Defence Transformation Under Modi: Challenges and Triumphs

Harsh V Pant
Kartik Bommakanti

A decade of far-reaching defence reforms under Modi has transformed the Indian military’s reputation and capabilities.

The Modi Era which began on the national stage in 2014 and looks set to con­tinue at least for the next five years, if present trends are anything to go by, has witnessed a number of significant changes being ushered in, all of which have generated a lot of debate and discussion. One area where some of the most far-reaching changes have been witnessed, however, has not seen substantive public engagement. The last 10 years have been a decade of some serious defence reforms initiatives with most of them pending for decades due to lack of political will.

Among the key flagship reforms of the Modi era in the realm of Higher Defence Organisation (HDO) has been the establish­ment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in August 2019.

Critics might take exception to the way the government has implemented these reforms, especially the creation of CDS, without consulting a wide range of stakeholders in pursuit of a process-driven effort. Yet a process-driven approach can gener­ate considerable gridlock and paralysis as the appointment of a CDS had been needlessly delayed with successive governments vacillating and dithering since at least the 1950s. The Modi gov­ernment acted with greater alacrity and purpose than govern­ments in the past on the establishment of a CDS.

Generally, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led governments, whether under Atal Bihari Vajpayee or under Narendra Modi today, have acted more innovatively and decisively on reform­ing India’s HDO, reconfiguring its strategic posture after the conduct of nuclear tests in 1998 and the military command ar­chitecture. On the latter, for instance, the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) between 1998 and 2004 created the position of National Security Advisor (NSA) and established two tri-service commands—the off-shore Andaman and Nicobar Command (A&NC) in 2001 and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) in 2003 to manage India’s nuclear forces.

These developments were followed up with the Modi-led NDA government not only setting up CDS but very critically moving towards discussions on the creation of Integrated The­atre Commands (ITCs). The latter represents a tectonic shift, as and when it crystallises, in the military command system of post- Independence India. It was in July 2019, following re-election for a second consecutive term, that Prime Minister Modi exhorted the three-armed services to work towards greater “jointness… despite wearing different uniforms”.

The imperative, as the prime minister urged, is to bring greater efficiency in the use of resources between the three branches of the Indian military and develop their capacities through joint training and joint exercises for the effective conduct of unified battlefield operations and missions.

As of today, India has 17 different commands with the Indian Army (IA) and Indian Air Force (IAF) overseeing seven each and the Indian Navy (IN) controlling three. The three impending ITCs, led by three-star rank officers, are expected to involve all three services with cross-postings of personnel from each ser­vice embedded within each ITC. These cross-postings involve IA and IN personnel being embedded and deployed in IAF sta­tions. Likewise, IAF personnel are required to be deployed in IN stations and IA bases to gain a better understanding of the operational practices of these services.

The overall aim of these cross-service or inter-service postings is to generate jointmanship, develop integrated warfighting strategies and deep acculturation and in­terpersonal relationships among military personnel from each service. Notwithstanding the fact that ITCs have yet to be fully established, they are in the conclusive or advanced stages of be­coming fully operational and integral to a reorganised military command architecture. Breaking service-centric silos by way of civilian intervention is a successful outcome of the Modi gov­ernment being steadfast in its commitment to military reform in order for the services to fight more effectively. To be sure, the insularities of the armed services and their respective service cul­tures cannot be broken easily.

IAF is still not fully on board to bring what it considers meagre air assets under a single unified theatre command. This is equally borne out of IAF’s commitment to the “indivisibility” of air power that fundamentally stems from the belief that airpower can be employed independently of ground and sea power. Despite this, the services seem to have consented to the establishment of the three ITCs, representing a key policy achievement of the Modi government. Reform in HDO and the prospective establishment of ITCs are a product of civilian inter­vention which had been absent for decades.

Yet expanding threats, especially in the form of the People’s Republic China (PRC), are compelling more synergy among the three services for greater combat effectiveness on the battle­field. In early 2016, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under the direction of Chinese President Xi Jinping converted its seven Military Regions (MRs) into five integrated combatant com­mands or Integrated Theater Commands (ITCs). This significant reorganisation of the Chinese military command system has also influenced India’s decision to restructure its military com­mand and organisational architecture.

Among the first tri-services exercises was the Amphex-21 conducted in January 2021 involving the integrated use of am­phibious assault ships, surveillance platforms, execution of maritime air strikes, airborne insertion techniques by naval and Army special operations forces, amphibious landings and follow-on assault operations.

Against this backdrop, three joint exercises are being planned that are likely to involve more com­plexity during the next few months of 2024 with the objective to demonstrate jointness and integrated warfighting capabilities that can be applied effectively on the battlefield. Supplementing the foregoing, in terms of concrete changes that are underway, the IA is now getting a new corps in the central sector of the Sino-Indian border with a larger organic complement of heavy weapons that will augment its combat strength. More recently, the A&N, India’s oldest tri-service command, is undergoing sig­nificant upgrade with massive investment and expansion of surveillance infrastructure.

New Delhi’s defence export performance requires appreciation which is evident from the fact that India, in 2023-24, struck a commendable target of ₹21,083 crore which dwarfs all previous export targets. In years past, india’s defence export figures did not exceed ₹16,000 crore

New technologies such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are transforming the battlefield by bringing lethality and preci­sion to bear against forces deployed in the field. Drones are playing an increasingly consequential role in logistics and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions augmenting the sustainment and information capacities of militaries. The In­dian armed services are in the process of imbibing these changes that are underway.

