India’s lethargic approach to national security
Urgent equipment purchases, which have to be effected in times of war, kill the life cycle required for indigenous production
India’s severe dependence on foreign suppliers for defence equipment and munitions was highlighted in the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan war. The then cabinet committee on security (CCS) decided that India needed to indigenize weapon platforms, such as the main battle tanks, which were being imported, mostly from the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The indigenous manufacture of the main battle tank Arjun got the green light in 1974. Four decades later, this bloated project has overshot its timeline by decades and cost overruns by several quanta, but so far barely two of India’s 64 armoured regiments have been equipped with this tank. For all practical purposes, this entire project is decades away from the Indian armoured formations being fully indigenized, because even if the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) somehow managed sufficient tanks immediately, the entire ecosystem of mechanized warfare, which includes railway transportation, bridges en route, tank transporters, dimensions of tunnels, roads, etc., will have to be upgraded to accommodate this lumbering giant, which is much heavier than the current Russian T-90 that forms our armoured fist.
Also millions of manhours and dollars will have to be invested to sustain the supply chain of two weapon platforms in the same arena during the changeover period. These are the primary reasons that the end user of Arjun—the Indian Army—has consistently expressed major concerns about the indigenization pace.
Which is why it is ironic that the relatively better informed sections of our nation are devoting more mental bandwidth to placing a relic tank inside a college campus than questioning the lack of indigenous battle tanks for our soldiers who need them to fight an actual enemy. The former is a reminder of previous victories, while the latter is needed to fight looming current threats.
The latest portentous warning by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) about shortage of munitions is not an earth-shattering revelation. The government—and all governments previously—has been fully seized of dire deficiencies in our arsenals, battle equipment, manpower and war reserves. Our Air Force, for instance, has been tasked for a two-front war, for which they projected a need for 45 squadrons that was whittled down to 42 by the ministry of defence, of which only 33 squadrons are available. These too are fast dwindling as over 10 squadrons of the ageing MIGs are due for retirement within the next seven years. And the much vaunted replacement aircraft still remain a subject of discussions and renegotiations. Recommendations made by the Kargil committee with regard to equipment acquisition are languishing in the procurement abyss and the Indian Army is still awaiting sufficient artillery pieces.
These deficiencies of equipment are exacerbated by shortage of officers, which is not so much a resource issue as it is a social one. The armed forces are no longer among the coveted career options for the young (and especially urban) Indians. While increasing pay might narrow the gap, the real reason for the shortages is that the profession is losing its erstwhile positioning in Indian society.
Several committees, reports, study groups and think tanks later, we have the usual reasons paraded repeatedly. These include inefficiency of DRDO units/public sector undertakings (PSUs), cumbersome procurement processes, adversarial inter-ministerial relationships, corruption-plagued history, unrealistic technical specifications and lack of accountability. But strangely there are no clarion calls to fix these well-established reasons. Instead of finding solutions in a time-bound manner, our strategy seems to be setting up committees whose end result is mournful blame-shifting and grandiose recommendations that rarely see light of day, in any meaningful time-frame.
Let’s make no mistake that India is constantly in the state of war. We have a simmering conflict on our western border, which spills over into northern sectors. We have intermittent sabre-rattling on our north-eastern front. China’s grasp on the South China Sea jugular is strengthening, which necessitates a naval defence outlay like never before. Our near border areas are volatile. Our economy is conjoint with stability of those areas, but so is the necessity of a million soldiers being readied for an external alert. Every major alert requires all leaves to be cancelled and military personnel being sucked out of the Kashmir Valley, which has to be filled with home ministry troops. This has direct and indirect effect on the economy, as well internal law and order and democratic commitments like elections.
The spending on internal security is eating into our war chest against poverty, illiteracy, sanitation, climate change, infrastructure development, self-sufficiency in food, energy and ironically even defence. Urgent equipment purchases, which have to be effected in times of war, kill the life cycle required for indigenous production or even adaptation of those technologies. That is why India is able to build sophisticated space-capable missiles, but unable to develop an all-purpose, fully satisfactory, assault rifle. The former technology was denied to us for decades and we were forced to develop it, while the latter could be purchased off-the-shelf from world markets in every war-like situation.
We have many battles to fight and it would be wise for citizens to realize the importance of placing tanks where they belong. There is often a call in India for a few years of compulsory military service for the young. But perhaps what should be inculcated is a better understanding of national security and the components that go into building it. Let our younger—and for that matter even older—generations realize that the true cost of national security includes the opportunity cost of compounded growth that is being lost forever. In addition to reminding them of martyrs, we might want to educate them on disciplines which reduce, if not prevent, the need for martyrs in the first place.
The venerable scholar warrior Sun Tzu observed that victorious armies determine what victory is, and then enter into war but the losing armies plunge into wars and then seek victory. India today is faced with many battles and seems champing at the bit to decibel its way to victory. But like the wise man said, it might be better to understand the contours of which battle to fight and what victory is, before charging in. Lest we mistake transient pyrrhic triumphs for lasting strategic successes.
Raghu Raman is a former soldier and founding CEO of NATGRID.
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