By Amit Cowshish
India celebrates its 75th Independence Day on August 15 amidst rapidly growing security concerns emanating from the enduring border disputes with China and Pakistan, China’s forays into the Indian Ocean Region, the Afghanistan imbroglio, terrorism, and military underpinnings of the contemporary geopolitics.
Internally, the country faces many complex challenges on socio-economic and political fronts. Climate change, burgeoning population, falling standards of public morality, uneven regional development, unimaginative urban planning, and agrarian crisis are among several other concerns that cannot be ignored. If, however, this multiplicity of knotty issues is triaged, security of the country would undoubtedly emerge as one of the foremost national concerns.
These security concerns are as much about the changing nature of the multiple threats faced by the country as the lack of adequate military capability to face them. The harsh reality is that the armed forces are not equipped with the state-of-the-art weapon systems, platforms, and other capabilities needed to counter the newer forms of threats caused by autonomous weapons, cyber attacks, disinformation, technology-enabled covert operations, and the like.
In 2018, the Indian Army’s then Vice Chief of Staff, Lt. General Sarath Chand, had told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that 68% of the forces’ in-service platforms were in the ‘vintage’ category, 24% were considered ‘current’, and merely 8% could be regarded as ‘state of the art’. These percentages may vary for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN), but there is no denying that the bulk of the inventory held by them is obsolete or obsolescent.
Despite this enduring handicap, the armed forces have acquitted themselves quite honourably in all the wars and near-wars thrust upon them by militarily aggressive neighbours, beginning with the Pakistan-backed tribal invasion of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir on October 22, 1947, barely six weeks after India’s independence. The latest in this series was the serious skirmish that took place as recently as in June 2020 in eastern Ladakh that has resulted in prolonged deployment of the Indian Army at the flashpoints.
The reassuring conduct of the armed forces notwithstanding, the declining numbers of fighter aircraft and submarines – among the foremost weapons of war for the IAF and IN respectively – coupled with shortage of small and medium arms, modern armoured fighting vehicles, and ammunition, just to mention a few requirements at random, conjures up a very worrisome imagery of the state of India’s defence capabilities to deal with future threats.
To be in this state of inadequate military preparedness is somewhat ironic, though.
With 1.4 million active military personnel, India has the second largest army behind China’s People’s Liberation Army, which has an active strength of 2.1 million personnel. India is the third largest spender on defence, though it is far behind the US and China, which spend far more. To put it in perspective, India’s defence budget is less than one-tenth of the US and less than one-third of China’s. In the global military strength ranking, India stands at number four behind the US, Russia and China. These statistics may look impressive, but when seen in the context of the threat it faces, India’s defence preparedness in terms of the military hardware it possesses is not so comforting.
Looking back, three interconnected factors mainly account for this paradoxical state of affairs: An amorphous strategic culture, fragmented structures for what many analysts refer to as the ‘higher defence management’ and financially unviable defence planning. These factors subsume a whole range of problems that have bedevilled India’s defence and security architecture over the years leading to disjointed and somewhat haphazard capability development.
Strategic culture is a nebulous concept which, broadly speaking, refers to the influence of a country’s cultural ethos – amalgamation of several factors such as the socio-political beliefs, the state of economic development, people’s attitudes, societal norms, bureaucratic structure and historical experience – in shaping its policy on the use of military force to resolve disputes, projection of hard and soft power beyond its boundaries, development of indigenous defence industrial base, and other related doctrines.
Some defence analysts hold the view that India lacks strategic culture. This uncharitable view overlooks the fact that India’s military history goes back several millennia to the Vedic times. Dhanurveda – the Sanskrit treatise on warfare and archery – is regarded as an Upaveda linked with Yajurveda (1100-800 BCE). The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, too, revolve around military expeditions.
Fast forwarding to the medieval times and the British Raj, India has never been free from warfare, whether it was among the kings and emperors of the sub-continent or to resist the aggressors from the west, starting with the invasion of Sindh and Multan by Muhammad bin Qasim, an Arab military commander of the Umayyad Caliphate, in 712 AD. In the 19th century, many battles were fought between the Indian kingdoms and the East India Company. And in the 20th century, Indian soldiers participated in big numbers in the two world wars. Even after its independence in 1947, India was forced into several wars and military stand-offs. That none of this has influenced the cultural ethos of the country is hard to accept.
If, however, despite the long history of military thought and action, the view that the strategic culture is non-existent in India continues to hold sway, it is arguably because of the absence of a documented National Security Strategy (NSS), without which, the protagonists argue, the armed forces cannot formulate the military strategy. There is some merit in this argument, but every security challenge faced by the country cannot be attributed to the absence of a written document.
Be that as it may, formulation of NSS presupposes some measure of unanimity, if not consensus, on major aspects of the policy around which the security strategy could be built. Though the government must take the lead to promote informed debate on the policy that the country must follow, the strategic community has an equal responsibility to contribute to the discourse so that some clarity emerges as regards the alternative policy options available to the government. Neither of the two can be said to have discharged this responsibility very well.
