By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 2nd Feb 2016
The allocation of funds to defence in the forthcoming Budget, and its distribution between various services, arms and departments, will again be a depressingly incremental affair. Marginal increases or decreases in allocations to the same old heads will testify to the absence of any new thinking, or any new solutions to the familiar problems of defence. While secrecy obscures much of the thinking and policy making relating to defence, significant changes in direction invariably leave a money trail --- which canny eyes can glean from the Budget documents. However, judging from the lack of any major change, India is perfectly secure. For the most part, our old-school generals, admirals, air marshals and intelligence officials define security as keeping our borders inviolate, and preventing China and Pakistan from crossing into India. It seems almost incidental to them that we continue losing lives to terrorism, as in Pathankot and Gurdaspur; that large parts of India remain mired in armed conflicts; that we continue to be criticised, both in India and abroad, for using draconian laws to impose order; and that asymmetric, hybrid threats like cyber attacks, narcotics trade and the spread of counterfeit currency assault our sense of well-being. It is convenient and comfortable to throw a few lakh crore rupees at nominally securing a distant borderline, instead of focusing on how those borders are being bypassed by new-generation threats.
India’s national security community --- which is mostly confined to the serving diplomatic, military and intelligence establishment and those who have retired from it --- likes to carp that our political leadership is focused only on vote-related issues, and has no interest in specifying a direction and agenda for national security. Even if this were true (which it is not), what prevents security practitioners from driving badly needed reform, and re-orienting our out-dated security priorities?
It should not require a prime minister to see the folly of maintaining one-and-a-half million soldiers, sailors and airmen in uniform, spending almost one lakh crore rupees on salaries, and half that amount more on pensions. This year, the seventh pay commission could raise that by another 20 per cent, taking the salary bill higher than the equipment modernisation budget. The army maintains three enormously expensive armoured strike corps --- mobile, tank-heavy formations that are equipped and trained to penetrate deep into Pakistan. This has led that country to develop “full spectrum deterrence”, building small (more “usable”) tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to halt advancing Indian strike corps dead in their tracks. New Delhi had decided against launching its strike corps at Pakistan during the Kargil conflict in 1999, and then again after the December 2001 terrorist attack on parliament. Now TNWs make strike corps offensives even more unlikely. Furthermore, even if an Indian prime minister were ready to risk a nuclear conflagration, the three strike corps are afflicted by such shortfalls in artillery, air defence and engineering equipment that they would find it hard to achieve operational success --- remember, anything less than outright victory would constitute a defeat. Yet, when the army (unwisely) insisted that countering the China threat required an infantry-heavy “mountain strike corps”, another 60,000 soldiers were added to an already unmanageable payroll. No thought was given to converting one of the armoured strike corps instead.
Similarly, the air force continues pursuing its chimera of 45 fighter squadrons, which were once gauged essential for an Indian “two-front war” with Pakistan and China simultaneously --- an eventuality that would suggest Indian diplomacy had died and gone to Heaven. Yet, having pegged our baseline figure at 45 squadrons, accepting anything less sounds like an irresponsible devaluation of national security. This allows the Indian Air Force (IAF) to credibly portray our current holding of 33-34 fighter squadrons as a mortal danger, and to agitate for buying 36 French Rafale fighters for a mind-numbing $7-11 billion.
Amidst this self-serving mismanagement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for a new approach in unusually vigorous language. On December 15, 2015, addressing top army, navy and air force commanders on board the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, he observed, “At a time when major powers are reducing their forces and rely more on technology, we are still constantly seeking to expand the size of our forces. Modernisation and expansion of forces at the same time is a difficult and unnecessary goal. We need forces that are agile, mobile and driven by technology, not just human valour.”
Dwelling on the need to focus on battle-winning firepower, rather then getting bogged down in slogging matches, Mr Modi went on: “We need capabilities to win swift wars, for we will not have the luxury of long drawn battles. We must re-examine our assumptions that keep massive funds locked up in inventories.”
Yet the three service chiefs do not appear to be implementing his directions, although he interacts more closely with them than any recent prime minister. In these monthly face-to-face meetings, Mr Modi has been less than impressed, telling a close confidante that the three chiefs were “unimaginative”. Meeting them on the Vikramaditya, the prime minister demanded bolder thinking. He said: “(W)e look to our Armed Forces to prepare for the future. And, it cannot be achieved by doing more of the same, or preparing perspective plans based on out-dated doctrines and disconnected from financial realities… (O)ur forces and our government need to do more to reform their beliefs, doctrines, objectives and strategies.”
Hammering home the point, he said: “We need military commanders who not only lead brilliantly in the field, but are also thought leaders who guide our forces and security systems into the future.”
It is important that the prime minister’s directions be taken through to their logical conclusion, rather than being filed away and dusted out for his speech next year. Reform within the defence ministry has so far focused almost entirely on reforming and expediting equipment procurement. In addition to this, the military’s planning and operational structures must be rejuvenated, weaving together their multiple strands to deliver not just battle-winning performance, but also counters to asymmetric, new age threats.
The navy, which is the only service that thinks strategically, has recently enunciated a new naval doctrine that incorporates some of these aspects. It is time for the other two services to update their out-dated doctrines and prepare for the conflicts of tomorrow. Whatever new thinking is put into these issues would only become aware when the budget for 2017-18 is presented. For this year, there is only more of the old.