The lack of a full-time defence minister for nearly six months had made a bad situation worse in a crucial sector. A.K. Antony’s long tenure as the UPA government’s defence minister was a waste of a near-decade of peace that could have been used to move forward on the modernisation of the armed forces. With a halt on arms procurement for the greater part of the period, blanket bans on foreign suppliers and a winding down of India’s defence diplomacy, it left a legacy of question marks vis a vis the military’s operational preparedness. Antony’s excessive caution could not prevent scams, such as the AgustaWestland case. The MoD was also mired in controversies involving the service chiefs and oversaw a series of troubling incidents in the Indian navy.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar could begin by building on the slow turnaround that has been initiated in the last six months. Important decisions have been taken on clearing long-pending procurements and overhauling the MoD’s procurement philosophy. In July, the first meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) under the NDA, which cleared procurement worth Rs 21,000 crore, took the historic step of ending the public sector’s monopoly over aircraft production. In end-October, the DAC cleared deals worth Rs 80,000 crore, including the indigenous manufacture of six submarines and Israeli Spike anti-tank guided missiles. The army has gone without new artillery acquisitions for three-plus decades and the navy needs new platforms as the old ones, like its Kilo-class submarines, have extended beyond their life cycles. A speedy decision is also needed on the MMRCA, given the air force’s depleted fighter fleet. The MoD needs to formalise a procurement environment in which domestic firms are invited full-time for manufacture and PSUs like HAL and BEML compete and collaborate with them, while making foreign procurement transparent. Aligning procurement with the “Make in India” emphasis needs more than a performance audit of defence PSUs. It necessitates a structural overhaul.
Another significant decision is the environmental clearance for defence projects along the China border, with emphasis on border infrastructure like railway lines and roads. Part of the defence minister’s challenge will be to handle the boundary dispute with China. While this is primarily a diplomatic matter, the potentially more explosive situation with Pakistan on the LoC and International Border in Kashmir will test both the military firmness and diplomatic astuteness of the new defence minister.