A full-time boss

In view of the heavy work load involved, it is necessary for prime minister Narendra Modi to appoint a full-time defence minister.

Union finance-cum-defence minister Arun Jaitley presented the Modi government’s first budget on July 10. The allocation for defence was increased by about 12.5 per cent over the previous financial year from Rs 2.03 lakh crore to Rs 2.29 lakh crore.

The minister reassured the members of Parliament that the government will support the “Modernisation of the armed forces… to enable them to play their role effectively in the defence of India’s strategic interests.”

Jaitley also announced the government’s intention to raise the Foreign Direct Investment limit for defence manufacture from 26 to 49 per cent. Though the announcement fell short of the expectations of multi-national arms suppliers, a hike in the FDI was a decision that had been pending for a long time.

Being mindful of the soft, but important issues that affect the morale of armed forces personnel, the finance minister earmarked Rs 1,000 crore for one rank, one pension (OROP) – a long-standing demand of ex-servicemen. He also announced the government’s intention to build a National War Memorial and Museum in the area of India Gate and Prince's Park in New Delhi.

In his capacity as defence minister, Jaitley chaired a meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) on July 19, in which the acquisition of defence equipment worth approximately Rs 21,000 crore was approved.

The DAC also gave a nod to the Indian private sector to manufacture transport aircraft, an HAL monopoly till now. Despite his busy schedule, Jaitley addressed the Naval commanders’ conference, found the time to visit Western Naval Command headquarter at Mumbai, familiarise himself with the aircraft carrier INS Viraat and launch two Coast Guard ships. He went to Palam airport to receive the IAF’s sixth C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift aircraft.

It is to Jaitley’s credit that he managed to devote so much time to defence matters while discharging the responsibility of preparing and presenting the annual budget, steering it through Parliament. However, it needs to be critically examined whether a minister holding the finance portfolio in the Union cabinet can simultaneously perform the role of the defence minister with equal efficiency.

This is not the first time that a cabinet minister has been given simultaneous charge of two important portfolios. Jaswant Singh held the defence and external affairs portfolios in prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government for over one year. In the past, at least three prime ministers had retained the defence portfolio: Rajiv Gandhi, V P Singh, and Chandra Shekhar.

While such an arrangement had the advantage of providing the service chiefs direct access to the prime minister, it was widely believed in the services that the prime ministers were unable to devote adequate time defence matters.

Multiple responsibilities

The defence minister is responsible for formulating defence policies and ensuring their implementation by the services HQ. As a member of the National Security Council, he is responsible for long-term defence planning in keeping with emerging threats and challenges.

It is part of the defence minister’s charter to identify the national security objectives and formulate the military strategy to achieve those objectives. He must ensure that the military strategy conceived by the ministry of defence (MoD) is fully synchronised with the national security strategy approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).

It is also his responsibility to guide and oversee the services’ plans to raise the forces necessary to give effect to the approved military strategy and to provide them the weapons, equipment, ammunition and the logistics stocks necessary to fight and win future wars. The defence minister periodically issues the ‘Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive’ to the three chiefs of staff under his personal signature.

Due to the active nature of the LoC with Pakistan and the PLA’s proclivity to keep probing the limit up to which India’s forces will allow it to penetrate unchallenged on the LAC, the defence minister gets involved in border management issues. He must also ensure that the bureaucracy carries out the coordination necessary with the other ministries so that the services can mobilise according to plans and be logistically sustained in their deployment areas.

The defence minister has a large number of routine administrative responsibilities that must be discharged on a day-to-day basis and some ceremonial duties where his presence is inescapable. In addition, he is responsible to Parliament for his ministry and is required to personally answer starred questions in both the houses.

The Modi government’s defence minister has his work cut out, particularly as the government needs to approve and implement long-pending defence reforms. The issue of defence reforms has been hanging fire since the Kargil review committee report was received by a group of ministers headed by  L K Advani in the erstwhile NDA government.

The Manmohan Singh government had appointed the Naresh Chandra committee to review the implementation of pending defence reforms and to suggest other necessary measures in view of the fact that over 10 years had passed since the issue had been first taken up.

Important restructuring issues include the appointment of a CDS or a permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC).The logical next step would be to constitute tri-service integrated theatre commands to synergise the combat capabilities of individual services.

It is also necessary to sanction the raising of the aerospace, cyber and special forces commands to deal with emerging challenges. Genuine integration of the services HQ with the MoD has not yet been achieved.
In view of the heavy work load as a result of multifold responsibilities, it is necessary for prime minister Modi to appoint a full-time defence minister as early as possible.

(The writer is a Delhi-based strategic analyst)

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