Synergising technology and manpower, as is underway, requires cross-posted trained personnel capable of operating supersonic BrahMos cruise missiles with UAVs. In ad­dition, the exploitation and application of emerging technolo­gies such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technology (QT), quantum computing (QC), machine learning (ML), software de­fined radios (SDRs), 5G, and 6G will augment the performance of weapons systems generating greater information dominance on the battlefield and shape the trajectory of the battlefield. For instance, these technologies with skilled military manpower will be integrated and exploited through the IA’s latest effort dubbed the Signals Technology and Evaluation and Adaptation Group (STEAG) tailored to enhance combat performance and effective­ness on the battlefield.

In 2022, the Agnipath recruitment scheme was introduced to reduce the manpower costs incurred by the Indian armed ser­vices in the form of salaries and pensions, especially in the case of the IA, which is the largest of the three services. The recruits, dubbed ‘Agniveers’ under the scheme, undergo six months of training and serve for three-and-a-half years in the military. Only 25 per cent of the recruits will eventually be absorbed into the military following the completion of their four-year stint. The Agnipath scheme fundamentally seeks to make the military a leaner and streamlined fighting force with the intention of lib­erating resources spent on personnel by making funds available for capital acquisitions that the armed services desperately need.

Policy shifts have gone beyond reforming HDO, establish­ing ITCs, and rendering the armed services militarily effective. They have extended to changes in defence procurement vital to cementing an energetic Military Industrial Complex (MIC) to overcome its forlorn state. Defence procurement has under­gone a significant change. The foremost factor contributing to this transformation is the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative, also known as Make in India, launched in May 2020.

The purpose of Atmanirbhar Bharat is not autarky but an effort to boost in­digenous defence manufacturing and production that taps into both public and private enterprise. A corollary of Atmanirbhar Bharat is the consolidation of the former Ordinance Factory Board (OFB), leading to the merger of 41 production units under seven new Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs) with the aim of augmenting indigenisation. A secondary outcome of Atmanirb­har Bharat is the creation of Positive Indigenisation Lists (PILs).

These PILs, the latest of which was released in December 2023, require the armed services and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to source a range of capabilities and technologies covering spares to whole components from domestic industry spread across the private and public sectors. A third consequence of Atmanirbhar Bharat is the launch of Innovations in Defence Excellence (iDEX) intended to foster innovation in defence tech­nologies by synergising the unrealised potential and strengths of academia, industry, defence research and development (R&D) institutes, startups and innovative individual technological entrepreneurs.

The absence of a potent and dynamic defence industrial ecosystem imbued with innovation has been the bane of post-Independence India. Atmanirbhar Bharat has gone farther than any other defence reform measure in the past to enhance the performance of India’s domestic defence industry. These salutary changes have cumulatively fed the growth of India’s defence exports.

A process-driven approach can generate considerable gridlock and paralysis as the appointment of a CDS had been needlessly delayed with successive governments vacillating and dithering since at least the 1950s. The Modi government acted with greater alacrity and purpose than governments in the past on the establishment of a CDS

New Delhi’s defence export performance requires apprecia­tion which is evident from the fact that Delhi in the financial year 2023-24 struck a commendable target of ₹21,083 crore which dwarfs all previous export targets. In years past, India’s defence export figures did not exceed ₹16,000 crore. The mas­sive surge in defence exports owes significantly to the govern­ment’s flagship Make in India initiative, but not exclusively.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and MoD have engaged in intensive defence diplomacy to promote and make Indian defence exports attractive to a whole range of oversees buyers. Export gains are not merely confined to the subsidiaries of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the private sector but other DPSUs, such as the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which has seen its revenue increase exponentially with record orders covering Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) to the supply of actual aircraft like the Hin­dustan-228 aircraft to countries such as Guyana. HAL generated revenue worth ₹29,810 crore in fiscal 2023-24.

The last decade has also witnessed an increase in the re­cruitment of women in the Indian armed services, reflecting greater gender inclusivity. Women are now granted entry into the National Defence Academy. They are being integrated into all the arms of the three services, including combat billets with the exception of a few. The IAF and the IN have gender neutral policies with virtually every position in the two services opened to female recruitment, albeit women are still excluded from serving aboard submarines and in naval special warfare units. With women being granted Permanent Commission (PC), the IA expanded its recruitment of women into the Corps of Avia­tion.

In brief, women are being inducted spanning a whole range of tasks and functions hitherto confined to male recruits. Ex­panding the occupational presence of women across the armed services represents a significant shift in policy by the Modi government and consistent with the practice of the world’s most advanced militaries.

Civilian intervention that pressed for greater synergy be­tween the armed forces is the primary factor behind the three services coordinating and cooperating more closely. China’s growing military might and the threat it poses in collusion with Pakistan has only served to catalyse reform in India’s HDO and command system. As for a robust domestic MIC, it has taken New Delhi a long time to recognise that a vitalised domestic defence industry through Atmanirbhar Bharat is key to India’s military strength.

Expanding the occupational presence of women across the armed services represents a significant shift in policy by the Modi government and consistent with the practice of the world’s most advanced militaries

Because of their very nature, defence reforms, especially in democracies, are very difficult to operationalise. India has been a witness to this for the last several decades when report after report recommended some very sensible reforms only to be consigned to the margins by policymakers. It required a strong Modi government to implement some of these much-needed reforms. There is much more to be done to make the Indian military truly fit to fight 21st-century wars. But the last decade has been a major stride in India’s evolution as a serious military power, capable of and willing to take national security chal­lenges head-on.

Harsh V Pant is Vice President, Studies and Foreign Policy, at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi
Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at ORF

This article was first published in Open as Hard Power on May 29, 2024

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Bhaktiba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.