India's Defense Policy: Challenges and imperatives for the 2024 manifesto

Dipak Kurmi *

As the Lok Sabha elections loom on the horizon, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has initiated a two-week-long campaign to gather insights for its election manifesto. Demonstrating its robust organizational capabilities, the party has deployed video chariots to collect suggestions from various Assembly Constituencies.

Utilizing diverse channels, the BJP encourages inputs through the NaMo App, has stationed 6,000 suggestion boxes Nationwide, and engaged its cadres in direct interactions with potential voters. By March 15, the BJP aims to accumulate perspectives from ten million Indians for its 2024 general elections manifesto, known as the "Sankalp Patra" or Letter of Resolution. Subsequently, the party will distill key defense and security-related issues to shape the BJP's 2024 manifesto.

The BJP's manifestos for both 2014 and 2019 highlighted four significant and various minor defense-related concerns. Initially, the manifesto criticized the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government for what it perceived as lax security measures, attributing it to multiple border intrusions by China and Pakistan.

The manifesto also pointed out deficiencies in combat aircraft, warships, and submarines, as well as several accidents involving naval warships. Additionally, the document under- scored the escalating pressure from "Pakistan-backed terror groups" and the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. While these concerns are provocative, they are not novel occurrences in the political discourse.

The second focal point in the BJP manifesto involved a commitment to "update" India's nuclear doctrine, sparking speculation about a potential shift from its longstanding "No First Use" policy. The 2014 manifesto specifically pledged to "Study in detail India's nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times."

The ambiguity surrounding this state- ment left room for interpretation, raising questions about whether it implied a bolstering of the overall nuclear deterrent or the development of a tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) arsenal to counter Pakistan's similarly touted TNW capabilities. However, despite the initial discourse, no concrete developments materia- lized on this front.

In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP made a commitment to reorganize higher defense management, a notable proposal despite the NDA's historical reluctance to appoint a tri-service Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) during its own tenure. The manifesto specifically pledged to "ensure greater participation of Armed Forces in the decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence (MoD)."

This envisioned a seamless integration of the military with the Ministry, fostering a collaborative environment where uniformed soldiers would collaborate with bureaucrats, breaking down traditional hierarchies. Notably, a similar proposal had been put forth by a Group of Ministers (GoM) in 2001.

However, faced with staunch opposition from bureaucrats, the BJP had to compromise, resulting in the creation of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). While the three services collaborated within the IDS, the civilian bureaucracy remained somewhat detached. This compromise persisted throughout the UPA's decade-long tenure in power.

In the concluding segment of its 2014 manifesto, the BJP outlined various minor commitments. Among these, addressing a critical 25% shortfall in officers by recruiting higher-caliber individuals was pledged, although this goal has not been entirely realized to date. Notably, the promise to construct a National war memorial was successfully achieved, marking a tangible accomplishment.

Reflecting the rising political influence of ex-servicemen, the BJP committed to establishing a "veterans' commission" dedicated to addressing the concerns of retired soldiers, sailors, airmen, and their families.

Additionally, the party vowed to implement the "one rank, one pension" policy, a goal that has largely been fulfilled. In a bid to bolster indigenous defense production, the BJP expressed its commitment to encouraging private sector participation and investment, including foreign direct investment (FDI) in selected defense industries.

Both the BJP and its predecessor, the Congress, refrained from including commitments on defense spending in their manifestos. This is noteworthy, especially considering the decline in allocations from 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the late 1980s to less than 2 percent at present.

In contrast, all 31 member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are obligated to allocate 2 percent of their GDPs to defense, benefiting from the assurance of collective defense as military allies. Article 5 of the NATO Treaty underscores the commitment that an act of violence against one member is deemed an armed attack against all members, prompting necessary actions to aid the attacked ally.

In the Indian context, where the Nation chooses an independent stance against an enemy attack, some advocate for defense allocations to be fixed at 3 percent of GDP. However, amidst the continuous decline in real defense allocations, achieving a 3 percent defense spending pledge appears increasingly improbable.

The frugality in resource allocation extends to growth targets within the aerospace and defense industry, a domain where political parties opt for the articulation of objectives through policy documents rather than in their political manifestos. The trajectory of indigenous defense production growth in the past two decades aligns with the objectives outlined in the 2018 Ministry of Defence roadmap known as the Defence Production Policy of 2018 (DPrP 2018).

According to this policy, the annual target for aerospace and defense services and production turnover by 2025 was set at Rs 1.7 trillion (then $26 billion). Achieving this target necessitated an additional investment of nearly Rs 70,000 crore (then $10 billion), fostering employment opportunities for approximately 2 to 3 million individuals. Furthermore, the 2018 policy aimed at fostering exports of defense goods and services amounting to Rs 35,000 crore (then $5 billion) by the year 2025.

In a departure from the conventional approach of revising production targets through upcoming manifestos, the recent upward adjustment in the production target, specifically in industrial production, took a different avenue. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, rather than awaiting the 2024 manifesto, made the announcement.

According to his statement, aerospace and defense services and production are projected to reach Rs 3,00,000 crore (US $36 billion) by the fiscal year 2028-29. Simultaneously, he outlined plans to elevate export production to Rs 50,000 crore ($6.25 billion) within the same time frame. This shift in strategy underscores a dynamic and responsive approach to goal-setting within the aerospace and defense sector.

To accommodate the heightened production levels of goods and services, it becomes imperative for the 2024 manifesto to incorporate a well-defined policy aimed at bolstering exports. India, once predominantly an arms importer, has now secured a position among the top 25 arms-exporting nations. A mere seven to eight years ago, defense exports languished below the Rs 1,000 crore mark.

Presently, there has been a remarkable surge, with defense exports soaring to an impressive Rs 16,000 crore. This transformative shift underscores the need for a strategic and comprehensive approach to further elevate India's standing in the global arms export landscape.

The BJP's forthcoming 2024 manifesto should elucidate the practicalities behind ambitious statements such as preparing for a "two-front war." This scenario entails the military triumph over Pakistan, deterring China, addressing insurgency challenges in Jammu & Kashmir, all while maintaining control over the Indian Ocean.

At first glance, the prospect of a two-front war suggests a comprehensive breakdown in Indian strategy, diplomacy, border and military management, as well as internal security. Preparing for such a worst-case scenario could distort our defense planning, financial allocations, and troop deployment.

Strategic prudence dictates that the Nation's top security strategists collaboratively work to ensure that India never finds itself in a situation where it confronts full-scale warfare on multiple fronts.

* Dipak Kurmi wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at dipaknewslive(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on 16 March 2024 .

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