Bottomline | The Lost Years

Defence minister A.K. Antony never took ownership of his work

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

What can one say about the man who believes he did a splendid job when actually he never took ownership for his work? He is A.K. Antony; India’s longest serving defence minister who assumed office on 26 October 2006. His years in office were unusual times when on the one hand, India faced the dilemma of a two-front war; on the other hand, India’s upbeat economy provided the opportunity for building indigenous defence industry by not segregating public and private sector companies, but by viewing them as a whole: National defence industry. Antony failed India’s defence at this crucial juncture.

On external threats, his singularly important work was to ensure that within available annual resources, the armed forces were best prepared to deter Pakistan and China, two adversaries with which we have disputed borders. This required his regular interaction with the three service chiefs (chiefs of staff committee, COSC), the director general coast guard, and the Prime Minister’s Office for synergy to provide maximum bang for the buck. This would have both helped build credible deterrence and revive the moribund COSC.

On indigenous industry, he let the bureaucrats rule the roost rather than take the bull by the horn himself and push the excruciatingly slow defence procurement procedure which neither spurred the foreign companies to bring genuine technology into the country nor the indigenous private sector to participate wholeheartedly. Defence exports which are the litmus test of industrial progress remain as abysmal as they were when he took office and charmed the world with his indigenisation mantra. Unfortunately, while India lost, Antony personally won; he did not hesitate to blacklist foreign companies on the slightest of complaint even when it slowed, stymied or froze defence modernisation.

Yet, on the opening day of DefExpo 2014 in Delhi, a few months before he demits office, Antony, declared that “the armed forces were ready to face any situation 24×7.” According to him, “Every country realises that India is strong militarily so they want to exercise with us. Moreover, all foreign defence companies have opened offices in India.” This is a self-defeating logic. Friendly foreign countries want to do military exercises with India because with the risen China, the ‘power pivot’ which has shifted to Asia needs to be balanced through collective security. And, given the shrunken global defence market, foreign defence companies recognise India as a lucrative business hub; it does little indigenisation and its defence capability building needs have grown.

Antony also highlighted full utilisation of annual defence budgets as his achievement. “We have no unutilised defence allocations in last four years. This year we have already spent 92 per cent of capital budget and the remaining will be spent before the end of financial year,” Antony boasted. When asked, he admitted that a large chunk of 2013-2014 capital budget (Rupees 7,900 crores) had been diverted to revenue head to pay salaries to personnel.

This is unprecedented and alarming to say the least. Take the army (with maximum capital budget amongst the three services) which has Rupees 85,000 crore of critical equipment deficiencies which are yet to be made up (Remember the letter by army chief, General V.K. Singh to the Prime Minister in April 2011 which got leaked to the media that the army was unfit for war). With the new raising of the mountain corps underway (80,000 troops), the army’s revenue or salaries budget will increase further at the cost of its capital or acquisitions budget. So, while the army’s numbers will increase, its ‘hot war’ fighting edge will erode further.

Antony could have avoided this had he interacted with the COSC when the army chief, General Deepak Kapoor first spoke about a two-front war in January 2009 and had presented the two-phase accretion plan (two mountain divisions followed by a mountain corps) to the defence ministry. Because Antony did not do so and the COSC never prepared a combined services paper on threats from China and Pakistan, it has been free for all. Each service has done what it perceived best, not necessarily to counter external threats but to enhance its own parochial interest. For example, instead of rationalisation and consolidation, the army’s focus has been on accretion of forces (empire building), which is counter-productive.

Moreover, the army’s gaze has unfortunately turned inwards rather than outwards at a time when external threats have multiplied. It has fenced the LC and has adopted an anti-infiltration instead of an offensive posture giving succour to the Pakistan Army at a time when its western border is in turmoil.

The Indian Navy’s story is similar. Since the 26/11 terrorists attack in Mumbai, it has taken on the overall responsibility of coastal defence. Its expensive frontline warships have been pressed on coastal defence roles causing enormous wear and tear to them. If this was not enough, the navy is involved in anti-piracy constabulary missions in a big way. It is because of these secondary roles causing flogging of warships and little maintenance that as many as 11 warships have met with accidents in 10 weeks. This is what has led to chief of naval staff, Admiral D.K. Joshi’s resignation. In simple terms, Antony leaves behind a weak India with the job of his successor clearly cut out.


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