Monday, April 16, 2012

India's defence preparedness

Rahul Bedi

The government must outline cogent defence policy guidelines that flow from a comprehensive national security doctrine.

The furious ruckus for the past fortnight over the confrontation between Army Chief General V.K. Singh and Defence Minister A.K. Antony and the recent, overblown newspaper report of “curious” troop movements towards Delhi which allegedly “spooked” the government have shocked and confused the country.

And while these supposedly subversive intentions have categorically been denied by both the army and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), an apocalyptic atmosphere of mistrust and turbulence persists in the uppermost echelons of national security vitiated by suspicion and disbelief. Today we live in times where the majority of people believe and expect the worst from our leadership.

But despite the seriousness of the situation, rival politicians, retired Service officers, civil servants and so-called military experts have spent a disproportionate amount of time attacking one another on television, giving little thought to the regretful state of the army's modernisation and operational capability development — vital requirements to equip it to operate in an increasingly militarised and nuclearised neighbourhood.

Privately, however, military planners concur that, above all, the prevailing ad hoc model of single-Service operational readiness badly needs replacing with one in which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) takes upon itself the onus of integrated capacity building in concert with national security interests.

They maintain that it is time the MoD realised that India can ill-afford three separate Service war-fighting doctrines. And that 65 years after Independence, the MoD must perforce assume responsibility by outlining cogent national defence policy guidelines that, in turn, accrue from a comprehensive national security doctrine.

‘Book-keeping' exercise

After fighting many wars and almost continuously deploying on anti-insurgency operations, India's defence planning largely remains an MoD ‘book-keeping' exercise of utilising money and resources to meet Service demands and those of innumerable and largely redundant associated departments. It has been optimistically presumed that over time these will magically get converted into desired military capability.

What the stand-off between Gen. Singh and the MoD has highlighted, albeit unnoticed, is that outsourcing this process to the respective Service headquarters, forever squabbling over allocations and Me-First doctrines is at best a counterproductive exercise. This is further hobbled by the MoD's omnipotent bureaucracy, vacillation in decision making, lack of prioritisation and recurring corruption scandals.

The only overt, proactive instruction from the MoD to the Services is the ambitious five-year Defence Ministers Operational directive. The last one was dispatched in late-2010 by Mr. Antony. Somewhat grandiosely this requires the military to prepare itself for a ‘two-front war' with China and Pakistan, but fails to provide any direction to achieve this overarching objective.

The generalist MoD, however, manned at critical, decision-making levels by itinerant and ill-informed civil servants needs to objectively assess the percept of a ‘two-front war' in the backdrop of the changing spectrum of war conflict — from nuclear conflict to low-level insurgencies — and realistically evaluate the relevance of existing force and equipment structures required to meet prevailing and emerging security challenges.

Concurrently, the ongoing controversy over materiel imports at the cost of indigenous development is also a vital part of this equally important aspect of systematic defence planning and, more importantly, managing its economics.

For, it is now more than apparent that India can no longer financially afford the threat-based, continental model of force development which is not only wasteful but has deprived the country of desired military capability. Nor can it sustain extravagant fiscal mismanagement of meagre resources as it attempts to transform the military from a threat-based to a capability-based force. Consequently, the articulation of defence strategy in all its aspects underpinned by sensible economics is essential in order to ably formulate integrated planning and its oversight.

Three-tiered process

Perspective planning to maintain modernised forces and to address obsolescence issues is currently a three-tiered process.

A long-term integrated perspective plan is prepared by the individual Services which, in turn, is coordinated and prioritised by the recently created Integrated Defence Staff that spells out force structures and India's military capability profile over a 15-year period. These recommendations are then discussed by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by the Defence Minister and decisions taken on whether to buy, make, buy-and-make and the newest category buy-and-make (Indian) equipment.

Under this latest classification stipulated in the 2009 edition of the complex Defence Procurement Procedures, Indian companies with requisite technical and financial capability would now be issued tenders for materiel requirements. They would, in turn, be permitted to enter into collaboration with overseas vendors and manufacturers for product and platform development. This outcome is then factored into Five-Year Defence Plans and, theoretically, form part of the capital acquisition planning of individual Services to address respective modernisation needs. From this flows the annual outlay for procurements and subsequent modernisation.

But now the hurdles begin.

The DAC meets infrequently and that too inconclusively, almost all Five-Year Defence Plans are accorded retrospective clearance, and the moneys earmarked for capital expenditure or acquisitions and modernisation are frequently returned unspent. Since 2002 — except for one year — Rs 22,572 crore have reverted to the Central exchequer as both the Services and the MoD were unable to take timely decisions.

Contrary pulls

Moreover, materiel acquisitions continue to be subject to two contrary pulls — the Services' desire to procure the latest weaponry without thought or consideration to fully integrating the systems with existing equipment and the MoD's propensity to be guided continually by the Defence Research and Development Organisation's (DRDO's) misplaced capabilities for indigenous production.

Jointness, particularly in systems acquisitions, is the other handicap with many insiders calling it a ‘stovepipe' exercise in which each Service bats selfishly for itself. The inevitable result is delay and costly acquisitions that eventually end up at best as “product enhancers” with limited benefit to either overall operational efficiency or to local industry.

It is a truism widely reported by government appointed committees that for decades, India's vast military-industrial complex comprising 41 Ordnance Factory Board factories, nine Defence Public Sector Units and 51 sophisticated DRDO laboratories have collectively contributed marginal engineering skills — largely through reverse engineering — to the vast military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, weapon development and modernisation, including upgrades, remain almost exclusively hostage to foreign vendors.

The outcome is a perilous lack of inter-Service operability at the systems level with the Command and Control and Common Operational picture being a critical instance of this unbeneficial jumbled ‘stove-piping'.

At the Joint Operations and Intelligence Room or JOIR which is the tri-Service Command Centre, for instance, there exist no capacities to fuse together a common operational picture as the respective C3I systems (Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence) cannot be integrated. The emergent operational picture is single-Service orientated, obviating the ability to take critical decisions at strategic levels against a nuclear backdrop.

Yawning gap

This, in turn, has led to a yawning qualitative and technological gap with China's proliferating military capabilities and near symmetrical conventional parity with Pakistan.

In military modernisation, China is speeding ahead and is on the threshold of emerging as a first world technologically savvy military, purposefully refining its “anti-access” strategy of countering superior adversarial forces by engaging them in battle a safe distance from its mainland. Even with regard to Pakistan, the relative military advantage that was tilted in India's favour both operationally and in force ratios of around 3:1 in 1971 has alarmingly depreciated to 1:1.75 according to in-house military estimates.

The reason for this indifferent growth of military capability was blamed by the K. Subhramanyam committee set up after the 1999 Kargil disaster on the mindset of ill-informed Indian decision makers who remain largely apathetic to long-term and anticipatory security planning processes. According to the committee, the structure and processes of the executive functioning of the MoD persistently avoided focusing on long-term planning, encouraging at best a ‘sectoral approach'.

Perhaps it is time to appoint a neutral National Military Commission, comprising dispassionate members familiar with security and defence issues, to re-examine India's overall defence structure. Other than equipment modernisation and Service doctrines, it would also need to scrutinise defence finances, ad hoc promotion policies and inventory and logistics management systems amongst other drawbacks and, like in other countries abroad, swiftly table its recommendations. These, unlike previous such exercises, would need speedy implementation to avert the steadily advancing ominous national security crisis.

(The writer is a senior journalist and defence analyst.)

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