Sunday, Nov 27, 2022

The Battle Within

Instead of worrying about who leaked the Army Chief's letter to the PM, it is time to look at the contents and the issues it raised

“....for the first time, after centuries, India's defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously. Our defence measures have so far been based on the calculations of superiority over Pakistan. In our calculations we shall now have to reckon with communist China in the north and in the north-east, a communist China which has definite ambitions and aims and which does not, in any way, seem friendly disposed towards us…….It is of course, impossible to be exhaustive in setting out all these problems. I am, however, giving below some of the problems which, in my opinion, require early solution and round which we have to build our administrative or military policies and measures to implement them … An appraisement of the strength of our forces and, if necessary, reconsideration of our retrenchment plans for the Army in the light of the new threat…. A long-term consideration of our defence needs. My own feeling is that, unless we assure our supplies of arms, ammunition and armour, we would be making our defence perpetually weak and we would not be able to stand up to the double threat of difficulties both from the west and north-west and north and north-east…. improvement of our communication, road, rail, air and wireless, in these areas and with the frontier outposts…..The future of our mission at Lhasa and the trade posts at Gyangtse and Yatung and the forces which we have in operation in Tibet to guard the trade routes….”.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, November 7, 1950

Twelve years went by on deaf ears with political unilateralism running alongside disdain and distrust of the military, coupled with blatant favouritism— appointment of BM Kaul being only one example. So when the Chinese pinned us down in 1962, we went begging to America for aircrafts, weapons and equipment. We received some light machine guns (LMGs) to fight the enemy. Significantly, declassified documents of that period in the US reveal that the US National Security Advisor advised the US President that India and China should never be allowed to join hands in US national interests. So much so for Uncle Sam, but times change and so do friends and foes in geopolitics.

Today, the media and the citizenry are stunned at the disclosure about operational un preparedness of the Army conveyed by the Army Chief to the Prime Minister. The surprise for the aam aadmi might be understandable and some are even asking why the Army Chief is saying this now. But the Prime Minister and defence minister certainly have no cause for surprise. They are briefed thoroughly on these issues twice every year during the Army Commanders Conference, and, in addition, the ministry of defence ( MoD) is apprised constantly in writing on all such issues. This is the standard procedure in the Army, Navy and Air Force.

From the details available in the media, the Army Chief would have apprised the Prime Minister only of very salient issues: 97 percent air defence equipment obsolete, all tank ammunition critical, and the like. Would it be surprising to learn that that our Infantry is without training ammunition of carbines for the last three years, implying all those who are authorized carbines have not had any firing training in last three years? Only because the Defence Research and Development Organisation ( DRDO) has failed to provide new carbines. The LMGs produced by DRDO failed miserably during testing (will we ask Uncle Sam for LMGs when the Chinese foray next into our territory?) Manufacture of the much touted 5.56 INSAS rifle took 15 long years— it still has defects and is nowhere near the best global category.

The defence minister says these issues cannot be discussed in public domain. Granted, there is no need to discuss such issues openly when Parliament is in session but why can’t we learn something from the US? In the US, prior to yearly budgetary allocations, all Theatre Commanders and the Commander of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) make individual presentations to the Senate Committee. Their briefing covers what the present capability of individual command is, what funds they seek and how will the allotment upgrade the capability or otherwise. Why can we not do this through one of Parliament's all party committees? The present closed door system is obviously unworkable and is dragging us back. The Pentagon’s South Asia Defence & Security Year Book, 2010 says:

“India's policy paralysis was exemplified, as in New Delhi, after the Mumbai terror attacks when Indians to their horror found that due to blatant politicization of military acquisitions India no longer enjoyed conventional superiority vis-à-vis Pakistan, throwing Indian military posture in complete disarray and resulting in loss of credibility.”

The fact is that while Pakistan acquired new technologies and weapons under GWOT, we have regressed by remaining where we are. During the Kargil conflict, General V.P. Malik went on record to say, “We will fight with what we have.”

Trefor Moss wrote in The Diplomat on 25 March 2012:

“Army Chief Gen VK Singh, himself a recent victim of his country’s eccentric bureaucracy, suggested wearily that, “the procurement game is a version of snakes and ladders where there is no ladder but only snakes, and if the snakes bite you somewhere, the whole thing comes back to zero.” His exasperation centered on army’s efforts, initiated 10 years ago, to buy new artillery; the process has just resulted in the blacklisting of six foreign defense contractors but, as yet, no new guns.”

Kargil showed serious shortages in intelligence, inter-service and civil-military coordination, equipping etc. Little has been done to remedy fundamental weaknesses in national security set up despite Kargil Review Committee recommendations. On national security issues, state institutions do not work because the government in power may not want them to work. So, the onus falls on bureaucracy which is not organized to think strategically and which also remains isolated, segregated and not interested in a wider knowledge base.

War making and peace keeping are definitive features of any state but war making capacity has been systematically factored out of our foreign policy and national security matrix, eroding credibility. We still glaringly lack a national security strategy, institutionalised politico-military connect, institutionalised strategic thinking set up, integrated military high command, transformation of armed forces and holistic synergy in the security sector. The non-official strategic community has been pointing out the widening gap between the Indian Military’s capabilities and that of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), but no one seems to be interested.

Development of communication infrastructure leading up to the Line of Actual Control ( LAC) should be of grave concern to us, given the national hierarchy studies and analysis of its vital implications. The Chinese were driving a five ton vehicle right up to Nathu La in early 1970s compared to our one ton vehicle. After 40 years, we still can take only a one ton vehicle to Nathu La. The Chinese have developed roads and tracks right up to the very border along each important spur, leading to every forward post and intended thrust line, which is like creeping up one's very spine. In their case, mobilization and movement of reserves is greatly telescoped. Conversely, communication infrastructure on our side is actually deteriorating including due to climatic conditions and with incessant rainfall. In strategically important plateaus (easily accessible to Chinese mechanized forces), forward movement of our mechanized forces takes excruciatingly long and is well nigh impossible in certain important areas unless focused efforts are made to improve infrastructure. Alternative, easier road alignments are available but are being stonewalled by concerned states on mundane grounds like tree- cutting. Sadly, the national hierarchy makes no move to dictate operational priorities, knowing full well that if the Army has to cut a 1,00,000 trees to make a road, they can be banked upon to plant double the number on their own. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s 1950 caution appears to have been thrown to the winds.

Lt Gen Prakash C. Katoch, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC is a Special Forces veteran of the Indian army