Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Curious Silence on Defence Reform

In these past weeks, we have witnessed the happy sight of ministers falling over each other to come up with a “100 day” action plan for their respective ministries. Kapil Sibal and Veerappa Moily have come up with their versions of how they will reform education, law respectively. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has already been on an overdrive ever since he was appointed to office and has, by all accounts, shaken the Union Home Ministry out of its slumber, and continues to do so.

But there has been a deathly silence from one ministry, the one which is by far the biggest in the country. Little or nothing has been heard from the Union defence ministry, either by way of a “100 day plan” or for that matter a 1,000-day one. Everyone is agreed that in A.K. Antony, the ministry has got an exceptionally honest minister. But that is saying little about his capabilities of doing what he was presumably supposed to do —make sure that the country’s armed forces are capable of meeting all possible combination of challenges within the constraints of available resources.
The silence of the Ministry and its “attached departments”— the Army, Navy and the Air Force — is baffling for two reasons. First, the fact that they are by far the biggest recipients of the country’s budget largesse — Rs 1,66,663 crore in Monday’s Union Budget for 2009-2010. (In contrast, the total allotted to education, health, roads and highways and rural development amounted to Rs 1,61,049 crore.) Second, that despite the vast expenditure (last year the armed forces received Rs 1,37,222 crore) the armed forces were not quite ready for war in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack. I don’t mean that individual components of the system could not have launched an attack on targets in Pakistan, but that India lacked the wider military capacity to obtain even a localised outcome.


On paper the increase of 34 per cent over last year’s allocation appears to be a dramatic answer to the challenges we face. But a closer look will tell us that it does not. The bulk of the money, 62 per cent, will be taken up in maintaining our 1.2 million armed forces, their pay and allowances and the increases promised by the Sixth Pay Commission. The money for modernisation, Rs 54,824 crore, is just 38 per cent of the total defence budget, and is below the 40 per cent figure for the first time in recent years.
But all this does not really matter. Whether we have this aircraft or gun, or this ammunition or not, matters little. To cite V.P. Malik’s unhappy remark, the armed forces would “fight with whatever we have.” But the issue is not the bravery or grit — our soldiers have repeatedly shown that they have both — but of the ability of the armed forces to extract a favourable outcome from an adversary.
The fundamental threats to India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity come from terrorism; insurgencies in the North East, Kashmir and “Naxal-land”; conventional armies of China and Pakistan; and from cyberspace to cripple India’s communications and commerce.
It would be a brave person, indeed, who would argue that our armed forces are ready to meet this hybrid threat. Take insurgency. Though our armed forces have been fighting them for an entire generation, we remain inadequately prepared — either in terms of training, doctrine or equipment to handle them.

India's defence Minister A.K. (Saint) Antony

We are probably better prepared to meet the Pakistani challenge, because that is all we seem to care about. Even so, as the post-Mumbai dynamics revealed, even that preparation is somewhat shaky. We seem to have dropped out of the China competition, and as for the more futuristic issues such as cyberspace, we are not there.
In recent years, New Delhi has sought to spend itself out of its military dilemmas. The international situation and our world standing is such that we do, more or less, buy the best that there is on offer. But the huge expenditure has not created the kind of military we need to deter our adversaries. In recent decades we have not really confronted a Chinese military threat, and as of now, we are unable to even deter Pakistan. Clearly, the problems lie less with the size and equipment of the Indian armed forces, but with their organisation and doctrine, and indeed, their mindset.


Most observers will agree that in all these areas, the military, particularly the air force and the army, are stuck in World War II. Part of the blame for this lies with the armed forces leadership. But the primary responsibility for this state of affairs lies with the political class which has kept the armed forces in a mental reservation of sort, away from the hurly-burly of policy-making and the real world. The forces are periodically trotted out to do their thing — flood relief, aid-to-civil authority in maintaining law and order or to fight some
minor wars.
Because the whole effort is disjointed and poorly thought through, the outcomes range from poor to disastrous — the 1962 defeat, the lack of any significant outcome in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, Kargil, the inability to provide significant intervention in the 2002 and 2008 crises. (India did win a famous victory against the Pakistan army in Bangladesh, but it performed indifferently against the bulk of the Pakistan forces in West Pakistan.)
Since the Kargil war there have been efforts to do something about it. There are many good thinkers in the army, navy and air force, and there are many excellent leaders. But their individual capabilities have been blunted by the obtuseness of the system as a whole. In today’s world, the name of the game is integration.


The Group of Ministers report on the defence management of the country, would have broken the thralldom of the past. It would have created two top advisers — one civilian and the other military — to advise the defence minister. These two, the authors of the defence component of the GoM report expected, would lead the complete overhaul of the way our defence system is managed.
One, the Chief of Defence Staff, would lead the process of integration and overhaul of the three wings of the armed forces to provide an enhanced punch for the military. The other would integrate the armed forces with not just the civilian ministry of defence, but the entire government of India and create a system that would synergise the way in which we confront national security threats.
India desperately needs to modernise the way its armed forces think and operate. Advances in weapons and information technology have brought about changes that cannot be effectively exploited through a single-service mind-set. Indeed, war and its outcome go beyond things exclusively military. There are aspects — political, diplomatic and commercial — that require other actions and inputs.
Nothing has happened and the UPA is to blame, because this is not the task of the military and the civilian bureaucracy alone, but also the political leadership. Having done nothing for one term, all the indications are that in its second term, too, the UPA will ignore the imperative to reform and modernise the armed forces.
Does that mean that we must await another military disaster before something will be done? It probably does.
This appeared first in Mail Today July 10, 2009

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