The successive governments have failed to initiate and promote informed public discourse on security by involving the defence think tanks that have been in existence for long. Surprisingly, the potential of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), established on November 11, 1965 as a fully funded think tank of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), has also not been fully exploited. These think tanks have largely been left to their own devices, rather than their resources and scholarship being channelised for evolving some measure of unanimity on the broad contours of the security policy.
The broader strategic community too has been of little help. It either remained preoccupied with issues like salary, pensions, and civil-military relations which, though important, do not contribute to evolution of a security policy, or kept pushing for reforms like appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and theaterisation of military commands without working out a blueprint for execution of these reforms.
Nothing illustrates the consequences of the inadequacies of informed, objective, and focussed security discourse, which both the government and the strategic community have the responsibility to promote, better than the ongoing debate on the CDS’ role and functions and the reorganisation of the existing military commands into integrated theatre commands. The debate rages on even after these reforms were formally announced by the government.
The second factor responsible for the paradoxical state of India’s defence preparedness is the absence of cohesion in the higher defence management structure. It remains fragmented and riven by subterranean interpersonal discordance. One will be hard pressed to answer the question as to which set of institutions or personnel are responsible for collective brainstorming on security related issues in their totality.
The Prime Ministers’ Office, Defence Minister, National Security Advisor, Chief of Defence Staff, Service Chiefs, and several ministries and institutions like the External Affairs, Home and Finance ministries, National Security Council, and Niti Ayog are involved in one way or the other in shaping the security policy, but, at least from outside, no signs of a coordinated and concerted effort are visible. No wonder then, often contradictory statements are made by the dramatis personae, as was the case with the public spat between the CDS and the Air Chief on the question of formation of the Air Defence Command.
This disjointedness is also reflected in the structures evolved by the MoD two decades ago for acquiring weapon systems, platforms, and other capital assets. A Capital Acquisition Wing was created within the MoD in 2001-02 for this purpose but it is not the only agency involved in capital acquisitions. The acquisition process is driven by four departments of the MoD – Departments of Defence, Defence Production, Defence Research and Development, and Military Affairs – and its finance division, apart from the Services Headquarters and various committees like the Defence Procurement Board and Defence Acquisition Council.
Realising that this is not a smart way of handling capability building, the MoD set up a committee in 2016, which recommended establishment of a bespoke Defence Capability Acquisition Organisation at an arm’s length from the ministry and free from bureaucratic stranglehold. The proposed organisation was to steer the entire process from identification of the equipment or capability that meets the services’ operational requirement to execution of the contracts, and other related aspects like post-contract management, outreach to the Indian industry, and promotion of research and development.
If nothing else, creation of this organisation would have streamlined the acquisition process which, despite all the policy and procedural changes, continues to be complex and time-consuming. In a telling comment on the procurement system, Army Chief General M.M. Naravane called for a ‘revolution in bureaucratic affairs’ while speaking at a seminar organised by the Delhi-based United Services Institution on August 3, 2021. He also lamented the procedural lacunae in the defence procurement process because of what he called the ‘Zero Error Syndrome’.
Lastly, all the handicaps mentioned above could perhaps be overcome, at least temporarily, through financially viable defence planning. It is inexplicable why several initiatives taken in the past failed to produce the intended results. The last initiative was taken on April 19, 2018 when the high-level Defence Planning Committee (DPC) was set up to prepare a draft NSS, develop a capability development plan, promote defence diplomacy, and improve the defence manufacturing ecosystem in the country. More than three years after it was set up, the DPC has little, if anything, to show for its labours.
All past experiments in defence planning point to three problems: absence of an overarching 24×7 planning organisation, suitable personnel to carry out the complex task of preparing comprehensive defence plans, which include the needs of every organisation under MoD’s administrative control such as the Border Roads and Coast Guard, and most importantly, the disconnect between the plan and its financial sustainability.
It is axiomatic that the plans must be financially viable for them to produce the desired results, but practically all five-year defence plans have ignored this basic necessity. The inexplicable disregard for financial realism was demonstrated in July 2017 when a five-year plan was presented at the United Commanders’ Conference that envisaged an outlay of 27 lakh crore. This plan did not include the outlay for defence pensions and other organisations like the Border Roads, Coast Guard and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation). It would have been impossible to service this plan even by doubling the defence budget.
To sum up, while India has done reasonably well so far despite all the difficulties and handicaps, it is necessary to pay attention to the lessons learnt from the past to make sure that India’s security concerns are addressed more systematically in future and the history does not go on repeating itself. India can ill-afford to let things drift. To quote George Bernard Shaw: “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” Surely, we are not incapable of learning from our experience. Or are we?
– The author is Ex-Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda