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Can India’s Military Be Fixed?

A reformist prime minister vs. a dysfunctional defense ministry.

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By GARY SCHMITT and SADANAND DHUME
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Though India prides itself on its strategic autonomy, it is actually the world’s largest importer of defense equipment. Buying from abroad is an absolute necessity, given the sclerotic condition of India’s own defense industry. What India does procure domestically is overwhelmingly tied to state-owned companies and government ordnance factories. As for defense R&D, virtually all of India’s expenditures go to the state-run Defence Research and Development Organization. With little private sector involvement and a cap of 26 percent for any foreign direct investment, India has not been able to take advantage of the type of technology and expertise that Western defense giants might bring to the table. Instead, India’s military acquires homegrown tanks, armored vehicles, and helicopters that it doesn’t want or fighter aircraft, such as the Tejas, a multirole light fighter, only now being built after 30 years in development. 

Compounding these difficulties is the fact that India’s defense ministry is highly rigid and largely staffed by civil servant generalists. Further, lacking the equivalent of a chief of the defense staff to force interservice cooperation, India’s military is unable to take advantage of whatever efficiencies in planning or acquisitions might in theory be possible. The convoluted state of India’s defense establishment and decision-making process amounts to an open invitation for middlemen to ply their trade and, in turn, stoke the perennial corruption.

None of this will be news to Modi’s new government. Over the years there have been a number of high-profile looks at fixing India’s defense establishment. At best, only minor progress has been made, with reform plans lagging for various reasons, the most important being a lack of interest on the part of the prime minister and a defense minister utterly unsuited to the job.

Will it be different this time around? Certainly, the Modi defense agenda is an ambitious one—some would say Herculean. Among the goals that have been bruited about: raising foreign direct investment caps in defense manufacturing; opening up procurement to the private sector; boosting military spending; creating a chief-of-defense-like post and new tri-service commands for space, cyberwarfare, and Special Operations Forces; completing India’s nuclear triad with the faster introduction of the indigenously produced, nuclear-powered Arihant-class SSBN; and uprooting the entrenched defense bureaucracy while at the same time professionalizing the higher levels of the defense ministry’s management. 

Right now, the new prime minister has the public backing and majority support in parliament to move this agenda forward. Moreover, unlike some of his left-of-center predecessors, Modi appears not to believe that India has to choose between guns and butter: His campaign emphasized both economic growth and a strong defense.

But as the list suggests, many of the problems can’t be fixed with immediate infusions of money or even changes in laws. Those may help, but modifications in the culture of institutions and management require a capacity for sustained commitment that is increasingly rare in modern democracies. The natural tendency will be to adopt changes that are easy to see and produce quick results. But unless root-and-branch reforms are tackled as well, the odds of the system falling back into its old ways are high. In short, when it comes to India reaching its strategic potential, Prime Minister Modi and his government have much to do—and, uniquely, the political capital to do it. 

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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