Chinks in the Armour: Our defence preparedness
The defence budget for 2011-12 has been hiked by 11 percent, pegging the allocation at Rs 164,415 crore (from Rs 1,47,344 crores last year), to fuel the rapid modernization of the Army, Navy and the Air Force. The capital expenditure has also been hiked to Rs 69,199 crore. This bring smiles to the defence ministry mandarins, who hope to finalise several important arms deals such as the $10.4-billion contract for 126 combat planes in the next fiscal. This must also come as a big relief to the defence analysts who were increasingly alarmed at the pace of deterioration set in our defence preparedness due to constant mishandling of past few years. The signs of this decay and depleting force levels were too clearly visible even to general public to be ignored any further. An Army Chetak crashed near Nasik killing both the pilots. INS Vindhyagiri sank after colliding with a merchant vessel off Mumbai. An Air Force Mig-21 crashed after taking off from Gwalior.
Our force levels have indeed been a cause of concern for some time now. None other than the Parliamentary standing committee on defence and CAG have consistently pointed out depleted force levels of our armed forces and the level of technological obsolescence that has marred India's defence preparedness. Today the Indian Air Force is guarding the country with only 32 flying squadrons when it must have 39. And it has 300 pilots less than what it needs to fly the aeroplanes. The MiG 21s, which is the mainstay of our fighters, has already out lived their life and now busy taking the lives of our young pilots. In fact the fleet level of Mig-21 is likely to reduce to six from 13 squadrons that we are required to maintain. Other fleets such as MiG 27s and Mirage 2000 too are due for major upgradation. Any notions about superiority of MiG-29, which was thought to be one of India's most potent weapons, was dispelled by Defence Minister in Parliament when he made the stunning disclosure that the MiG-29 is structurally flawed. Military aviation in particular is driven by technology. Technologies are getting outdated faster than the full utilization of aircraft. Therefore fleet replacements and technological updates are not only a constant necessity but also has long gestation period, hence need to be anticipated in time so that preparedness level is not compromised. Thanks to the lack of foresight, today we are saddled with aircraft, technology and assorted inventory that is more than four decades old and its effectiveness in present day war theatre is suspect.
The army is equipped with some 3,340 main battle tanks like Vijayanta,T-55, T-72, and PT-76 tanks. More than 1500 of these tanks are obsolete and night blind. One former Army Chief revealed that 80 per cent of India's tanks were night blind as against Pakistan where 80 per cent of tanks are night battle capable. Basic weaponry like automatic rifles and ammunition takes forever to reach the forces. Only 250 out of 400 originally purchased Bofors Guns are available for operational deployment. The 130 mm guns held in the inventory are of Second World War vintage and more than 90 % Air Defence artillery is obsolete. Army has not inducted new guns since Bofors were purchased. Today Indian Army has 11300 less officers than what it needs. This shortage is mostly in Lt Col and below ranks, which are the active fighting element of the force. Every year about 600 to 700 officers request for early retirement due to rising frustration levels with the state of affairs in the organization.
The Indian Navy is no better. Delays and upgrades that take forever have meant that a frontline submarine is today waiting to be put to water for years. The Sixth Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence reported that out of an accepted force level of 138 ships, the best strength our Navy achieved in last 63 years is 120 ships.The Six Scorpene Submarines, which were earlier scheduled to be delivered to Navy from 2012 have been delayed till 2015. The Ministry itself has acknowledged that induction of submarine has not kept pace with the de-induction schedule. In addition the aircraft carrier Gorshkov that was due for induction in August 2008 is not likely to be delivered by Russia even in December 2012 and will get further delayed. With Vikrant already de commissioned and Viraat due for major repairs, today India will have to go to war without a fully serviceable aircraft carrier. Our submarine fleet comprises of 10 Russian Kilo-class, four German HDW and two virtually obsolete Foxtrot submarines whereas China boasts of 57 attack submarines, 12 of them are nuclear powered. The CAG report highlighted that if India were to go to war against Pakistan at this moment, it will have to make do with only seven to eight submarines, which is less than Pakistan's 12 or so submarines, which include three spanking new French Agosta-90B vessels. The Naval Aviation arm stands depleted to its 26% of its assets. HAL promised to deliver 120 indigenously built Dhruv helicopters to Navy. Selection of the ALH was done with a view to promote indigenization and to standardize the types of helicopters. Induction of Dhruv was to begin by 1991 but there was a slippage of ten years in the development of the helicopter by HAL and even today Navy has received only 6 out of 120 helicopters it needed and even these 6 helicopters are yet to prove their operational capabilities. It is a matter of concern that the country could not achieve a force level that was accepted by Cabinet way back in 1964. Today our Navy is short by 1461 officers.
