The Dark and Deep Woods of National Defence

The past one year has infused the nation with ‘strategic confidence’ that we can handle a devious and formidable adversary like China. Equally the pandemic has induced 'strategic hesitancy'. The time has come to exhibit ‘strategic wisdom’ in our transformative processes and undertake 'strategic investment’ to ensure our defence forces grow from strength to strength to enable the nation to tackle its daunting tasks ahead

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By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)

Former prime PM Manmohan Singh recently said ‘The road ahead is even more daunting than during the 1991 economic crisis and the nation would need to recalibrate its priorities to ensure a dignified life for all Indians’. He also quoted the last lines from Robert Frosts poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ which say ‘But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep’. Metaphorically speaking it is time to stop by our neck of the woods to see that they are indeed dark and deep. However they are not really lovely as visualised by Frost. Let us see how dark the woods are.

To put it in perspective in 1991, the crisis was largely economic and internal to India. In 1987, Operation Chequerboard had convinced the Chinese of the capabilities of the Indian Armed Forces. It led to, PM Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988 to break the ice in Sino Indian relations. China was not the adversary it is today. On the other end, Pakistan had been rattled by Operation Brasstacks and was convinced that it could no more win a conventional war with India. Militancy in Punjab was on the wane. The militancy and terror cycles of J&K were in incipient stages.  The security scenario at that time was benign compared to what it is today.

To put it in perspective in 1991, the crisis was largely economic and internal to India. In 1987, Operation Chequerboard had convinced the Chinese of the capabilities of the Indian Armed Forces. It led to, PM Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988 to break the ice in Sino Indian relations. China was not the adversary it is today

Between the Kargil War and the Surgical Strikes of 2016, Pakistan had upped the stakes through many terror strikes in J&K and in the hinterland. Yet in that period,  India exhibited strategic restraint to develop and outpace Pakistan economically while remaining competitive with China. It lifted millions out of poverty. The Chinese virus, a pandemic, along with the devastation of the second wave has shifted the ground under out feet. It has put many back into poverty or on its abyss.

Three decades after 1991, India faces an economic, diplomatic and security crisis in a toxic geopolitical environment underpinned by the shock effect of the devastating pandemic. I do not know if our former PM has factored in all these issues when he said that the road ahead is even more daunting than during the 1991 economic crisis. I presume that he has. However, I will highlight the stark security contrast between the times. In 1991, the security envelope was comforting enough to take economic risks. In 2021 the security environment is itself full of risks and the economic outlook is depressing despite the garnishing. Unless the security risk is marginalised, economic recovery and growth will stutter. That is what makes the current task even more daunting. India needs to invest more in its security before it can grow. To a large extent it could be termed a ‘Chicken and Egg’ story and will be argued both ways. However, I will put forth the case for defence and security and let you decide which should be attended to and when. The major point I wish to highlight is that investment into security is itself a complex hydra headed phenomenon with many daunting moving parts. Let us understand them.

To state that India faces a two front scenario of unprecedented proportions is being an oxymoron. As days pass, the direct, collusive, continental, and maritime threats from China and Pakistan will be time-incremental. The dimensions of the indirect and insidious threat, through our neighbours , like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Maldives will be unforeseen. They  will throw up new security and diplomatic challenges. The evolving situation in Afghanistan will throw up new instabilities. The internal situation portends new social and societal upheavals  with security ramifications. The overarching issue is that all the threats are multi-dimensional and multi-domain in nature. A major domain of this threat will be an economic offensive with military overtones. It is a complex situation.

To state that India faces a two front scenario of unprecedented proportions is being an oxymoron. As days pass, the direct, collusive, continental, and maritime threats from China and Pakistan will be time-incremental. The dimensions of the indirect and insidious threat, through our neighbours , like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Maldives will be unforeseen. They  will throw up new security and diplomatic challenges

In this era of heightened threat, particularly from an ambitious, assertive and aggressive China, we are  undertaking a slew of reforms to reorganise our Armed Forces. The spearhead of this  transformation is the impending establishment of joint theatre commands.  While this massive reorganisation is mandatory for a rising India, it will need funding of a high magnitude. It also needs to be  executed with vision, maturity, and clarity of thought. The fact that the theatre command system is facing internal resistance indicates lack of applicative wisdom. In addition,  the Indian Army has also taken up to convert into the Integrated Battle Group system. Slick arguments will be made by all that such reorganisation will result in reduced expenditure and enhanced operational effectiveness. That might be so in the long run. In the immediate future (of up to the next decade), there will be requirement for additional funding and coping with a lot of uncertainty and prevarication. Leave the funding aside, the change will  result in  reduced force effectiveness till stabilisation. Two major reorganisations with reduced funding, without consensual thought and some degree of joint operational validation is a recipe for massive reduction in operational effectiveness. I do hope the political and military leadership is aware of the risks being run on the national integrity and sovereignty. I hope some sane council exists beyond the military haste. We could be hurrying into a disaster. That is my sincere worry.

