Chinks in the armour

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

With its top brass lacking in strategic vision, the Indian military has been unable to make key acquisitions in technology and hardware; even budget allocations for Defence have remained partly unused in recent years.

EXTERNAL Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha has been talking about pre-emptive military strikes on Pakistan. Before him, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee threatened an "aar paar ki ladai", a war fought deep across the Pakistan border. And before him, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani threatened to launch "hot pursuit" missions against terrorists across the Line of Control (LoC). Here are some insights into what might happen if politicians actually took their own polemic seriously, and India actually went to war.

Infantry troops along the LoC would suffer horrendous casualties, as they are still short of almost 2,50,000 bullet-proof jackets - standard issue in any modern army that cares for soldiers' lives. The ammunition and ordnance that they would use would be of dubious quality, stored as they are in unsafe facilities, which have recorded 13 major accidents over the last decade. Units in Jammu and Kashmir would be harried by insurgents, whose communications they would be unable to disrupt as 10 of the 13 signal-jamming units, bought from a now-defunct British company, no longer work.

Indian troops would also suffer the consequences of inadequate armour support. Crisis in the Arjun Main Battle Tank programme and the slow induction of the modern T-90 tanks mean that India will fight with ageing and technologically inferior armour. In an emergency, this tank-fleet would have to make do with defective shells, which on at least one occasion have blown up during exercises, killing a tank driver and critically injuring a commander and a gunner. The Army would go to war short of 16,000 officers, while the Air Force would be making do with pilots who have not had the benefit of training on an Advanced Jet Trainer.

And one more unbelievable fact: More than 37,000 soldiers could go into the battle protected by bullet-proof vests if the Ministry of Defence (MoD) chose to collect and effectively utilise the dues of a single upmarket Chennai Club operating from publicly owned defence land.

Alarmist? Unreal? These and a host of other revelations have been carefully documented in the 19th Report of the Standing Committee on Defence, and the Sixth and Seventh Reports of 2003 of the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) of India. Tabled in Parliament on April 22, the reports systematically document the appalling problems confronted by the armed services. Worst of all, they make it clear that no one in the MoD seems to have even the ghost of a plan to deal with these issues. The 10th Defence Plan, which would have outlined the course of force modernisation between 2002 and 2007, has yet to be finalised even though the first two years of its shelf life are already over. The Standing Committee on Defence recorded this amazing lack of will "with the gravest and utmost concern". "This is a repetition of earlier similar mistakes in the defence planning process," its report notes, "and is indicative of the ad hocism and the non-serious approach which still seems to prevail, notwithstanding the trauma of Kargil 1999 and other assaults on national security."

AT the heart of the problem is a lack of strategic vision. For years, the armed services have been unable to spend the funds allotted to them in annual budgets, mainly because planned acquisitions of new equipment and technologies did not take place. In 1997-1998, the Union Budget estimated a defence expenditure of Rs.35,620 crores; of this Rs.821 crores was returned unspent. By 2000-2001, the funds thus returned had risen to Rs.4,838.87 crores. This year, the Union Finance Ministry seems to have finally thrown up its hands in despair, and slashed its budgeted allocation for defence expenditure.

In a March 10 article, former Army chief General V.P. Malik blamed the problem on media and political criticism of corruption in defence procurements. "Thanks to our scams, suspected scams and prolonged acrimonious debates in Parliament and the media," he wrote, "no civil or military official is willing to give any decision and expedite purchase of overdue weapons and equipment." At least two points are significant about the argument. First, the armed forces and the MoD have done nothing to restore their credibility; the Tehelka arms scandal notably ended in the elimination of the courageous investigative website, not the career of Defence Minister George Fernandes. Equally important is the fact that the problem clearly predates the Tehelka reports.

Key to the crisis in the armed forces is that the top brass seem to have no sense of what they want, when they want it, and what they need it for. Consider the case of the Arjun Main Battle Tank, discussed at some length in the Standing Committee Report. Sanctioned in May 1974, the Arjun project was intended to have been successfully completed in May 1995, when the tank was due to replace the ageing T-72 fleet as India's armoured spearhead. For a variety of reasons, the project was delayed, and the first batch of 124 Arjun tanks will now be delivered only by 2007. Meanwhile, the Army is in the process of inducting Russian-made T-90 tanks, which it has announced will be the main battle tank until the end of 12th Plan period. The delays in the Arjun project have meant that the tank does not have key advanced features of the T-90, like an anti-tank missile launcher or systems to defend it from hostile anti-tank missile fire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Army prefers the more modern imported tank. Efforts, informed sources say, are under way to reinvent the Arjun as a self-propelled artillery platform, using South African-made 155-mm guns. If that happens, the whole Rs.305.60-crore Arjun programme will have come to very little indeed.

Similar stories abound across the armed forces. In 1984, the government cleared a proposal by the Navy for the production of a Sonobuoy Processing and Control System, considered essential for anti-submarine warfare. The Naval Laboratory successfully developed the system, intended for use on Dornier-228 aircraft and KA-28 helicopters, in 1989. The design, however, was based on sonic sensor equipment installed on the Sea King MK 42B, and its compatibility with the avionic systems of the platforms on which it was actually meant to be used was never proven. Years passed as tests went on to resolve problems. On "account of the delays that had occurred at various stages", the CAG has recorded, "the efficacy and acceptability of the system for the intended purpose was yet to be conclusively established even as of July 2002." The Navy had by then spent Rs.9.27 crores on the system, which could not be cleared for bulk production until all of its problems were ironed out. The result? The Navy twice prepared for war, in 1999 and 2001, without equipment it considered crucial to its operational effectiveness.

