As the senior most service chief, General Bikram Singh is now Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. Can he run the army and also tri-service planning? The answer is "No"
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th Jan 13
That the defence of India is ill-considered, inefficient and fiscally wasteful is hardly a secret. Even so, the raising of a Rs 64,000 crore mountain strike corps to deter Chinese adventurism on the 4,057-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC) is almost as imprudent as the proposed purchase of 126 Rafale fighters from France for an estimated Rs 1,08,000 crore (see the detailed financial analysis in the post below this one).
Adding 80,000 troops to an already bloated army will suck away money from equipment modernisation. It will underline our 19th century outlook where bayonets count for more than firepower. With existing army formations on the LAC desperately short of modern artillery, aircraft-borne fire support, surveillance equipment, helicopters and all-weather roads for quick redeployment to counter battlefield threats, the army brass has --- incredibly --- chosen to raise yet another under-equipped strike formation that has no roads to strike along.
The army will argue that it needs boots on the ground quickly, while equipment and roads will follow in due course. But where will the money for that come from, when more than 70 per cent of the army’s revenue budget goes on salaries, leaving so little for capital expenditure that 96 per cent of the capital budget goes on instalments for equipment bought during preceding years.
Why has the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government okayed a Rs 64,000 crore mountain strike corps? Either Finance Minister P Chidambaram is confident enough of meeting his fiscal responsibility goals to commit to raising the defence budget by Rs 40-50,000 crore next year, the minimum figure required for paying the accumulating bills. Alternatively, he and his colleague, Defence Minister AK Antony, might have calculated that raising a strike corps would make the UPA look strong on national defence; the next government could handle the fiscal repercussions.
And how has the military condoned such a fiscally unviable measure? Given the traditional turf battles between armies, navies and air forces the world over, a zero-sum game in which each seeks to expand its demesne and funding, the generals could be expected to argue for another corps. With it would come one more three-star post, three two-star posts, and numerous one-star vacancies. Amongst the world’s major armies, only India’s short-sighted army is expanding; and within the country, it is the only organisation that is steadily growing top-heavier, especially in general officers. During the last decade, the army created a command headquarters (South Western Command, in Jaipur) and a corps headquarters (9 Corps, in Yol), allocating them troops from existing formations for “more effective command”.
Earlier, as the army hunkered down in J&K, it raised a star-studded command structure for its 65-odd Rashtriya Rifles battalions. These included five division-sized formations, each headed by two-star major generals (called Romeo, Delta, Victor, Kilo and Uniform Force), with more than a dozen brigade-sized formations under them. The same thing happened in the northeast with the Assam Rifles. For good measure, two new regular army divisions were raised in 2008-2010, with some 40,000 soldiers for the defence of Arunachal Pradesh.
All this has provided martial careers to India’s youth and more general-rank vacancies to army officers. Yet this also ensures that the army falls steadily behind the navy and air force in equipment modernisation. The figures tell the tale --- the capital allocations to the three services this year are --- army: Rs 17,883 crore; navy: Rs 24,149 crore; air force: Rs 39,208 crore. In percentage terms, the army spends just 18 per cent of its budget on new equipment; the navy spends 66.5 per cent; while the air force spends 68.5 per cent.
Such disparities are inevitable without tri-service coordination, and with the army, navy and air force locked in a fratricidal battle for resources and turf. The proposal for a mountain strike corps should have been vetted by a tri-service headquarters, headed by a chief of defence staff (CDS) as proposed by a Group of Ministers in 2001; or by a permanent chairman, chiefs of staff committee (COSC), as proposed by the Naresh Chandra Task Force last year. The CDS/COSC would have evaluated the financial implications for all three services of raising a strike corps; and war-gamed whether better deterrence could be achieved through other means, like pooling tri-service firepower, or synergising intelligence resources like satellite and signals intelligence. Would better results be achieved by a comparable funding of India’s programme to build a network of 73 strategic border roads, which would permit currently isolated units to switch locations quickly to confront a building threat. Finally, a CDS/COSC would have considered whether a mature nuclear deterrent eliminates the need for a mountain strike corps. Given that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal emboldened it to occupy Indian territory in Kargil, it should have been asked why India’s nuclear triad fails to reassure us even within our own territory.
In November, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reminded top military commanders to “cut our coat according to our cloth”, hinting that annual 15 per cent defence procurement budget hikes are no longer assured. The days are over when army, navy and air force could plan in isolation, duplicating capabilities within their respective silos instead of planning jointly to optimise resources. India’s political leadership has listened too long to those who warn in whispers against creating an empowered general who can influence all three services. Putting off the appointment of a CDS or a Chairman COSC simply costs too much.