Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, has been sent back to Goa in the party’s interest to take over as the chief Minister once again. His departure has created a void at a critical time when the state of defence preparedness and slow pace of military modernisation need the government’s urgent attention. Major operational voids in the war establishment of the three Services need to be made up early in order to enhance combat readiness.
It is only in the last six months that Parrikar had launched a concerted drive to make up the existing deficiencies by invoking emergency financial powers of the government. The government had at long last begun to address the ‘critical hollowness’ plaguing defence preparedness ~ a term used by General VK Singh. He had also initiated reforms in the procedures for the acquisition and indigenous manufacture of weapons and equipment. A new minister will take time to settle down and learn the ropes of defence procurement. Large-scale deficiencies in ammunition and important items of equipment continue to adversely affect India’s readiness for war and the ability to sustain military operations over 20 to 30 days. According to a CAG report, the army is reported to have some varieties of ammunition for barely ten days of conflict and it will cost over Rs 20,000 crore to replenish stocks. It will be recalled that during the Kargil conflict in 1999, about 50,000 rounds of artillery ammunition had to be imported from South Africa. The occurrence of such a situation during a time of crisis must be avoided through a prudent replenishment and stocking policy.
The government has signed contracts with Russian manufacturers to procure ammunition and spares worth Rs 5,800 crore for the army and Rs 9,200 crore for the air force. Similar deals are being negotiated with French and Israeli companies. However, it has been reported that the traditional norms of stocking ammunition at intense rates for 30 days of fighting and normal rates for 30 days are being watered down. If this is true, it would be a retrograde step.
Modernisation of the armed forces has been proceeding at a slow pace due to the inadequacy of funds, rigid procurement procedures, frequent changes in the qualitative requirements, the black-listing of several defence manufacturers and bureaucratic red tape. Parrikar had appointed a committee led by Dhirendra Singh, former Home Secretary, to review the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Several pragmatic amendments were approved by the Defence minister and DPP 2016 was issued in early-April 2016.
Weapons and equipment purchase projects worth over Rs 1,50,000 crore have been accorded ‘acceptance of necessity’ (AON) by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by the Defence Minister since he took charge in late 2014. Contracts have been signed for acquisitions worth approximately Rs 90,000 crore. However, it will take three to five years before deliveries begin. In the army, artillery modernisation is yet to begin. There is an urgent need to acquire approximately 3,000 pieces of 155 mm/ 52-calibre guns to replace obsolescent guns and howitzers. So far a contract has been signed only for 145 pieces of M777 155 mm/45-calibre howitzers from the US. Air defence and army aviation units are also equipped with obsolete equipment that has degraded their readiness for combat and created vulnerabilities.
Modern wars are fought mostly during the hours of darkness, but most of the armoured fighting vehicles ~ tanks and infantry combat vehicles ~ are still ‘night blind’. Only about 650 T-90S tanks of Russian origin have genuine night-fighting capability. The infantry battalions need over 30,000 third generation night vision devices. Other requirements for infantry battalions include 66,000 assault rifles ~ a soldier’s basic weapon, carbines for close quarter battle, general purpose machine guns, light-weight anti-materiel rifles, mine protected vehicles, 390,000 ballistic helmets, and 180,000 lightweight bullet proof jackets. Action to acquire these items has been initiated and needs to be constantly monitored by the minister himself.
The Navy is in the process of building an air defence ship at Kochi to replace the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, six Scorpene submarines at Mazagon Docks and 22 destroyers, frigates, corvettes and other ships such as fast attack craft, landing ships and support ships. However, India’s maritime security challenges are growing and the Navy not only needs to modernise but also expand its footprint in the Indo-Pacific region.
Modernisation plans of the air force are proceeding ahead, but at a snail’s pace. The MMRCA project to acquire 126 fighter aircraft to replace obsolete MiG-21s appears to have been shelved, except for the government’s plans to purchase 36 Rafale fighters from France for which a contract has been signed. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin (F-16) and Boeing (F-18), both of the US, and Grippen of Sweden are reported to have jumped into the fray again with offers to produce their aircraft locally with transfer of technology (ToT). The IAF also requires two AWACS early warning aircraft, six mid-air refueller tankers, 56 transporter planes, 20 advance jet trainers, 38 basic trainers, 48 medium-lift helicopters, reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic warfare suites. All three Services need to upgrade their C4I2SR capabilities to prepare for effects-based operations in a network-centric environment and to match ever increasing Chinese capabilities.
The serviceability state of warfighting equipment needs substantial improvement. Many frontline equipment are ‘out of action’ for want of spares. It is suspected that the delay in changing the old batteries of INS Sindhuratna could have been the cause of the accident that resulted in the death of two officers, injuries to seven sailors and irreparable damage to the submarine. The serviceability state of the SU-30MKI fighter-bomber fleet is reported to be just about 50 per cent. Numerous vehicles in the army are ‘off road’ for want of tyres, tubes, batteries and items likes spark plugs.
Financial management too needs a major overhaul. All of the required acquisitions are capital intensive and the present defence budget cannot support many of them. The defence budget for FY 2017-18 has dipped to 1.62 per cent of the country’s GDP ~ the lowest level since the disastrous 1962 War with China. Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence and the armed forces have repeatedly recommended that it should be raised progressively to 3.0 per cent of the GDP if India is to build the defence capabilities that it needs to meet future threats and challenges and discharge its growing responsibilities as a regional power in Southern Asia. The budgetary allocations earmarked on the capital account for the modernisation of the armed forces will continue to be surrendered unless the government sets up a rolling, non-lapsable defence modernisation fund of approximately Rs 50,000 crore under the Consolidated Fund of India. Cutting down on wasteful subsidies from which the people do not really benefit in a meaningful manner would be one way to spare more funds for national security.
The armed forces are now in the fifth and final year ~ indeed the final month ~ of the 12th Defence Plan (2012-17). It was never formally approved with full financial backing by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The government also has not formally approved the long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP 2007-22) formulated by HQ Integrated Defence Staff.
Without these essential approvals, defence procurement is being undertaken through ad hoc annual procurement plans, rather than being based on duly prioritised long-term plans that are designed to systematically enhance India’s combat potential. These are serious lacunae as effective defence planning cannot be undertaken in a policy void. The government must commit itself to supporting long-term defence plans. Structural reforms need to be implemented in an early time-frame to improve national security decision-making and synergise defence planning. The most important issue that has been pending for long is the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This was first recommended by the Arun Singh Committee on Defence Expenditure in the early 1990s and then by a Group of Ministers led by Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani. Though the CCS had approved the appointment of CDS, no one has been appointed as yet. It is time for the Modi-led NDA-2 government to implement the decision of the Vajpayee-led NDA-1. The new minister will have a lot on his plate and will need to put in many months of hard labour to come to grips with the complexities of defence preparedness and military modernisation in the prevailing regional environment.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies,