On Defence: Fighting To Win

3 months ago 10

"It takes a war to make our people work together. Peace breaks them up into narrow sectional pieces. We must learn to rise above sectional interests and work for what is best for the country."

These words by Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal from his memoirs are as relevant today as they were when they were written 36 years ago. Air Chief Marshal Lal was the chief of air staff during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, the last conflict all three armed forces fought together. Last year, the government instituted the most comprehensive and sweeping reform of the armed forces since Independence. The most significant shake-up of the Indian armed forces took place after the 1962 border war with China. A country dependent on food imports to feed its people had to ramp up military spending and make the difficult choice of building factories and shipyards to produce warships, tanks and fighter jets.

This time around, fortunately, it did not take a war to wake the government up. The appointment of the first chief of defence staff (CDS) in December 2019 precedes the creation of what could be a historic reshaping of the armed forces, changing them from 17 single-service commands to just five joint commands. It comes at a time when India, the world's sixth nuclear weapons power, has enormous security challenges. Since Independence, India has built itself the world's second largest army, the fourth largest air force and seventh largest navy. A gigantic military industrial complex with ordnance factories, defence shipyards and aircraft assembly lines.

Geo-strategic adversaries

India's security scenario since Independence can be described as in four broad phases. The first began with Independence and the Kashmir war in 1947-48 and lasted until 1962. The defeat of the Indian army in the war with China prompted a hike in defence spending and military modernisation. This reinvigorated military machine then blunted Pakistan's aggression in 1965 and, finally, comprehensively defeated it in the east in a lightning war in 1971, leading to the creation of Bangladesh.

The third phase began when Pakistan embarked on a quest for nuclear weapons, acquiring them with Chinese assistance in the early 1980s. This led to India restarting its dormant nuclear weapons programme. Equipped with new skill sets from the US-funded covert war which bled the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Pakistan army turned its attention to its eastern borders with India. It put in place what can be described as a 'sword and shield' strategy-the sword of terrorists and so-called 'non-state actors' with which it inflicted a war of a thousand
cuts first in Punjab and later in Jammu and Kashmir. Nuclear weapons and overt threats of using them constituted the shield, which seemingly blunted a conventional Indian response.

Last year, a modernised People's Liberation Army (PLA) suddenly mobilised two divisions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh and backed multiple incursions by its troops. The heightened threat of a two-front war brought about by a resurgent China under its president Xi Jinping, the most powerful military leader since Mao Zedong, and ally Pakistan, mark the fourth and most significant phase for the Indian armed forces. As Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues, India is now dealing with a problem it has never had to face in the past-a superpower at its doorstep.

Dysfunctional military-industrial complex

India's security challenges are complex and unlike those faced by any other global democracy. These are no doubt resourceintensive- a fully-loaded Rafale fighter jet, for instance, costs over Rs 1,000 crore. The Indian Air Force (IAF), at one point, wanted 126 of them. It can be argued that China's ultimate gameplan on the border and its strategic nexus with Pakistan is another sophisticated war of a thousand cuts.

"It is to ensure that our defence spending is bled by difficult, protracted deployments and we are unable to modernise," says Brigadier Kuldeep Singh (retired), former member of the National Security Council.

Yet, India's two-and-a-half-front challenges (the half is deployment in counterinsurgency) are not those that can be solved merely by throwing more money. It is already one of the world's top five defence spenders-over Rs 4.7 lakh crore last year. Defence expenditure accounts for over 15 per cent of government spending, the second highest after debt servicing. Significantly, this figure does not cover annual government expenditure on nuclear weapons and building their delivery platforms, such as the four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines- a project estimated to cost close to Rs 1 lakh crore. Its gigantic military-industrial complex is dysfunctional and is not producing state-of-the-art weaponry that the armed forces need. This has prompted imports which, over the years, have turned India into the world's second largest importer of defence hardware, accounting for 9.5 per cent of the world's sales of weapons between 2014 and 2019.

Imports bring capability accretion to the armed forces, but in the long term ensure dependence for spares and upgrades, which can kick in at the worst of times, such as a national security crisis. India's problems are of prioritising spending and getting its armed forces to plan to fight together rather than coordinate their operations in integrated theatres. It needs to reform its militaryindustrial complex, build greater self-sufficiency and turn into an exporter of military hardware.

High Vigil: An undated photo of an Indian army patrol party in Ladakh (Photo: Bettmann Archive)

India thus faces the three challenges of modernising its ageing military hardware, indigenising its military hardware to ensure self-sufficiency and harmonising its combat power to ensure it can defend its borders against security threats. The bright side is that for the first time since Independence, there has been a realisation of these tasks and deadlines have been set for delivering on them. Staying the course to achieve them, of course, would be the greatest challenge.