In 2005 the Indian Armed Forces very zealously adopted the concept of ‘transformation’, a term borrowed from the lexicon of the US Armed Forces. Essentially it meant ‘a very big change’; that change was essential in the sphere of war fighting due to the way various technologies, with information technology (IT) at the core, were rapidly demanding a move well beyond the military capabilities of the Cold War period.
Fresh from its then recent experience of ‘Operation Parakram’, which involved massive mobilisation against Pakistan, the Indian military attempted to explain to the political and bureaucratic authorities how it was looking at the future even as ‘transformation’ was underway in various countries. Its enthusiasm found few takers and support for its ambitious projects was halfhearted. Although the 11th and 12th Plans did cater for incremental manpower needs the wherewithal just could not materialise. ‘Transformation’ died a natural death around 2011, buried under the mountain of neglect, lack of perception and inability to financially support the change which was being sought.
It’s due to the history of this neglect that finally the Army’s Vice Chief, Lt Gen Sarath Chand was recently forced to inform the Parliamentary Committee on Defence Affairs on the lack of preparedness and severe glitches in the Army’s modernisation program, a position equally applicable to the Navy and the Air Force. Most reports on this important issue affecting India’s national security have focused on the details of the failure of financial backing and the inability to remove bureaucratic hurdles. However, a simple summary projected by most of these reports conveys the message without the attached details. In an adequately prepared war machine 30% of weapons and equipment should fall in the state of the art (SOA) category, 40% in current and 30% in vintage category. The existing state of the Indian Army brought to the notice of the Committee is 8% SOA, 24% current and 68% vintage category.
With existing and emerging threats arising out of China’s consistent efforts at domination of the continental and maritime domains, exchanges on the LoC, the possibility of collusion between China and Pakistan and sponsored terrorist actions which could cross the threshold of India’s tolerance, the possibility of armed standoff against both adversaries remains live. While most analysts agree that all out conventional war is still a remote contingency this cannot be used as a dictum for the state of the nation’s military preparedness which should never be sub optimum.
Unfortunately, the idea does not seem to find favour with those who control the purse strings, that being optimally armed, equipped, trained and motivated is half the battle and sends appropriate messages of deterrence or dissuasion, as the case may be. No doubt there are competing domains for the share of national resources but the element of risk that is involved in remaining underprepared in the military domain must overshadow all other considerations. The perceptions that emerge from the military leadership cannot be dismissed lightly and trust in its professional judgment is only prudent.
It needs to be recalled that in 1965 Pakistan’s adventurous plans were based on its perception that any delay in attempting to capture its claimed areas would be risky as the Indian military was reforming and equipping itself but was then not fully prepared for war. Assumptions of military weakness tempt adversaries.
The Army’s current leadership has unnecessarily been under fire for making public utterances from time to time. The Army Chief, Vice Chief and a few Army Commanders have expressed their frank opinion about perceptions of threats and preparedness. In earlier years, the Army leadership was content with transparently placing its observations and concerns to the government through its annual reports and theme papers; these were never made public and rarely acted upon. Providing answers to parliamentary questions still adhered to what the government wished to reveal. It is the annual presentation to the Parliamentary Committee which was always considered an appropriate forum to be realistically transparent. Much depended upon the members of the committees of the past, their level of understanding and perceptions about security affairs.
The present committee’s better grasp has obviously been the trigger for the current expression of concern. It too has realized that 1.49% of the GDP at Rs 2.79 lakh crore which forms the defence budget cannot hope to meet both the revenue and capital needs of the defence services. In strong words the Army Vice Chief stated, “The 2018-19 budget has dashed our hopes; the marginal increase hardly caters for inflation…allocation of Rs 21,338 crore for modernisation is insufficient even to cater for committed payment for 125 on-going schemes, emergency procurements, and 10 days worth of ammunition at intense rates”.
What is also revealing is that gaping holes in perimeter security of major army camps remain unaddressed as the much touted allotments for this are within the existing budget. Coupled with the huge expenditure on meeting the needs for response at Doklam, it is reliably learnt that the Army’s current transportation and some other budgets ran out of funds a couple of weeks ago, well before the end of the financial year.
What is going to be the result of this transparency? Will it help in better appreciation of the grave deficiency in defence capability and capacity which is becoming more and more apparent? What the Army needs to do is to continue speaking about this and let the public perception on the deficiency become more realistic. There are ways of being transparent without upsetting any rules. In functional democracies like ours its ultimately public perception which pushes governments to adhere to norms of as basic a requirement as national security.
(This article was originally published in 'DNA India' on March 19, 2018 and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read it here.)