Our indigenous defence research, development and production were aimed at providing some degree of self-reliance to the defence needs but 63 years later they have failed the nation on this count. While our scientists working in these laboratories have indeed rendered yeoman's service to the nation in missile and nuclear technology, the political and bureaucratic interference and red tapism has ensured that they always under perform to come upto requirements of national defence. What else can explain the inordinate delays in Dhruv, Tejas and Arjun Tank projects? None less than Defence Minister A.K. Antony lamented India's slow pace of defence indigenisation whereby we continue to import 70% of our equipment,inspite of spending huge sums on these PSUs. With private sector not allowed to participate in defence R&D or production, the defence production and research industry has been more of a gravy train for those controlling it. Thousands of Crore Rupees have been spent and we are yet to receive helicopters, ships, submarines and even basic weaponry that DRDO and others were mandated to provide to replenish depleted force levels. In spite of the delays, the armed forces continued to pay the agencies huge amount of money under government directives -money that could have otherwise been used for procurement of equipment to retain war preparedness.
Complicated acquisition procedures put in place for defence procurement by successive governments has also played their part in slowing down the acquisition process. As per AK Anthony, last year more than Rs 7000 crs were returned by armed forces as unspent. Procedural delays and lack of clarity to deal with market forces are main reason. Bofors scandal has forced our top leadership to adopt a pessimistic approach to procurement. A new system for procurement that has been put in place is fraught with in built lacuna of paying more to be seen to be honest!!! According to this system, known as Foreign Military Sales, the government of country manufacturing weapon system negotiates the price for us with the manufacturer. Now onwards another country will decide what is good for Indian defence needs and what is the price that India must pay for it !! This itself proves the lack of understanding of Defence matters by those who have been responsible for it. As they say, Defence Minister's fetish for a clean image is costing India 125 percent more for buying half the equipment. This system has already started failing. The Howitzer guns shortlisted for purchase under FMS programme from USA failed 12 out of 18 essential QRs of the Indian Army but the government is still keen to acquire them because it makes the deal look clean in public perception! Incidentally the much-tainted Bofors won us Kargil because it was a weapon system, which emerged meritorious because it followed a selection process, which laid down stringent technical QRs.
The biggest area of concern though,is the degradation in military values and ethos of the armed forces personnel as a result of prolonged disappointment of armed forces personnel. Systematic down gradation in successive pay commissions has eroded self-esteem, dignity and respect in lower ranks of the armed forces. The increasing use of armed forces in law and order duties has exposed the lower ranks to the glaring disparities between him and his civilian or police counterpart. A large number of civilian employees who follow different ethos and norms of public dealings are employed by military Organizations such as Military Engineering Services, Directorate General of Rehabilitation, National Cadet Corp, Defence Estate, Defence Audit and Canteen Stores Depots. The lack of accountability of these personnel and other unscrupulous practices adopted by them rubs off on the military personnel working alongside them, straining the fabric of military values. Today a military commander is helpless against his civilian subordinates for any violation of working conditions. The decision-making amongst senior rank has been geared more towards staving off present crises rather than meeting the aims of a long term structured plan. The senior leadership of the armed forces also has to share the blame for failing to keep the government apprised of the shortfalls in time. The Adarsh Society scam has caused incalculable damage to the image of our senior military officers in the eyes of their subordinates. The Adarsh method was disarmingly simple. They simply co-opted in their scam whoever looked like standing in the way. If we judge the strategy by its results, it was spectacularly successful. From just 30-odd members, the eventual group grew to more than a hundred. The scary bit about the scam is not that it happened. It is that in the entire chain, there was not one man who refused to compromise himself. There was not one person whose integrity stood its ground in face of temptation. About the bureaucrats and the ministers, we always knew. The really worrying part is that it went on all the way to at least three service chiefs. Not one whistle-blower in the entire system !!! A sea-facing apartment in Mumbai is worth perhaps Rs 8 crore. For a combined booty of no more than Rs 800 crore, you could buy the entire system. I would not like to be a soldier in our armed forces at this moment. The fellow has just seen Lt Generals being prosecuted for land scam. Now, an admiral and two generals are part of a housing scam. One of the former Army chief wrote letters on his official letterhead to CM of Haryana requesting for allotment of land from CMs discretionary quota - not for the welfare of Army but for his personal use. A Major General in Gujarat praises a Chief Minister only to request him for preferential allotment of plot !! And a soldier is expected to die on their orders. The former chiefs have now graciously offered to return the flats, professing ignorance about the fact that land was meant for martyrs' families. As if that is the only thing wrong about the deal. It was stinking from start to finish and if the chiefs could not smell any of it, the Government has a lot to answer for the kind of persons they select for their top most posts. Merely dispossessing them of their ill-gotten apartment would be no punishment. They need to be handed over exemplary punishment for being unworthy custodians of our trust.
