During its first three years in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s NDA government gave a free hand to the army to act pro-actively on the LoC with Pakistan and worked assiduously with the leadership of the armed forces and the bureaucracy to give a fillip to military modernisation. However, inadequacies in the state of defence preparedness continue to merit the government’s urgent attention. During the remaining two years in office, the government must devote time and effort to addressing the critical hollowness plaguing defence preparedness. (The term ‘critical hollowness’ was used by General V. K. Singh, former Army Chief, in a letter he wrote to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May 2012.) Also, major operational deficiencies in the war establishment of the three Services need to be made up early in order to enhance combat readiness. Unless the management of the defence budget improves and the defence procurement process is streamlined further, thoughts of critical hollowness will continue to haunt India’s defence planners.
However, first and foremost, the large-scale deficiencies in ammunition and important items of equipment need to be made up quickly. These deficiencies continue to adversely affect India’s readiness for war and the ability to sustain military operations over a period of 20 to 30 days if it becomes necessary. The Indian Army is reportedly holding stocks of some varieties of ammunition for barely ten days of conflict. It has been estimated that it will cost Rs 19,000 crore to replenish stocks to the required levels. It will be recalled that during the Kargil conflict in 1999, 50,000 rounds of 155 mm artillery ammunition had to be imported from South Africa. The occurrence of such a critical situation during a time of crisis must be avoided through a prudent replenishment and stocking policy.
The army’s sister Services are no better off. Over the last five years, the Indian Navy has had major accidents on board INS Sindhurakshak and INS Sindhuratna, both submarines, possibly due to the poor state of maintenance. In another accident, submarine batteries that should have been replaced much earlier were still being used due to inordinately long acquisition procedures. From its peak at 39 squadrons over a decade ago, the fighting strength of the Indian Air Force has gone down to 33 squadrons, whereas actually 42 squadrons are now required to meet future threats and challenges. Obsolescent fighter aircraft like MiG-21s and MiG-27s and vintage helicopters are still in service. The availability of surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems for air defence operations leaves much to be desired. And, the protection enjoyed by air bases, like the one that was attacked by Pakistani terrorists in January 2016, remains rudimentary.
Slow Pace of Modernisation
The continuation in service of obsolete and obsolescent weapons and equipment also impact the country’s defence preparedness due to their poor state of maintenance and one or two generations old technology. Modernisation of the armed forces has been stagnating due to the inadequacy of funds, the black-listing of several defence manufacturers and bureaucratic red tape that stymies the acquisition process. A committee led by Dhirendra Singh, former Home Secretary, was appointed to review the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Based on its report, several pragmatic amendments were made and DPP 2016 was issued by the government in early- April. Since then, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has approved the ‘Strategic Partnership’ model to encourage participation of the private sector in defence manufacture.
Defence procurement projects worth over Rs 1,50,000 crore were accorded ‘acceptance of necessity’ (AON), or approval in principle, by the DAC chaired by former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and contracts were signed for acquisitions worth approximately Rs 90,000 crore. However, it will take three to five years before deliveries of the weapons systems begin. And, like in the UPA regime, significantly large amounts of funds continue to be surrendered unspent from the capital budget.
In the army, artillery modernisation is about to begin. There is an urgent need to acquire approximately 3,000 pieces of 155 mm/52-calibre guns to replace obsolescent towed and selfpropelled guns and howitzers. So far, a contract has been signed only for 145 pieces of M777 155 mm/45-calibre howitzers from the US. Another contract for 114 pieces of 155 mm/45-calibre howitzers based on the Bofors design is expected to be signed with the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) shortly. Air defence and army aviation units are also equipped with obsolete equipment that has degraded their readiness for combat and created vulnerabilities.
Modern wars are fought mostly during the hours of darkness, but most of the armoured fighting vehicles — tanks and infantry combat vehicles — are still ‘night blind’. Only about 650 T- 90S tanks of Russian origin have genuine night fighting capability. The infantry battalions need over 30,000 third generation night vision devices. Other requirements for infantry battalions include 66,000 assault rifles — a soldier’s basic weapon, carbines for close quarter battle, general purpose machine guns, light-weight antimateriel rifles, mine protected vehicles, 390,000 ballistic helmets, and 180,000 lightweight bullet proof jackets.
The Navy is in the process of commissioning an air defence ship at Kochi to replace the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant and building six Scorpene submarines at Mazagon Docks. It is also building 22 destroyers, frigates, corvettes and other ships such as fast attack craft, landing ships and support ships. However, India’s maritime security challenges are growing and the Navy not only needs to modernise but also expand its footprint in the Indo- Pacific region along with the navies of India’s strategic partners.
The modernisation plans of the Air Force are also proceeding ahead at a snail’s pace. The MMRCA project to acquire 126 fighter aircraft to replace obsolete MiG-21s is stuck in a groove. The government’s plans to initially purchase 36 Rafale fighters from France appeared to have got bogged down while the contract was being negotiated, but have since been revived. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin (F-16) and Boeing (F- 18) have jumped into the fray again with offers to produce their aircraft locally with transfer of technology (ToT).
