We will fight with whatever we have,” is a statement famously attributed to then chief of our army, General V P Malik, at the time of the Kargil War. Nearly two decades later, including three years under the present government, it is not certain if the picture has changed much. According to the most recent reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the current army chief, General Rawat, may well have to make the same lament, should military conflict be forced upon India anytime soon. Why the situation should have not improved in all these years is one question; how this fits in with the Army’s publicly articulated position that it has to be ready to fight a “two-and-a-half-front war” warrants even closer analysis.
The Chinese media is not known to go rabid on its own without government direction or acquiescence. So we should not treat its harsh rhetoric on the Doklam face-off lightly. The possibility of the confrontation resulting in some kind of military skirmish at a place of its choosing cannot be ruled out, given the presently intractable demand that Indian troops must unilaterally withdraw from what the Chinese claim is their territory. And since we are not going to do that, it would be wise to be prepared for any eventuality.
The Indian military of today is, no doubt, very different from what it was in 1962 and equations are actually quite balanced in the air, given our ability to operate from lower-altitude airfields. At sea, in the Indian Ocean Region, we have advantages in being able to interdict Chinese energy supply lines. This might not be critical in a short-duration war which is the probable scenario, but will certainly impact China's image globally. So, even though an India-China military conflict scenario seems unlikely, as emphasised by our foreign minister, its possibility gets enhanced if our capabilities are seen to be inadequate by the adversary. This is the background in which our preparedness, or lack of it, must be seen.
This brings me to Pakistan. There is a tendency to view its military capabilities rather simplistically and mostly in terms of ability to aid and abet terrorism, principally in the Kashmir Valley. This assessment is naive. The Pakistan Army is in every way a professional force on a par with our own. The fact that it has exercised political power for decades and dictated India-related policies by civilian dispensations should not lull us into believing that its effectiveness as a fighting force has dissipated. It may number less than 400,000 men compared to our own 1.3 million, but is entirely dedicated to face one enemy while our own must cater to two. Their air force is also a high-quality entity. It is only their naval element which is decidedly weaker, but in a short-term war that disadvantage is not critical. So, here too we need to be watchful.
Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat (right) with Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa of the Indian Air Force
Pakistan, and especially its military, can never forget 1971, when it was cut into half by India’s armed forces; sooner or later some vengeful action is inevitable. For the present, it sees terrorism as a low-cost strategy, but this cannot continue forever. At some time, Pakistan is certain to engage in actions more seriously harmful to us than mere support of militancy in the Kashmir Valley; unlike earlier, our forces may also have to cope with a hostile local population. Even tacit support from China will aggravate the situation further.
The inadequacies highlighted in our military preparedness by the CAG must be seen in this overall context. Sadly, our system of decision-making, regardless of who is in power, is pathetically weak. For example, the proposal to build Project 75I submarines to replace obsolete ones goes back 10 years and it has taken us this long even to project a Request for Information to half a dozen vendors. It will take a minimum of three years from here on to finalise a contract and another five to six years before the first vessel gets delivered. There are also other shortages in critical armaments.
Our system, in which the decision facilitator (the civil bureaucracy) is not accountable, and the party accountable (the armed forces) have little say in decision-making, is tailor-made for this state of affairs. In almost all major countries, the two functions are combined in cohesive mechanisms such as the Pentagon in the US or the Integrated Ministries of Defence in the UK and France, but we just seem incapable of rebuilding our system to become more responsive. The issue of appointing a Chief of Defence Staff has remained undecided for two decades. We have yet to identify the private sector companies that will be strategic partners for building four major platforms in India through technology transfer.
Shortages such as those highlighted by the CAG are routinely attributed to the poor performance of the DRDO, PSUs and Ordnance Factories, but without identifying the basic cause, which lies in lethargic decision-making. To top it all, we have had no defence minister in place for months, and the contributions of the previous incumbent are not much to talk about. How this state of affairs is conducive to dealing with the stressed security scenarios facing us is a question that must be asked of those in charge of the nation’s security.
The unhappy truth is that even if military conflict in the near term is avoided, its possibility in times ahead cannot be ruled out. Our capabilities may have been enhanced since 1962, but the quality and structure of higher management required to cope with the developing security environment are little different from what the country had in that time and age. That war was lost more by failures in its higher direction, political and otherwise, than through actual fighting on the ground. Unfortunately, we are unable to rectify fundamental weaknesses despite the availability of advice from experts conversant with every one of them, as also other models. There is a need to move quickly before we are challenged.
The writer was a member of the Task Force constituted by the previous NDA government to review Higher Defence Management. He later served as member of the National Security Advisory Board