No job in Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet is easy, but perhaps the one with the most pressure of money and power is that of the defense minister. India budgeted US$17 billion in 2004/05 for military spending (in addition to a carry over of $7 billion from the previous budget) as it prepares for its perceived role as a major power in Asia.
The modernization of India's armed forces is still a way off, however, as it struggles to shake off bureaucratic bungling, political wrangling and the more than a sniff of scandal that has characterized arms deals in the past. The task that confronted veteran politician and a minister of proven timber, Pranab Mukherjee, was all that and more when he took over in May last year. The only thing going in his favor was the roadwork done by his predecessor, George Fernandes. Despite all the allegations now being thrown at him, Fernandes did very well to merge the Defense Ministry bureaucracy with the armed services. In fact, Fernandes was perhaps the most successful of all the ministers that served in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet.
Notwithstanding the success enjoyed by Fernandes, some basic things remained unchanged; it is now up to Mukherjee to remove those heavy odds and advance India's military. The most difficult task Mukherjee faced on taking over the Defense portfolio was that of moving the bureaucracy. Shaken by the scandals associated with the purchase of howitzers from Bofors, and buying submarine spare parts, in the 1980s, Defense Ministry officials are still running scared, to the point of becoming virtually dysfunctional. Constantly watching their backs, they are reluctant to move decisively with any purchase. There have been much more recent scandals, too, of bribery related to defense purchases that have only added to the inertia.
This paralysis is fed by continuing scandal-mongering in the media and among politicians, the latest being the alleged payoff in a deal for the purchase of rifles from South African firm Denel during Fernandes' tenure.
After Bofors was blacklisted and a political and bureaucratic witch-hunt began, the army realized that the original idea to manufacture Bofors guns in India had also been dismissed. It is not clear what lessons the army drew from the experience, but the Defense Ministry bureaucracy concluded that extreme caution was needed. In 1990, the Indian army asked the government to have their old 130mm guns up-gunned to 155mm One year later, New Delhi gave its clearance, and Soltam of Israel was picked from among five bidders. Soltam carried out trials in 1993, but the paralyzed Defense Ministry took another five years to approve the bid and fulfill the army's requirement.
This level of paralysis has hurt the Indian military badly. It was noticed by everyone, but the fear of becoming politically tainted by big-money defense purchases was overwhelming for political minnows. Writing for Jane's Defense Weekly, defense correspondent Rahul Bedi pointed out last October that India's parliamentary defense committee, declaring that the newly created Defense Procurement Board had "miserably failed" to expedite the procurement process, called on the Ministry of Defense to establish a thorough study to "identify the bottlenecks and take remedial measures to streamline the system".
Little has been done so far. "There seems to be no move to expedite systems for acquiring military equipment, despite Mukherjee's declared commitment to the swift modernization of the armed forces," a senior Indian defense source told Bedi. What is extraordinary is that over the past five years, India's Ministry of Defense has returned to federal coffers close to $7.3 billion earmarked for new equipment and modernization due to the inability to take timely decisions. Needless to say, the paralysis has affected India's military preparedness and, not surprisingly, earned the wrath of the armed services chiefs charged with assuring the nation's security.
Such delays have jeopardized a number of vital purchases, such as the Israel Aircraft Industries Heron unmanned aerial vehicle, the Russian Smerch multiple-launch rocket system and the Bhim self-propelled howitzer, in which the Denel T6 turret has been mated with the chassis of the locally designed Arjun main battle tank.
What concerns the Indian army brass is that such witch-hunts can cause permanent damage across the board, involving the entire Ministry of Defense and the armed forces. This is of great concern at a time when major military powers in the world have undertaken the arduous task of modernizing their armed services.
Mukherjee's inability so far to clean up the Augean stable that has clogged the Defense Ministry seems to have affected his professional relations with the armed services chiefs. There is no doubt that the utter mishandling of the Nepal situation since February 1, when King Gyanendra proclaimed a state of emergency and dismantled Nepal's nominal democratic structure, made the Indian army chief unhappy. Many believe that the defense minister should have put his foot down when Delhi adopted counterproductive policies (such as stopping arms supplies to the Royal Nepalese Army) , instead of allowing things to drift.
