Gurmeet Kanwal- April 9, 2012
India desperately needs to upgrade the armed forces' war-fighting capabilities and tackle the problem of ammunition deficiency if it is to fight and win on the battlefields of the 21st century, says Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd).
Army chief General V K Singh's leaked letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the CAG's recent report have revealed that the nation's defence preparedness is cause for serious concern.
The chief's letter has brought into the public domain a fact that has been known for long to army officers in service, and those who have retired from service.
The leakage of an ultra-sensitive Top Secret letter will certainly have an adverse impact on national security, as it has given undue advantage to India's military adversaries by publicly disclosing sensitive information about the deficiencies in the weapon systems, ammunition and equipment in service in the army.
However, now that these facts are in the public domain, they will help to focus the nation's attention on the need to speedily make up the shortages and give the army the wherewithal that it needs to fight and win future wars.
General V K Singh is not the first Chief of the Army Staff to have apprised the prime minister about the poor state of preparedness; his predecessors have done so as well.
General K M Cariappa had gone to Pandit Nehru to ask for additional funds for military modernisation and was reported to have been told, 'India does not need an army; it needs a police force.'The ignominy of 1962 followed.
The late General Bipin C Joshi had written to then prime minister P V Narsimha Rao, urging him to help the army make up the long-standing large-scale shortage of ammunition.
While the shortage was worth over Rs 10,000 crore (Rs 1 billion), army headquarters had reportedly identified a 'bottom line' figure without which the COAS said the army would remain unprepared for war.
Perhaps the country's precarious financial condition in the mid-1990s did not allow Rao to provide the necessary funds to immediately make up the shortage.
A few years later, the Kargil conflict took place and the whole nation heard the then COAS, General V P Malik, make the chilling statement on national television: 'We will fight with what we have.'
It is well known that India had to scramble to import 50,000 rounds of 155 mm ammunition for its Bofors guns, besides other weapons and equipment.
Stocks of tank ammunition and ammunition for other artillery and air defence guns were also low. It was just as well that the fighting remained limited to the Kargil sector and did not spill over to the rest of the Line of Control or the plains.
Approximately 250,000 rounds of artillery ammunition were fired in that 50-day war.
The defence ministry has sanctioned the stocking of sufficient ammunition to fight a large-scale war for 60 days. This is known as the 'war reserve'.
As the army chief's letter and the CAG report bring out, apparently not enough new stocks were procured to make up even the ammunition expended during the Kargil conflict.
Stocks of several critical varieties of ammunition for tanks and artillery guns have fallen to as low as less than 10 days war reserves.
Also, ammunition has a shelf life of about 12 to 15 years, at the end of which it is no longer usable for combat, but can still be used for training. Hence, the shortages continue to increase every year if action is not taken to constantly make up the deficiency.
The other major issue highlighted in the letter written by the COAS pertains to the continuation in service of obsolescent weapons and equipment and the stagnation in the process of military modernisation aimed at upgrading the army's war-fighting capabilities to prepare it to fight and win on the battlefields of the 21st century.
While the COAS has pointed out several operational deficiencies, the most critical ones include the complete lack of artillery modernisation since the Bofors 155 mm Howitzer was purchased in the mid-1980s, 'night blindness' of the army's infantry battalions and mechanised forces, the fact that the air defence guns and missile systems are 97 per cent obsolescent and the inadequacy of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, which has an adverse impact on command and control during war.
This sorry state of affairs has come about because of the flawed defence planning and defence acquisition processes, a grossly inadequate defence budget and the inability to fully spend even the meager funds that are allotted.
Funds are surrendered quite often due to bureaucratic red tape, scams and the frequent blacklisting of defence firms accused of adopting unfair means to win contracts.
Long-term defence planning is the charter of the apex body of the National Security Council which meets very rarely due to the preoccupation of the prime minister and other members of the Cabinet Committee on Security with day-to-day crisis management.
As such, the 15-years Long-term Integrated Perspective Plans and five-year Defence Plans do not receive the attention they merit.
The 11th Defence Plan, which terminated on March 31, 2012, was not formally approved by the government and, hence, did not receive the committed budgetary support that would have enabled the three Services to plan their acquisitions of weapons and equipment systematically, rather than being left to the vagaries of annual defence budgets.
Consequent to the leakage of General V K Singh's letter and the major uproar in Parliament that resulted, the defence minister is reported to have approved the 12th Defence Plan 2012-17 and the LTIPP 2012-27 in early-April 2012.
While this is undoubtedly commendable, it remains to be seen whether the finance ministry and, subsequently, the Cabinet Committee on Security will show the same alacrity in according the approvals necessary to give a practical effect to these plans.
The defence budget has dipped below 2 per cent of the country's GDP despite the fact that the Services have repeatedly recommended that it should be raised to at least 3 per cent of the GDP if India is to build the defence capabilities that it will need to face the emerging threats and challenges and discharge its growing responsibilities as a regional power in Southern Asia.
The government will do well to appoint a National Security Commission to take stock of the lack of preparedness of the country's armed forces and to make pragmatic recommendations to redress the visible inadequacies that might lead to yet another military debacle.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd) is former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.)