‘INS Vikramaditya’ best illustrates many of the defence challenges the Modi government must meet.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not have chosen a better setting than the deck of India’s new aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya for his first visit outside the national capital and the first field engagement with India’s armed forces. India’s latest and most sophisticated defence platform offered a fabulous stage to reinforce Modi’s image as a strong leader and underline the BJP’s traditional commitment to vigorous national defence. In his address to the sailors on board, Modi promised that his government would keep the multiple commitments made during the extended election campaign — from the implementation of the “one-rank one-pension” scheme to the construction of a national war memorial. Modi also reaffirmed the pledges he had made for bringing the most advanced defence technologies to the Indian armed forces and replacing costly weapons imports with indigenous arms production.
Some of the defence challenges inherited by the Modi government are best illustrated by the INS Vikramaditya. If long delays and massive price escalation marked the acquisition of the aircraft carrier from Russia, the UPA government did not provide sufficient funds and political support for the construction of an indigenous carrier at the Cochin Shipyard. The UPA government’s mismanagement of naval arms acquisition was compounded by the huge gulf between the immense power potential of the INS Vikramaditya and the utter lack of policy competence within the higher reaches of the ministry of defence. While the carrier represents India’s emerging capability to project hard and soft military power across the Indian Ocean littoral and beyond, the MoD under the UPA government was incapable of integrating the new potential into India’s national security strategy. Worse still, the MoD actively hindered the use of naval power for the pursuit of India’s political and diplomatic interests.
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These failures over the last decade are part of a deepening structural crisis in India’s higher defence organisation. This crisis is reflected in the deteriorating civil-military relations, an enduring inability to build a domestic defence industrial base, a continuing incapacity to imagine and implement effective military strategies to deal with threats from China and Pakistan and promote synergies with India’s diplomatic strategy. The Modi government can address these challenges only if it is prepared to undertake a comprehensive reform of India’s defence policies. To get there, the PM must first appoint a full-time defence minister who has both the conviction and the competence to modernise one of the most ossified structures in the government of India.