile material would one use?

  6. VJ says:

    any detail info about north korea h bomb test? was it success? is it possibke if india can secretly ask nk to share info on testing?

    • Shaurya says:

      😆 Sorry, but are you serious. DPRK, Pakistan and PRC are tied at the hip on nuclear issues. In the 90’s Benzair Bhutto carried a CD with nuclear bomb designs on her personal purse and hand delivered to DPRK!

  7. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    SSBN, SSN, Nirbhay, Brahmos-NG, Mating 3 Brahmos-NG to Su-30MKI, Astra Mk-2, Indian IRST, Indian Astra Seeker, Indian Torpedos, Arjun Mk-2, LCA Mk-2, AMCA, Rustom series, UCAV, BM series, BMD series are the realistic projects that Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman may be able to work on.

    These works:
    1) have already been started &/or
    2) are capable of being completed in reasonable time &/or
    3) are absolutely necessary for the future.

    With people like Ashley Tellis etc. being permanent invitees into the Indian systems and Ex-officers heading the India business of foreign suppliers, you can rest assured, pushing through even a few of these would be a great achievement. Our system is the kind that allows national level projects to be ‘managed’ by simple management of succession plans or storage procedures or mere kite-flying..Given these circumstances, there is little point in saddling a mere minister with so much expectations. Esp. in cases when they are not themselves a power center.

  8. Venky says:

    Please check the responsibilities of Defence ministry before writing such blogs. The new raksha Mantri has already stated 3 bullets as her priority.

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