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Army compelled to re-prioritise

Harsha Kakar |

After the furore created over the presentations of the vice chiefs of the three services to the Parliamentary Committee and their report on poor allocation of the defence capital budget, the army chief has been constantly seeking to convey that the army’s preparedness would not suffer despite lack of funds. In fact, in every interaction with the media, this has been a regular question which he has been compelled to answer.

As late as last weekend he stated that the army could maintain its operational preparedness within the existing defence budget by prioritising and readjusting. He added that the process of modernisation of the armed forces had begun but would not happen overnight.

His words, “It is possible to reprioritise and readjust the budget within the existing money available, by giving operational preparedness a higher priority. This does not mean that accommodation for families are not needed, but that can take some time”. It indicates that the armed forces are under compulsion.

Listing his priorities, he stated that infantry weapons, surveillance devices for the infantry and security of army bases was highest. The requirements of the mechanized forces, artillery and air defence would be taken up in subsequent years. He even went on to state that the government was giving more approvals and if contracts were finalised, more funds would be made available.

The chief was seeming to be realistic, which he must considering his role. Negative comments from him would convey a clash with the government, which does not augur well. The message to the government has been conveyed by the vice chiefs and hopefully it has been noted.

The three services are presently faced with an immense shortfall in capabilities. It has only been increasing by the years, as governments appear to believe that an all-out war is unlikely, especially in a nuclear environment.

The truth is that war would only be unlikely if the armed forces remain conventionally strong and a threat to belligerent neighbours.

The service chiefs have been projecting capabilities for a two-front conflict, which is the worst-case scenario for the nation and anything less than that would be manageable.

Neighbours aware of shortfalls in capabilities would seek to exploit the situation, as has been happening at present. China is aware of a depreciation in India’s military capability, hence continuously rakes up the threat of war.

Recently, the Chinese military spokesperson, Colonel Ren Guoqiang, stated, “I am very confident that military cooperation (between China and Pakistan) will help facilitate our state to state relationship and also in maintaining regional peace and international stability”.

He was speaking after China supplied Pakistan with a powerful missile tracking system. His statement is clearly a hint on a two-front option, which would be India’s major nightmare.

China in isolation and seeking to maintain the status of its claim lines would continue with localized actions, which may not lead to an all-out conflict.

However, to control its spread, the armed forces need requisite capabilities for deterrence. Pakistan, aware that India is partially constrained due to its nuclear status and first use doctrine as also its deployment of tactical nuclear missiles close to the border at Gujranwala and Pano Aqil, continues its unhindered support to terrorist groups. India has enhanced its counter actions along the LoC, however lack of long range artillery restricts the depth of engagement.

The Indian soldier would always fight to the best of his capability with whatever weapons he possesses. He did so in 1962 where he only fell against great odds and would do so again as it remains the Indian military ethos.

However, lack of capabilities, especially those crucial to support his actions including air power and artillery, would hamper his ability to counter.

Shortfalls in air power would hamper air superiority and domination of the air space. With lack of long range artillery, destruction of advancing enemy would be only close to its own defences, reducing levels of attrition which is essential before battle is joined.

In offensive operations, inability to destroy enemy positions prior to the assault would reduce chances of success with limited casualties. The navy’s shortfalls would restrict its capability of causing desired attrition and dominating the battle zone.

The prioritisation by the chief conveys that the army in specific is compelled to concentrate on immediate deterrence, rather than taking the battle into enemy territory, which is essential for success.

This would imply a defensive, rather than offensive mindset. This flows from the chief’s priorities of surveillance, security of camps and small arms. The army seeks to equip forces deployed in counter insurgency and along the LoC and LAC. Fire support and mechanized forces essential for offensive operations would be considered in later years.

Security of military camps would remain a major requirement especially in the light of recent attacks. The announcement of release of funds by the defence minister without any additional budgetary support implies that funds allocated in the budget would be utilized.

This would impact availability for other modernisation. While delays in accommodation for troops may be accepted for the present, it cannot become a norm for the future. Simultaneously funds would continue being expended to make up critical deficiencies in ammunition and spares.

The finance ministry should have realised that this is possibly the first time that the complete capital budget allocated to the MoD has been expended well before the appointed period.

Thus, the forces were ready with their projections and modernisation demands. Further, the government being aware that the army would deliver despite shortcomings has ignored their true demands. It never expected the issue to be raised by the vice chiefs and the parliamentary committee on defence.

The chief would have to manage within the budget, be forced to cut where it may impact morale to ensure operational efficiency. He would be compelled to sacrifice butter for the gun, while the finance ministry does the reverse, sacrificing the gun for butter.

While threats only seem to increase, funds appear to decrease. The chief has defended the government, but would the finance ministry also assure the nation that if the armed forces need additional funds, they would be willing to provide?

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army and author of the book Harsha Kakar writes.