Only recently, Singh agreed in principle to resume military aid to Nepal, on King Gyanendra's assurance that it would be employed exclusively against Maoist insurgents. What role the defense minister played in making the prime minister change his stance is not known.
In addition to undertaking the daunting task of marrying a paralyzed Defense Ministry bureaucracy with the required defense preparedness of the nation, Mukherjee also is obliged to deliver politically on behalf of the Congress Party, which forms the core of the ruling coalition government. Reports indicate that the defense minister is under pressure from the Congress leadership to implicate Fernandes in corruption related to defense deals. Fernandes, who has been particularly critical of Nehru-Gandhi family members  over the past three decades, is deeply disliked by many in the Congress Party, who see the defense purchase-related controversies as soft targets to hurt Fernandes. This has created additional pressure on Mukherjee.
Despite the tug and pull from various directions, and the utter collapse of the Defense Ministry minions, Mukherjee has made some clear decisions in widening India's procurement market. Nevertheless, there is no question that over the past two years the Cabinet Committee on Security, headed by Singh, has selected military equipment based predominantly on political considerations. "Politics and not operational requirements dictate equipment preferences, despite high-powered procurement committees," a senior officer told Bedi. But, he noted, as the armed forces seek to diversify imports to replace and upgrade their predominantly Soviet and Russian weapons systems, the progress of the new acquisition projects has slowed.
While that may be true, it is also true that Mukherjee is looking at Russian, American, Israeli and European suppliers with an open eye, and has already begun to diversity the country's procurement sources. For instance, it is on Mukherjee's watch that India's reluctance to buy US arms and systems has declined significantly. Although the system has not yet been fully evaluated for purchase, it was with Mukherjee's approval that US arms major Raytheon proposed the sale of a special electronic warfare system that can jam enemy radar and communications in a radius of 1,200 kilometers.
In another pending deal, New Delhi has conveyed to Washington that India is not particularly impressed with the PAC-3 missile unit offered with the two-tier US anti-missile defense system, on the grounds that it is too slow for the very short reaction period required in the sub-continent, especially with regard to neighboring Pakistan. Reports are that the Indian defense minister will be taken by Pentagon higher-ups to the US Pacific Command in Hawaii for a live demonstration of advanced anti-missile defense systems.
There is also a definite shift in India's policy on arms purchases from Russia. Unlike in the past, these purchases are no longer automatic. Reports indicate that the Indian political establishment and the Indian army have differences on the 155mm field gun deal; the establishment insists on quickly purchasing 400 systems from Russia, while the army wants to examine offers from Israel, France and Sweden. The Indian political establishment claims such a large order would bind the Russians to transfer technology and provide spares in time, but the army points out that there is no reason for emergency purchase and that other offers should be properly evaluated.
Recently, Mukherjee told newsmen that India's air force currently flies fighter jets made by France's Dassault Aviation, and signed a deal in September 2000 to buy 10 new planes to replace aircraft lost out of a 1985 order of 49 Mirages. Mukherjee said the Cabinet Committee on Security had authorized the Defense Ministry to open negotiations with Qatar to buy a dozen more Mirage warplanes.
India had also given the green light for the purchase of 11 Dornier aircraft at a cost of $157 million, and for upgrading British vertical takeoff Sea Harrier fighter jets with a new missile system from an unnamed Israeli firm, Mukherjee said. Earlier this year, India announced plans to buy 126 jet fighters to bolster its fleet by five squadrons in the next 15 years. It is considering a number of potential suppliers, including Russia's MiG-29K, Dassault's Mirage-2005/5, the Grippen from Saab, a British-Swedish consortium, and Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Boeing's F-18.
What the defense minister must take into account, however, is the new level of pressure that he will face from potential new suppliers. For instance, news reports indicate that apart from discussing and demonstrating anti-missile defense systems, the key US aim in taking Mukherjee to Hawaii will be to remove mistrust in US-India strategic relations.
In February, while in Bangalore attending Aero Show 2005, US Ambassador David C Mulford made note that with India indicating that it will source military equipment from more countries, the US, which has a small market share in this sector, intends to become a major player. The US-India bilateral relationship, which was at an "all-time high", was getting better, and greater military cooperation was an integral part of these ties, Mulford said.