Action needed to end critical deficiencies
by Gurmeet Kanwal
The Army Chief’s leaked letter to the Prime Minister and the CAG’s recent report have revealed that the state of defence preparedness is a cause for serious concern. The Chief’s letter has brought into the public domain what has been known for long to army officers in service and those who have retired.
What has happened will certainly have an adverse impact on national security as it has given undue advantage to India’s military adversaries by publicly disclosing sensitive information about the deficiencies in weapon systems, ammunition and equipment in service in the Army. Now that these facts are in the public domain, surely these will help to focus the nation’s attention on the need to speedily make up the shortages and give the Army the wherewithal that it needs to fight and win future wars.
General V.K. Singh is not the first COAS to have apprised the Prime Minister about the poor state of preparedness; his predecessors had done so as well. Gen K.M. Cariappa had gone to Pandit Nehru to ask for additional funds for military modernisation and was reported to have been told, “India does not need an army; it needs a police force.” Well, the ignominy of 1962 followed.
The late Gen Bipin Joshi had written to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to urge him to help the Army to make up for the long-standing large-scale shortage of ammunition. While the shortage was worth over Rs 10,000 crore, Army HQ had reportedly identified a “bottom line” figure without which the COAS said the Army would remain unprepared for war.
Perhaps the country’s precarious financial condition in the early 1990s did not allow Narasimha Rao to provide the necessary funds to immediately handle the shortage. A few years later the Kargil conflict took place and the whole nation heard the COAS, Gen V.P. Malik, make the chilling statement on the national TV, “We will fight with what we have.”
It is well known that India had to scramble to import 50,000 rounds of 155 mm ammunition for its Bofors guns, besides other weapons and equipment. Stocks of tank ammunition and that for other artillery and air defence guns were also low, and it was just as well that the fighting remained limited to the Kargil sector and did not spill over to the rest of the LoC or the plains.
Approximately, 250,000 rounds of artillery ammunition were fired in that 50-day war. The government has authorised the stocking of sufficient ammunition to fight a large-scale war for 50 to 60 days. This is known as the “war reserve”. As the Army Chief’s letter and the CAG report bring out, not enough new stocks were apparently procured to make up for even the ammunition expended during the Kargil conflict. Stocks of several critical varieties of ammunition for tanks and artillery guns have fallen to as low as less than 10 days’ war reserves. Also, ammunition has a shelf life of about 12 to 15 years, at the end of which it is no longer usable for combat but can still be used for training. Hence, the shortages continue to increase every year if action is not taken to constantly remove the deficiency.
The other major issue highlighted in the letter written by the COAS pertains to the continuation in service of obsolescent weapons and equipment and the stagnation in the process of military modernisation aimed at upgrading the Army’s war-fighting capabilities to prepare it to fight and win on the battlefields of the 21st century. While the COAS has pointed out several operational deficiencies, the most critical ones include the complete lack of artillery modernisation since the Bofors 155mm Howitzer was purchased in the mid-1980s, “night blindness” of the Army’s infantry battalions and mechanised forces, and the fact that the air defence guns and missile systems are 97 per cent obsolescent. The inadequacy of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, with an adverse impact on command and control during war, adds to the Army’s difficulties.
This sorry state of affairs has come about because of the flawed defence planning and defence acquisition processes in existence, a grossly inadequate defence budget and the inability to fully spend even the meagre funds that are allotted. Funds are surrendered quite often due to bureaucratic red tape — civilian as well as military, scams in defence procurement and the frequent blacklisting of defence firms accused of adopting unfair means to win contracts.
Long-term defence planning is the charter of the apex body of the National Security Council which meets very rarely due to the preoccupation of the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) with day-to-day crisis management. As such, the 15-year Long-Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) and the five-year Defence Plan do not receive the attention that these merit.
The 11th Defence Plan, which terminated on March 31, 2012, was not formally approved by the government and hence did not receive committed budgetary support that would have enabled the three Services to plan their acquisitions of weapons and equipment systematically, rather than being left to the vagaries of annual defence budgets.
Consequent to the leakage of the Army Chief’s letter and the major uproar in Parliament that resulted, the Defence Minister is reported to have approved the 12th Defence Plan 2012-17. While this is undoubtedly commendable, it remains to be seen whether the Finance Ministry and, subsequently, the CCS will also show the same alacrity in according the approvals necessary to give practical effect to these plans.
The defence budget has dipped below 2 per cent of the country’s GDP despite the fact that the Service Chiefs and Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence have repeatedly recommended that it should be raised to at least 3 per cent of the GDP if India is to build the defence capabilities that it will need to face the emerging threats and challenges and discharge its growing responsibilities as a regional power in South Asia.
The government will do well to appoint a National Security Commission to take stock of the lack of preparedness of the country’s armed forces and to make pragmatic recommendations to redress the visible inadequacies that might lead to yet another military debacle.
The writer is a Delhi-based defence analyst.