Missing links in India's defence readiness

"We will fight with what we have” is a statement attributed to the then Army Chief when some units of the Pakistan Army surreptitiously captured and then sat astride mountain positions dominating our Kargil lifeline. Twenty years down the line, it will not be surprising if the present Army Chief has to say much the same thing. After all, we did have to field outdated MIG-21s against superior planes of the adversary and lost one of them. Yet, in these same two decades, both the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led UPA have governed the country for ten years each. Is there something fundamentally missing in our ability to recognise the kind of military power that India needs is the question that needs to be answered.

Only a few days ago, reputed journalist Shekhar Gupta wrote in this paper that something was seriously wrong in our military planning process. He argued that to constantly decry resources allocated to defence in terms of a less than 2 per cent share of GDP was flawed logic as the government did not have control of that entity. What it did manage was Central Government Expenditure or CGE. This, at 15.5 per cent for FY 2019-20 outmatched the 15.1 per cent that it would spend on health, education and welfare combined. Therefore, to expect the allocation to be increased is clearly far-fetched. Since the bulk of this resource is spent on revenue expenditure, including pay and pensions, modernisation will continue to be a distant dream.

Mr Gupta laid out some other postulations which merit examination. Given their intrinsic strengths, India’s Army and Air force could worst those of Pakistan in a long war which he argues we would not be allowed to fight by the international community. In short wars of two or three weeks, the scales would be more or less even except at sea where our Navy could inflict decisive punishment but risk global outrage as freedom of movement was involved. In support of his argument, it may be mentioned that the “surgical strike” across the border was responded to by sponsored terrorist attacks on our military installations at Uri and Pathankot. Even more, the attacks on Balakot camps were met within a few hours, and in broad daylight, by the Pakistan Air Force which led to the downing of our MIG 21 and capture of its pilot. In sum, short-term confrontations are unlikely to lead either side to a position of dominance. If long and short conflicts are both unlikely to yield great political dividend, what is the option? We have not yet considered what might face us across the border with China where the end result could be no different.

Finally, Mr Gupta talks of the futility of planning for a two-front war for which resources can never be found. This brings us to the fundamentals of national security planning. Broadly, there can be two approaches. One, to formulate plans based on Threat Assessments. Things like two-front war capability, punishing Pakistan, et al fall under this category. There is the Raksha Mantri’s Directive which is issued periodically and tells the armed forces what threats are visualised and for which they should be prepared. More recently, a committee has been constituted under the National Security Advisor and comprising the three Service Chiefs and some others presumably to formulate some kind of a national security strategy. It is very unlikely that it wears away from the Threat Assessment methodology.

The second approach is to evolve national security based on national interests. These are more long term and will provide a stable platform for defence planning over a period of time. For example, if these require us to be the third largest global economy in fifteen years, after the USA and China, with military stature commensurate with that goal, then we must figure out what needs to be done to get there; similarly, our interests in the Indo -Pacific and how they might contribute towards the larger objectives and the capabilities needed to safeguard them. Surely, putting 3,00,000 boots on the ground against Pakistan cannot be the desired end result. Or, for that matter, “readiness” to defeat invading Chinese troops across the foothills. To be the third or fourth ranking global power something different is needed in which, technology, space, sea and air power, informatics and artificial intelligence must merit priority. Only then can limited resources for military modernisation be allocated optimally.

Unfortunately, the approach our planners are following today continues to be threat based in which manpower holds sway as even China, one of our two “threatening powers”, is converting its military strength from one based on manpower to one better suited to its longer-term interests.  

But how is such a drastic change in mindsets to come? It cannot come from Defence Planning Committees and such like. In the first tenure of the NDA, a high powered Group of Ministers (GoM) was constituted post Kargil to review every aspect of national security. Led by no less a person than the then deputy prime minister, it made a series of recommendations of which the more routine ones have been implemented but the weighty ones remain in orbit. Service Headquarters have been notionally renamed Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence but with little integration. A Chief of Defence Staff is is nowhere in sight. If that GOM could not take us towards the interests based approach, what will? Trying to satisfy several vested lobbies will simply not get anywhere. We now have a Prime Minister who has the chutzpah to do what has not been done before. Only his personal clout will enable us to get away from the status quo just as demonetisation did, in the face of huge criticism. It is time he himself took charge of the national security ethos of the country and put it on lines which will meet our needs commensurate with our aspirations. 

The writer has been a member of the National Security Advisory Board