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Monday, January 02, 2006

The Fire Next Time: Or why we need defence reforms now

W HEN WE say that something needs to be done to reform and restructure India’s armed forces, you could well ask, why? Our two potential adversaries have nuclear weapons and so, the chances of an open war are remote. And when confrontation does arise, as in 2002, we find we do not have the capacity to act. So why bother? The answer lies in the Rs 80,000 crore or so we spend annually to maintain our military machine. Surely, there is need to use this vast amount of money effectively.
In 2002, the army was ready to launch an attack on Pakistan and would have executed their plans with their customary bravery. But given the force ratios, and the limits imposed by the nuclear dimension, it is doubtful whether our army could have achieved any significant physical or psychological objectives. With China, there is another kind of a problem. India has the capacity to make serious inroads into Tibet in any conventional war. But it’s another 3,000 km before you reach China’s heartland and so, war with our present configuration of forces is a no-win option. As for Kashmir, the level of conflict is such that AK-47s and rocket launchers are sufficient to deal with most threats, which can actually be handled by the paramilitary.
So we come back to the question: why are we spending tens of thousands of crores for a capability that is not adequate to meet the needs of the day? The answer is, because the government is unable, or unwilling, to carry out the deep reforms that can make our forces militarily effective against a full spectrum of threats, which should, hypothetically, include the US. Mind you, the chances of war with the US are remote since there are no burning conflicts of interest, but it would be foolhardy to argue that the US will never make war on India. There is some truth in that old adage about nations having permanent interests, rather than enemies or friends. Take the relationship between Iran and the US. Till 1979, they were the closest of allies, with the US supplying Teheran with its latest weapons, like the F-14's equipped with Phoenix long-range air-to-air missiles, ahead of even the Nato. Today, both see the other as the Great Satan.
India’s response to a threat from China, or the US, cannot, or at least should not, be that there can be no response because they are much too strong. In 1971, when the USS Enterprise entered the Bay of Bengal and moved towards India, the navy did not put up its hands in surrender. Instead, they quietly despatched INS Kandheri, a submarine, to transpose itself between the Americans and the rest of the Indian fleet involved in the Bangladesh war. One F-class submarine versus a nuclear carrier battle group may appear too improbable a scenario, but have no doubts that if required, the Kandheri would have given battle, regardless of the odds.
India’s unfortunate experience with reform is that it always follows a crisis and disaster — they are never carried out in anticipation of challenges. The first wave of reforms came after the collapse of the Indian Army in November 1962. The Group of Ministers’ recommendations in 2003 followed the Kargil war and the IC-814 fiasco in Kandahar. In the past few years, the GoM-suggested reforms in intelligence coordination, border management and internal security have been followed through. But in the crucial area of the armed forces, we are in a state of stasis. The unwillingness to appoint a chief of defence staff (CDS) has blocked the process of integrating the armed forces. And this, in turn, means that they remain stuck in a time warp, learning to fight the last war better, rather than getting on with the business of organising themselves to win the next.
Our political leadership, which must knock heads to get reform going, needs to understand the nature of modern war, whose outcome can be sudden and catastrophic, both politically and militarily. Surveillance and communications technologies have given commanders the unprecedented ability to know in great detail where the adversary is, and where his own forces are deployed. Precision weapons, used over long ranges, can devastate an opponent well before he can reach the battlefront. So, a slow-witted adversary opens himself up to a knock-out punch. This is what happened to Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 2003 Gulf war. Usually, divisions that lose 10-20 per cent of their weapons, equipment and manpower are written off. But the Iraqi attrition rates went up to 50 per cent.
At the end of the war, Iraq had just 50 or so pieces of its 10,500 strong artillery still standing. Most of the destruction was done by laser and GPS-guided aerial bombs, or by long-range MLRS/ATACMS rockets. Significantly, among the countries that have drawn the deepest lessons from the Iraq war has been China. The Chinese have since overhauled their forces in terms of their doctrine, equipment and organisation. We, too, should be asking: does the army need more towed artillery tanks? Can the job be done by air power? Will our divisions, in their present organisational form, be sitting ducks if confronted by longrange precision strikes? Can we deliver such strikes?
The aborted 2002 confrontation with Pakistan should offer us some lessons. Primary being that the doctrine, organisation and equipment of our armed forces are obsolete. As of now, the three services follow a policy of ‘joint’ warfare — each of them has its own combat plans that are loosely coordinated at the top and the command levels. The incredibly fast-paced battle doctrines of the day and the lethality of weapons make this archaic. So the only way in which the armed forces can generate greater and more effective firepower is to integrate their capabilities. They need to work out a new integrated warfighting doctrine, and on its basis, restructure, re-equip and redeploy their forces.
One deep-rooted aspect of our strategic culture is that unlike the US and many Western countries, India, like China, is not comfortable with military alliances. Surely, the logic then ought to be that India, like China, must develop a full-spectrum capability based on the need to be able to tackle any country, or group of countries, that may threaten India’s integrity, or its vital interests. So while we resolve our disputes with Pakistan and China, build strategic ties with the US, Russia or Japan, we need to maintain a capacity of dealing with any threats on our own, single-handedly.
But such capabilities cost a great deal of money, and given the huge developmental challenges, the country will be unwilling to undermine its economic health by providing more money for defence, especially when open war is not imminent.
India must achieve its capabilities by restructuring and reorganising its forces, primarily by integrating their capabilities and eliminating duplication, whether in command or equipment. But this end can only be facilitated by a CDS organisation that will supervise and direct the process. So the very first step is to appoint a CDS.

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