The IAF also requires several additional AWACS early warning aircraft, six mid-air refueller tankers, 56 transporter planes, 20 advance jet trainers, 38 basic trainers, 48 mediumlift helicopters, reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic warfare suites. All three Services need to upgrade their C4I2SR capabilities to prepare for effects-based operations in a network-centric environment and to match ever increasing Chinese military capabilities.
Prudent Financial Management
All of the planned acquisitions are capital intensive and the present defence budget cannot support many of them. Hence, financial management needs a major overhaul if defence preparedness is to be enhanced. The defence budget has dipped to 1.60 per cent of the country’s projected GDP for 2017-18 — the lowest level since the disastrous 1962 War with China. Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence and the armed forces have repeatedly recommended that the defence budget should be raised progressively to 3.0 per cent of the GDP if India is to build the defence capabilities that it needs to meet future threats and challenges and discharge its growing responsibilities as a regional power in Southern Asia. The budgetary allocations earmarked on the capital account for the modernisation of the armed forces will continue to be surrendered unless the government sets up a rolling, non-lapsable defence modernisation fund of approximately Rs 50,000 crore under the Consolidated Fund of India. Cutting down on wasteful subsidies from which the people do not really benefit in a meaningful manner would be one way to spare more funds for national security. The rules of business need to be amended to give effect to this innovation. Incidentally, such a provision had existed during the British Raj.
The 12th Defence Plan (2012-17) was completed on March 31, 2017 without having been formally approved with full financial backing by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) throughout its currency. The government has also not formally approved the long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP 2007-22) formulated by HQ Integrated Defence Staff. Without these essential approvals, defence procurement is being undertaken through ad hoc annual acquisition plans, rather than being based on duly prioritised long-term plans that are designed to systematically enhance India’s combat potential. These are serious lacunae as effective defence planning cannot be undertaken in a policy void. The government must commit itself to supporting long-term defence plans.]
Indigenisation of Defence Production
The government must relinquish its monopoly on defence research and development (R&D). The DRDO should undertake research in strategic technologies that even the closest strategic partners are unwilling to share; e.g. ballistic missile defence technology. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) should progressively move away from its excessive reliance on the inefficient public sector for defence production. In fact, serious thought needs to be given to whether it is beneficial to continue with the Department of Defence Production under the MoD, or hive it off to a new ministry.
The ordnance factories and the defence PSUs should be gradually privatised to make them more efficient and quality conscious. The private sector must be encouraged and incentivised to contribute to the national quest for self-reliance in defence production. Through the implementation of the Prime Minister’s vision to ‘make in India’, defence acquisition and plans for military modernisation must lead to substantive upgradation of India’s defence technology base and manufacturing capability. Otherwise the country’s defence procurement will remain mired in disadvantageous buyer-seller, patron-client relationships. No new defence acquisition should be undertaken without insisting on indigenous manufacture with the transfer of technology (ToT).
The NDA government has done well to announce its intention to allow defence exports. Formal instructions to give effect to this policy should be issued early. It should be ensured that India abides by the provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty even though it is not a signatory to the treaty. The national aim should be to make India a design, development, manufacturing, export and servicing hub for weapons systems and other defence equipment in the next 10 to 15 years in conjunction with the country’s strategic partners.
Structural reforms need to be implemented in an early time frame to improve national security decision making and synergise defence planning. The most important issue that has been pending for long is the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This was first recommended by the Arun Singh committee on defence expenditure in the early 1990s, and then by the Group of Ministers led by Deputy PM. L K Advani. The GoM had reviewed the recommendations of the four task forces on the management of national security that were assembled following the submission of the Kargil Review Committee report. This crucial appointment has been hanging fire due to the want of political consensus and differences within the armed forces. Recently, the Naresh Chandra committee has recommended the appointment of a permanent Chairman of the CoSC as a more acceptable alternative.
The appointment of a CDS should be logically followed by the raising of tri- Service integrated theatre commands a few years later so as to ensure the ‘joint’ formulation and execution of operational plans. It has now been accepted by all modern militaries that ‘jointness’ or ‘jointmanship’ leads to the optimisation of single-Service combat capabilities. Also, the Army, Navy and Air Force HQ have been only nominally integrated with the MoD and are still ‘attached offices’ for all practical purposes. The civil-military disconnect and the consequent flaws in functioning must be eliminated.
The state of the defence preparedness of a country is a function of the guidance provided by its civilian and military leadership; the number and, more importantly, the standard of training of individual soldiers, units and formations; the quality of the weapons, ammunition and equipment with which they are armed; and, the adequacy of the logistics resources available to them. While all of these factors contribute almost equally to defence preparedness, perhaps the quality of weapons, ammunition and defence equipment merits greater importance. This factor is a product of long-term defence planning, the availability of funds, the country’s defence technology base, the efficiency of the procurement process and the ability to achieve and sustain a high state of maintenance of weapons and equipment. All countries have armed forces, but only a few are able to maintain them in a high state of operational readiness at all times. India must strive to join this small group.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi and Adjunct Fellow, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, DC. He is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. His books include Nuclear Defence: Shaping the Arsenal; and, Indian Army: Vision 2020.