A major moving part of this equation is the rebalancing exercise which has been thrust upon us by Chinese aggression and Pakistani collusion. The fact that we must rebalance to the North in a time bound manner is a given. It cannot be hedged or negotiated in time or space. The entire rebalancing includes deployment of additional forces and infrastructure in super high altitudes. It also demands induction of new equipment with new technologies. The technologies for being efficient in the super high-altitudes have been spelt out by me in an earlier article written for India Today. India’s energy requirement will also shoot up due to this move up to North. All these require additional funding to succeed.

A major antidote to most of our problems lies in being self-sufficient and atmanirbhar. This means heavy indigenisation and reduced imports. In turn this is possible  through reforms of procurement procedures, bureaucratic processes, R&D efforts, streamlined production and innovation. All this is feasible only if the Services are integrated into the MOD system intricately. That has not happened. Also, there is no visible road map for that. In the event, procurement and acquisitions will remain import dependant to drive up the defence bill. Unless reforms on ground take place in these areas, and a defence industrial complex is built with purpose, India will have to pay though its nose. This festering sore needs attention. This is a major drawback which has persisted over seven decades without an answer irrespective of the hues of governments in power.

It is also a well-known fact that time is a resource which costs money. Most of our transformative, reformative and  procurement processes are bedevilled by delays and time overruns. Cases get stuck. They get queued up. They are put on back burners. As a result, the nation ends up paying much more than it should. This is because of two factors. The MOD is not well integrated with the Services. Secondly there is an utter lack of monitoring of cases or accountability in the system. Consciousness of time if inculcated will pay handsome dividends. However it needs political sagacity, purpose and push to ensure delivery. Barring short periods of time the necessary political drive has been missing.

A major antidote to most of our problems lies in being self-sufficient and atmanirbhar. This means heavy indigenisation and reduced imports. In turn this is possible  through reforms of procurement procedures, bureaucratic processes, R&D efforts, streamlined production and innovation. All this is feasible only if the Services are integrated into the MOD system intricately

If one takes an overview, as India has grown economically, its security risks have grown but its defence spending has shrunk. Current defence expenditure is roughly equivalent to the pre-1962 days as a percentage of our GDP. This reduced expenditure is expected to pay for sustenance of forces, modernisation, rebalancing, reorganisation, expansion to meet new threats, constantly increasing pay bills and induction of new disruptive technologies. The maths just does not add up. It is showing up on ground.  The defence forces are increasingly being  expected to  meet the expanded threats with ageing equipment. In my opinion, the defence forces have reached the inflection point where their efficacy will progressively reduce unless new economic infusion takes place or cost cutting reforms are affected on ground.

If India is to gear up to the new security challenges there is a three point requirement of Leadership, Leadership and Leadership. This is required in the military, bureaucratic and political hierarchy which oversees our national defence and security. The major dilemma before the national leadership is that, should they invest for the ‘now’ of current operational imperatives or the ‘later’ of future readiness. A balance needs to be arrived at through an enunciated national vision and strategy from which a long term plan stems out. The apex leadership will have to give the political and geostrategic vision. That has been a long standing deficiency of the Indian defence firmament. In the event of its non-availability, political expediency and military haste of people in office to achieve something when in chair has taken precedence over prudence. The lack of intellectualism or its scorn will show through on ground at great cost if not rectified.

The major dilemma before the national leadership is that, should they invest for the ‘now’ of current operational imperatives or the ‘later’ of future readiness. A balance needs to be arrived at through an enunciated national vision and strategy from which a long term plan stems out. The apex leadership will have to give the political and geostrategic vision. That has been a long standing deficiency of the Indian defence firmament

Look at it any way, the woods are indeed dark and deep and we have miles to go before we sleep. Getting back to what our former PM said, the daunting road ahead will be even more so if the security envelope, which the defence and diplomatic forces are expected to provide, underperforms. Our economy and nation building to rise as a power will suffer badly if we neglect the primacy of this protective cover. In my opinion it is time for us to buckle down and look at what we did well immediately after the 1962 defeat to come up trumps in 1965 and 1971 despite being a poor nation which thought largely about ‘Garibi Hatao’ on a daily basis. The past one year has infused the nation with ‘strategic confidence’ that we can handle a devious and formidable adversary like China. Equally the pandemic has induced ‘strategic hesitancy’. The time has come to exhibit ‘strategic wisdom’ in our transformative processes and undertake ‘strategic investment’ to ensure our defence forces grow from strength to strength to enable the nation to tackle its daunting tasks ahead. It is only then that we can ensure a dignified life for all Indians.

Jai Hind !

-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda