[Defence Minister Sitharaman in a meeting with CAS, ACM BS Dhanoa, and his principal staff officers at Air HQ]
What qualities, other than her readiness to take direction from the PMO, commended Nirmala Sitharaman to Narendra Modi are not known. But as Defence Minister she has proved slow on the uptake and prone to make atrocious statements that have bucked up the spirits of the active import lobby within the government of India. Such as her view that the government couldn’t reasonably compel the armed services to buy Indian! And, per party line, she has turned combative in defending the indefensible — the contract for the Rafale combat aircraft
Now that the controversies generated, in the main, by both the Rafale combat aircraft deal with France and the signing of COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) with the United States have taken wing she, at her schoolmarmish worst, has compounded the problems for the Modi regime. Her flurry of public explanations far from taking the BJP government off the hook, have impaled it more deeply in a mess, not that many in the media have noticed! [See https://indianexpress.com/article/india/defence-minister-nirmala-sitharaman-rafale-fighter-deal-controversy-india-pakistan-china-relations-doklam-5353413/ But let’s consider the issues point-by-point and get into the matter more deeply.
COMCASA & “balance” in relations
India, Sitharaman says, has kept a “balance” in relations with Russia and the US. Apparently, in government’s thinking, the placatory buys of a few items of Russian hardware — the buy of five batteries of the Russian S-400 air defence system, the best in the business, for $5 billion plus, and Moscow being fobbed off with the $2.2 billion contract for four (Admiral Grigorovich-class/advanced Indian Talwar-class) frigates that could have well been executed in Indian private sector shipyards with capabilities lying fallow. In other words, Prime Minister Modi makes military procurement choices entirely unmindful of the larger geostrategics involved or even the demands of his own, albeit flawed, ‘Make in India’ policy, assuming he was ever serious about producing anything of any note indigenously and hence generating jobs, filling the order books of the local defence industry, especially in the private sector, and spurring the Indian economy rather than putting foreign defence industries in the clover.
This is evidenced from Sitharaman’s view, bordering on stupidity, that by making these acquisitions from Moscow Delhi, has in fact, “kept its sovereign independence” while in the next breath saying, without so much as a hint of irony, that signing the COMCASA injected a dose of “strategic strengthening” in the relationship with America built up over “past two years”, thereby taking it “legitimately forward”! In other words, by formally entering Washington’s orbit as an American satellite — after all the US requires COMCASA-type of agreements to be signed only by treaty allies of the US — and permitting the US military and intelligence agencies to mine the most classified communications traffic within the Indian government and military singularly to further American national interest and India’s national interest, ONLY secondarily, India has somehow retained its balance and, by implication, its strategic autonomy!! And with the US penetration into the nooks and crannies of Indian military apparatus, there’s no way Delhi can assuage the fears of Russia about its frontline equipment being compromised. So what happens to the Akula-II sub in India Navy’s employ?
More, with “balance” in relations interpreted in terms of military buys, what happens when the Russian source gradually dries up? And, even more, how does Modi mean to tackle the impossible security situation when faced, as I have flagged in my book and recent posts, with Russia encouraging Islamabad with armaments at “friendship prices” to become the third leg in the strategic triad — Russia-China-Pakistan? Does anybody in Delhi give any thought to these most obvious outcomes of India pledging its troth to America?
Just how deep the rot triggered by such strategic thinking has seeped into the Indian body politic my be gauged from the fact that while the opposition parties have raised a hue and cry about the Rafale, there’s not a murmur of dissent anywhere about India losing its status and foreign policy leverage as an independent state and being reduced to an American hanger-on, courtesy COMCASA. This would mean that among all political parties at least there’s a consensus view fostered by what I have called an eco-system in Delhi supportive of this over-lean towards the US and propped up by the denizens of the Establishment — political class, serving and former diplomats, senior civil servants, and armed services officers. The simplest explanation for this is that the mind of the bulk of the Indian Establishment is so befogged by self-interest that it has no appreciation of the country’s long time role and its underlying geopolitical logic as the ultimate “balancer” in the global power politics scene. In which case, it really is curtains for India. In all this what is lost sight of by the Modi dispensation, as I have argued in my book — ‘Staggering Forward’, is that given the current correlation of forces — of a rapidly advancing China under Xi in league with an equally potent Russia led by Putin, it is the US that desperately needs India, NOT the other way around.
In the event, instead of laying down the metric to Pompeo and Mattis at the 2×2/2+2 forum of exactly matching every instance of CAATSA sanctions waiver with a small give on India’s part, and addressing interoperability concerns by hitching up the Centrix system to Indian airborne and afloat platforms (as done in the Malabar naval exercises to-date), and requiring that any and all acquisitions from America and anywhere else will hereafter only be on a TOTAL and comprehensive transfer of technology — including source codes, operational algorithms, etc., Messrs Sushma Swaraj & Sitharaman, as directed by Modi, just lay down and let the Pompeo-Mattis steamroller run over them. In the process, the country’s sovereignty has been impugned, its national interest undermined, and the integrity of India’s military security effort pretty much destroyed. But not satisfied, Sitharaman expressed gratitude to the US Defence Secretary James Mattis — who, incidentally, is expected to be fired from his job by a truculent President Trump after the US Congressional elections in November, for being helpful in pushing India’s cause on the waiver of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions, going so far as to say that without it there would have “been a bit of hump in the relationship.”
But what waiver, pray, has Mattis been able to secure for India? Other than the promise of case-by-case waiver, zero, nothing, nada. And, Trump yesterday authorized the CAATSA sanctions to get underway, so far without any mention of waiver for any country, and certainly no waiver for India on the S-400 or on the Iranian oil issue, Chabahar or no Chabahar. This last is forcing the Indian public sector oil companies and refineries to cutout Iranian oil imports because of loss of insurance cover. That India’s falling in with Washington will imperil ties with Iran and India’s Iran-Afghan-Central Asia strategy seemingly bothers no one in the PMO. But shouldn’t Modi worry that the cascading effects of blockading of Iranian oil is reduction in the global oil supply, and the rocketing of the petrol price to Indian consumers. Won’t Rs 150/litre (the price line estimated by experts) markedly diminish his re-election chances next year? But Modi so trusts Trump to do right by India, despite every evidence to the contrary, that his government has even held off imposing counter-tariffs on US exports to India in response to tariffs on Indian steel, aluminum, etc., perhaps in the forlorn hope that the US will relent. But Trump is not motivated by other than American national interest unlike Modi who seems to be swayed mostly by sentiment.
But conforming, moreover, to this regime’s wonky idea of “balance” in relations and in keeping with the so-called “Wuhan spirit”, the defence minister sought to rationalize China’s consistently aggressive stance on the LAC/Tibetan border that has now expanded. An armed PLA incursion a fortnight back, opened a new front for potential hostilities — in Uttarakhand in the Central Sector that the Indian army had hitherto considered an inert border. “(At) the Line of Actual Control, ” intoned Sitharaman, “several parts are not yet defined, and there is a difference in perception —- both sides disagree, and periodic flashpoints occur. The frequency of this keeps going up and comes down.” Obviously, she hasn’t considered the likelihood in the future of this up and down curve of hostilities staying up or going vertical.
The problem at heart is that Sitharaman sees her job as creating as little disruption as possible, which aim is furthered by doing nothing, or letting every thing proceed as before — which in the Raksha Mantri’s case means approving ever indent for foreign hardware by the armed services that crosses her ministerial desk. But let her words do the talking: “You have seen the pace at which we are clearing procurements, CNCs (commercial negotiation committees) are working at a feverish pace. We are pushing them hard to get procurements moving faster. I am also looking at it from the perspective of the total expenditure of the government and how much of it is coming to the ministry. What I find missing in this debate is a checklist of, let’s say 20 items built over the last 12-15 years, procurement not having caught up with that incremental change in that list. Would I now complete that list as it stands, or would I say, please look at that list again and re-establish for yourself the requirements?”
This little circumlocution on her part hides the absence of any structural mechanism within GOI/MOD for inter se prioritization of military requirements. This is reinforced by her statement “What I find missing [in the delays in the defence procurement debate] is a checklist of, let’s say 20 items built over the last 12-15 years, procurement not having caught up with that incremental change in that list. Would I now complete that list as it stands, or would I say, please look at that list again and re-establish for yourself the requirements?” It essentially reveals her ignorance of her role: It is not to stamp every requirement that any armed service forwards to MOD but to apply her mind and decide what needs funding and to what extent and why.
This is precisely the sort of thing she admits the BJP government has failed to do. To wit, “yes, the first two years of this government were spent in assessing, what happened to the defence procurement. You could not really procure anything as you were looking…at the backlog, at what it is [sic] operational efficiency which is taking a beating….but legitimately, we had to look up and see where is one service as opposed to another, what is our readiness?” In short, this is a barefaced admission, the MOD has failed in its basic task of evaluating on a comparative basis that funding what program will get what results and towards what end. This explains the regime tying itself in knots on the Rafale issue.
First, re: buying just two squadrons. The IAF Chief, Dhanoa, has stated, that this meets the supposedly imperative need. This buy Sitharaman said “is not unusual for a quick induction. Every time you induct one squadron, there is requirement for a lot of other paraphernalia. Given a set of parameters, if you quickly want to induct, two is the ideal. Is this the first time? No. The first time was in 1985-86, when the MiG[-29] was bought for the first time, urgently — we got two squadrons. Then Mirage[2000s] — again two squadrons. If I remember the milepost dates right, 1985-86 once, then the mid-1990s, then again when [we] were looking at fourth-generation you wanted to buy, it was two squadrons. Even Sukho[30MKIs], I think, (was) two squadrons.” Dhanoa added: “Whenever the government felt the air power element of the defence forces is likely to be in a disadvantageous position, it has gone in for emergency purchases of the aircraft under the umbrella of the inter-governmental agreement.” “The history is”, he said, “that the government had undertaken emergency purchase of fighter aircraft on several occasions in the past.” [ https://indianexpress.com/article/india/iaf-chief-b-s-dhanoa-rafale-deal-will-held-take-on-adversaries-5351819/ ]
But let’s switch back to Sitharaman: “Air Force technical details will tell you that for any emergency-based induction, it is always two squadrons, and not more than that. So that justifies why you settled for two. Because in ready, flyway condition, that is all you can induct. Otherwise you have to spend a lot more on creating other paraphernalia. Whereas when you wanted 126, what were you trying to get? One squadron in flyway, the rest were being manufactured here. And it was being manufactured here, you have a certain time-line, as per which the IAF could have built the paraphernalia for each one as they came.”
Not sure who briefed the defence minister before she agreed to this interview — hopefully nobody from Vayu Bhavan, because her utterances bear the hallmarks of confused civil servants manning MOD, but she makes no sense whatsoever. Her view that IAF’s induction capability — given the paucity of support and servicing infrastructure in-country — is limited to 2 squadrons and, by inference, that that’s why Modi’s deal is better than the one UPA had managed to secure which’d have seen only one squadron bought in flyway condition, with the rest of the 110 planes assembled at HAL, verges on sheer nonsense. Whether it is one new fighter aircraft or 126, the necessary infrastructure buildup is the same — only the scale of the holdings of spares will differ. But what she didn’t say is that Rafale and its entire support and 2nd and 3rd line servicing complex will turn an already nightmarish logistics problem arising out of the excessive diversity of aircraft in IAF’s inventory, into a hellish problem for the nation, especially in war.
And, on another important matter, she explained that any G2G (government-to-government) arrangement for buying military equipment necessarily requires that the indigenous screwdrivering-qua-production of the item be allotted to public sector units. She said this in reference to the Russian Kalashnikov company’s desire to make its family of assault/close-in warfighting weapons being translated into custom for the Ordnance Factory Board — keeping alive probably the most ridiculously inefficient DPSU in the country. Going into an election year and unwilling to provide ammunition to the Congress party, Modi nixed Kalashnikov partnering the PM’s co-favourite (along with Reliance Defence) — Adani Group at the last moment. ”I would prefer to have them produce it through an OFB”, averred Sitharaman. “Over and above that, if they want to produce with anybody [Adani Group], I have no issues….Anybody is free to choose whoever, but when it comes to inter-governmental agreements, I would prefer to do this.”
In its penultimate year in office, the “nationalist”, right of centre, “government has no business to be in business”[Modi’s words] believing BJP regime has chosen, as in every other field, to when not resorting to imports of everything, to sticking with the statist solution in the defence sphere as well.