Rhetoric will not do. Political parties must ask the Government the hard question: Is the 13 lakh strong Indian Army, which gets the lion's share of the $49 billion annual defence budget, adequately equipped and prepared to fight a war?
One year on is a good time to review the outcome of the confidential letter written by the then Chief of Army Staff, General VK Singh, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in April 2012, saying that the Army is unprepared for war. To be sure, he was referring to a war with Pakistan.
Within weeks of assuming office in May same year, the new COAS, General Bikram Singh, informed the nation that the Army was prepared for all eventualities, implying military threats from both Pakistan and China.
Union Minister for Defence AK Antony has since availed all opportunities, including the recently-concluded Army Commanders conference, to emphasise that modernisation is on track. While achieving so much in so little time is a miracle in itself, what was the fuss about General VK Singh’s confidential letter that was leaked to the media?
The letter had said it all.The mission reliability of mechanised vehicles is poor, the artillery is obsolete and inadequate, air defence is antiquated, armour is unreliable due to regular barrel accidents caused by mismatch between indigenous barrels and ammunition, night-fighting devices are insufficient, aviation corps helicopters need urgent replacements, and holdings of all types of missiles, anti-tank and specialised ammunition is critically low to last three to five days of war: This is what Gen Singh had written to the Prime Minister.
Following this, the Defence Minister asked Army Headquarters to fast-track acquisitions; the list of essentials was prepared overnight and sent. Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated further in the last one year. On the one hand, nothing has come so far. On the other hand, missiles and specialised ammunition holdings which have a shelf-life, have dipped further.
At present, the Army does not have reserve stocks called War Wastage Reserves for most ammunition categories. It is mandatory for the Army to have WWR for 40 days of intense war for long-shelf life category, and 21 days of intense fighting for short shelf-life category like anti-tank, rocket artillery and missiles.
If this was not enough, Gen Bikram Singh has recently sought freezing of the 197 helicopters’ deal meant to replace the aged Cheetah/Chetak helicopters of the seventies vintage, which are the life-line for troops that live on Siachen Glacier at heights between 12,000 feet and 21,000 feet. He has also asked for the cancellation of Spike Anti-Tank Guided Missiles urgently needed to hit Pakistani/terrorists hideouts in high altitude areas of Kashmir and Ladakh.
Both critical procurement processes have been going on since over a decade, and the Army has little to do with any wrongdoing, if indeed wrongdoings have happened.
In the case of the 197 helicopters, the finalists after extensive field trials are the Russian Ka-226T and the Eurocopter’s AS 550 C3 Fennec. However, in an unrelated case of 12 AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters sold to India for VVIP use, an Italian probe has mentioned the name of Indian Brigadier VS Saini apparently asking for money to manipulate the same company’s AW119 helicopter to win the 197 helicopter bid.
Considering that AW119 was out of the trials at an early stage, why has the Army chief denied replacements of obsolete helicopters by saying that the deal should be placed on hold till Brigadier Saini is cleared by the CBI?
Similarly, after extensive trials, the Israeli Spike ATGM has emerged as the best weapon for use in high altitudes to hit bunkers at 18,000 feet. To recall, the present Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, had first recommend Spike ATGM when he was the Indian defence adviser in Israel in 1997, two years before its operational utility was understood during the 1999 Kargil War where the Pakistani Army had dug itself into bunkers in high altitude areas. Since then, trials have been held of Russian Kornet-E and American Javelin ATGMs, both of which have been found unacceptable on different counts.
The reason given by the Army chief for withdrawing from the ATGM acquisition is that he did not want a single-vendor situation. Stated bluntly, in both cases — 197 helicopters and Spike ATGM — Gen Bikram Singh has covered up for what was the Defence Minister’s call. Why has he done this? Is it not his highest moral responsibility to ensure optimal war preparedness of his Army?
It can be argued that Gen Bikram Singh has simply followed in his predecessors’ foot-steps of making exaggerated claims during peace time. During the 1999 Kargil War, the then COAS, General VP Malik, told an incredulous nation that “we will fight with whatever we have” — really saying that the needed wherewithal was absent
Consequently, more young officers died than should have, and the artillery was pulled from other sensitive theatres leaving operational gaps which would have been disastrous had the Pakistan Army enlarged the conflict into an all-out war. There were umpteen media reports about Defence Ministry bureaucrats air-dashing to Russia and Israel, clutching suitcases filled with dollars to procure ammunition.
Similarly, during Operation Parakram, the 10-month long military stand-off between India and Pakistan in 2001-2002, the Vajpayee Government decided to finally not go to war.
Little known to the nation was the fact that the Northern Army Commander, Lt General RK Nanavaty had told the then COAS, General S Padmanabhan, that he lacked adequate equipment and ammunition for the war.
In the aftermath of 26/11 terrorists attacks in Mumbai when New Delhi was mulling over strong retaliatory action, there were reports that the COAS, General Deepak Kapoor, had expressed concerns to both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defence Minister Antony about equipment and ammunition deficiencies.
The truth is that since 1993, when then COAS, Gen BP Joshi, raised the Rashtriya Rifles forces for Jammu & Kashmir to quell Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, he used internal resources, depleting the Army’s WWR.
His successor, Gen Shankar Roychowdhury, has written about this in his book, Officially at Peace, “No COAS has since cared enough, going beyond official communications, to make preparedness for war his top-most operational responsibility.”
Political parties must now ask the Government the hard question: Is the 13 lakh strong Indian Army, which gets the lion’s share of the $49 billion annual defence budget, prepared to fight a war?
(The writer is a former Indian Army officer and now Editor, FORCE, a newsmagazine on national security)