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Much has been made of the army Vice Chief of Staff’s statement to the Parliamentary standing committee on defence on the acute shortages the army has been facing. The army has a point. Defence has been the step-child of the NDA government. However the army stands condemned by his own statement which exposed the army as an obsolete fossil, out of sync with operational, tactical or strategic reality, trends in modern warfare & most importantly clueless about budgets.
That the NDA simply does not take defence seriously is a given. The fact that defence has had 4 ministers in 4 years, didn’t even get a mention in the budget, stable to declining budgets when pegged against the dollar and adjusted to inflation, holds no electoral salience means that it doesn’t exactly take an Einstein to figure out that this government couldn’t care less. Let us however look past the obvious and the role of the army.
At 1.2 million men and counting it is possibly the third biggest army on earth after the North Korean and Chinese armies. Unlike the Chinese army which is in the process of a brutal downsizing in order to modernise, the Indian army is the only one of the major powers that has bucked this trend and upsized. The ostensible reason for this was to combat China by raising a mountain division. The real reason was of course quite different – inter service rivalry and a systemic failure of the army leadership to come up with any plan, save fighting suicidal uphill battles – both literally and figuratively. This of course isn’t the first time the army has been caught napping. Last year they had been caught napping on ammunition allowing massive shortages to pile up, and old defective stock to accumulate. Much of this is because the army likes fancy expensive new toys that it has no use for.
Take for example the statement “we are looking forward to manufacturing the future ready combat vehicles, FRCVs, and FICVs, Future Infantry Combat Vehicles through these schemes. However, with the kind of budgets...”. Now as analyst Rohit Vats had pointed out, the bulk of Pakistan’s army preparation, largely due to financial constraints, was to go in for infantry methods of knocking out tanks – building up a vast arsenal of cheap, deadly anti-tank missiles. Make no mistake, as images of modern Turkish tanks destroyed by ISIS & the Kurds last year showed us, no level of armour or active protection is going to save multi-million dollar tanks, from several hits of deadly missiles, a fraction of the tank’s cost. What was worse is that much of the delay and cost overruns have been because the army itself is clueless as to what future combat vehicles should look like, leading to several cancellations of the tender so far. As one major executive of a defence multinational said derisively “basically it seems the army wants this to be a transformer, that swims, changes shape and ammunition calibre…we were surprised they didn’t ask for jet packs to make it fly”.
Worse still are shockingly inaccurate statements verging on bizarre. Consider this “typically, any modern armed forces should have one-third of forces, one-third of its equipment in the vintage category, one-third in the current category and one third in the state of the art category”. Now anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of budget constrained forces like Italy, Britain, France, UK, Australia, Germany, etc, would know that they standardise their armour to one type, phasing out all old vehicles. The question is what was the benchmark used to decide that wasting taxpayer money on deadly vintage stock, that is more dangerous to the user than it is to the enemy? Why does the army want a new American attack helicopter when it refuses to replace its old Russian Mi-24s and 35s, the same ones shot down in droves over Afghanistan during the soviet occupation? Why should the army want to retain the T-72 a tank that was decimated during the 1990 gulf war, when it has the much more up to date T-90? Why indeed has the army yet to equip every soldier with body armour, or indeed a rifle that can actually shoot? Essentially what the army has done, is decide to sacrifice 2/3rd of its troops instead of cutting numbers and bringing them all up to state of the art standard as other budget constrained forces have. In short this is an army that has never cared about budgets, and has held a pistol to successive defence ministers’ heads over budget brinkmanship.
Let us be clear. The army is well and truly broken & intellectually bankrupt. Instead of cutting numbers and focussing on a threat at hand, their own actions seem to suggest they neither take the Pakistani or Chinese threat seriously. What would an army serious about the threat do? First invest in human beings – not platforms. As every growing economy has realised it is the soldier, not the machine that wins wars. First they need to get rid of the sahayak system, and over the top perks enjoyed by the officer core, including golf courses and golf carts. Then they need to start investing in serious body armour, and rifles for soldiers, while selling their many priceless properties that they don’t need, at competitive rates – not the corruption prone sales that have made news in the past. Third they need to learn from French experiences in Africa: controlling a territory 2 times the size of India with a mere 3000 troops. This would involve giving up ruinous fantasies like cold start and ground control and move towards a highly trained, light mobile force operating in units of a dozen soldiers while rationalising equipment.
While the government needs to be roundly condemned for its lackadaisical treatment of defence, it is important we haul the army leadership over the coals, for failing at every level and letting down the average jawan. If and when the army decides to take the hard painful decision to downsize and become a force interested in fighting China and Pakistan, instead of fighting the navy and the air force over budgets, that is the day the army earns the right to demand more with a straight face.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @Iyervval