India's war preparedness must always be a matter of concern to all of us, as our nation has displayed tendencies to slip into complacency as soon as a war is over. Was there anything wrong with our defence preparedness 12 years ago when we fought Kargil War?. The root cause of Pakistan's military adventurism in Kargil arose from Pakistan's assessment of perceived weakness in our war preparedness at that time. Having lost more than 500 of our brave soldiers, there was intense debate on the tactics adopted by India to reclaim the heights from the Pak paramilitary forces and Kashmiri insurgents in the sector. Orders were to climb the heights head-on as India could not adopt the tactic of blocking off the supplies to enemy positions without crossing the line of control (LoC). Given this situation, the soldiers had to climb the steep hillocks at night with the enemy firing at them from a height and making them easy targets. Reports suggested that many soldiers bore bullet marks up the neck and above as the enemy picked off their ill-equipped targets. Defence experts were outraged that the soldiers weren't even wearing enough protective equipment before taking up such a dangerous mission. The callous manner in which the investigations were carried out into this where charges and counter-charges flew thick and fast and the issue was politicized, only shows that quality of defence equipment is not on anyone's minds.
For far too long, our defence has been left at the mercy of those who have no idea about it in the name of civilian supremacy. The people of our country are kept happy with ceremonial displays such as Air Force day parade and fly past, The Navy Day celebrations and Navy ball, The RD Parade and Beating The Retreat. On these occasions, nation see proud soldier ready to lay down his life for the country and an impressive display of military hardware -enough to lead them into a false sense of security and complacency. One wonder how much India has already compromised and how much further it is going to compromise as regard to its sovereignty. Future wars would be at short notice and therefore would have to be fought with readiness of forces at the start of a conflict. What it signifies is that unlike in the past when long lead times were available for mobilization and preparation for war, the same luxury would not be available in future wars. The crucial deciding factor would be a vigilant state of defence preparedness both by up-gradation of military equipment and modernization, especially Air Force and Navy. In fact the initial defence and offense in today's war scenario will have to come from the Air Force therefore the nation can not afford any depletion in war waging capabilities of the IAF at any cost. The high tech weapon systems that an Air Force needs to induct ,must be anticipated well in time so that adequate time is available to our personnel to be trained and fully acquainted on these machines. Success in war in future would not necessarily go to nations larger in size, population resources and potential, but to the one prepared militarily at the outbreak of hostilities. India must therefore shed its illusions that in every war in future its size and military strength will prevail. War preparedness in its most comprehensive form would be the deciding factor.
With this state of defence preparedness, are we ready to meet the threats?? Do our politicians and bureaucrats really understand how the defence of our nation is to be handled? Most importantly, how long can we leave the sovereignty of our country in the hands of people who have no knowledge of how to protect it ?? Have we really learnt anything from the past and are we prepared for the future challenges?
Its time our country has an autonomous Armed Forces Commission, which is kept, insulated from political and bureaucratic interferences, on the lines of CAG or Election Commission.
It is an undeniable fact that India is today what it is, because the Indian Armed Forces have never flinched in sacrificing lives for defending the Indian Republic from both external and internal threats. The Indian soldier fights with what he has and not what he wants. But how long can we continue denying him the equipment that he deserves ??
The poignant words inscribed on the Kohima War Memorial fittingly embody this sentiment. It is inscribed:
"When you go home, Tell them of us
For theirs Tomorrow, We gave our Today."
We need to ensure that this spirit is not allowed to die at any cost. Even Sri Lanka has acknowledged the contribution of our soldiers in defending that country against terrorists and they have built a memorial for the fallen hero's of IPKF. Why are we in India forgetting our soldier at this critical time ?
More about Wing Commander Abdul Nasir Hanfee
Wing Commander Abdul Nasir Hanfee, Vir Chakra (Retd)