The same is the case with the Indian Air Force (IAF) too. At the start of the Kargil War, the IAF found itself with only enough laser-guided bomb kits for 12 days combat, against the mandatory war wastage reserve of 30 days. Desperately, it contracted for 663 laser guidance kits on less than favourable terms; the CAG's Report estimated that the IAF, which should have bought the kit for $24,280, ended up purchasing it for $39,700. More was to follow after this fiasco. In February 2001, the Air Force decided that the conventional bombs for which it had purchased the kits were of very limited utility against hardened targets. Orders were placed for 1,100 penetration bombs, which will be delivered in phases by 2005. But, by that time, 36 of the first batch of 100 kits, manufactured in 1997, will have finished almost two-thirds of their shelf life. A third of the shelf life of the remaining 627 kits would have expired. Clearly, the wastage could have been avoided had experts in the IAF comprehended the need for penetration bombs earlier, and understood that these would optimise the effectiveness of the laser guidance kits.

Matters are not helped by the less-than-edifying state of affairs in the facilities that actually produce much of what the armed forces need. The Ordnance Factory at Chanda manufactures 125-mm High Explosive Anti-Tank shells, designed to penetrate armour. In 1993-94 and 1994-95, the Chanda facility manufactured 9,658 shells. Of these 3,713, or over a third, turned out to be defective. Five years on, with the shelf life of the defective shells almost at an end, the factory asked for permission to retest the shells. In January 2000, the Directorate of Quality Assurance finally rejected this course of action. It asked the facility to empty the shells of explosive, test their components, and then refill them with new material. In the course of the tests, it turned out that the critical cone funnel assembly, supplied by the Gun and Shell Factory at Cossipore, was also defective. The CAG found as late as March 2002 that defective shells had not been replaced. Stock worth Rs.7.18 crores had been held for seven years without rectification. Meanwhile, another batch of 2,782 shells, valued at over Rs.10 crores, were found to be unable to penetrate tank armour.

TALK about these problems to senior officials in the MoD, and three responses are trotted out. First, the problem is not anywhere as widespread as outsiders imagine, and that corruption and incompetence in the armed forces are still considerably lower than in civilian institutions. That line of argument has now been debunked by the reports of the Standing Committee and the CAG.

The second is that Pakistan, India's principal military rival, has its own share of problems and suffers at least as much from military corruption. While the proposition might be true, there is also evidence to suggest that Pakistan's modernisation programme has been considerably more focussed than that of India, since the military has a greater say in decision-making. Independent studies have suggested that the operational edge of the Indian armed forces as compared with Pakistan has declined steadily since 1971, from an estimated 1.75:1 then to just over 1.2:1 today. Most important, however, comparing the Indian armed forces with those of Pakistan is in itself absurd, given their considerably greater size and assets.

And that leaves the third argument, advocated by Malik that interfering politicians and journalists have made decision-making impossible. In fairness to the General, it is true that the MoD sometimes gets rough treatment. The post-Kargil review of defence expenditure by the CAG attacked the MoD for purchases either contracted or effected after the end of hostilities. "Nearly all the supplies," the report noted, "were either received or contracted and received well after cessation of hostilities and therefore in no way supported the operation. Supplies valued at Rs.2,150 crores were received after the cessation of hostilities in July 1999... [and] supplies valued at Rs.1,606.26 crores were contracted after the cessation of hostilities." This, Malik pointed out, was not ground for censure. "Did these purchases," he argued, "become unnecessary or fruitless during the Kargil war or as soon as it was over? Did the intelligence agencies, the government and the rest of the nation give an assurance to the armed forces that there would be no threat on our borders after July 26, 1999?"

Malik's argument, however, completely misses the larger issue: India's military does not really seem to want to reinvent itself as a truly modern force. The many Indian military experts who prophesied that Iraqi troops would be able to resist the overwhelming technological superiority of the United States were, in a sense, defending the assumptions that shape the Indian military doctrine. Images of heroic soldiers commanded by heroic generals and engaged in massive infantry battles suffuse the official imagination of war. The Indian Army today rivals Mughal forces both in its worship of rigidly hierarchical systems and its massive employment of non-combatant subaltern staff to sustain this structure. New military technology will inevitably flatten the space between General and Subaltern, a prospect that constitutes a nightmare for most of the top brass, used as they are to a world where Mrs. Colonels must, as a matter of class, defer to Mrs. Brigadiers.

The Durbar culture that prevails was vividly illustrated by former Army Chief K. Padmanabhan's unprecedented efforts to award Fernandes and former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh medals for their armchair exploits during the Kargil war. Cronyism and corruption, inevitably, flourish in this quasi-feudal environment.

The most telling truth is often tucked away in the small print. Amidst the many multi-crore debacles listed in the CAG Report is the tale of the Gymkhana Club in Chennai. In 1977, the MoD leased 44.13 acres of its land to the club for just Rs.3,526 a year. The rent was increased to Rs.8,608 a year in 1986, based on agricultural rates. On this land, the Gymkhana built 19 air-conditioned guest rooms for which it charged between Rs.900 and Rs.1,950 a night, a Chinese restaurant, and an ice-cream parlour. In 1991, the Defence Estates Office stopped collecting rent, and, a decade on, assessed the Club's dues at Rs.33.10 crores. As late as September 2002, however, the Directorate-General of Defence Estates had made no effort to recover this public money. Neither had it sought to do so from the welter of other clubs, educational institutions and businesses profiting from defence land leased out at ridiculously low rates - leased, that is, to members of the same elite from which the armed forces draw their leadership. The dues of the Chennai Gymkhana alone could have paid for a sixth of the Indian Army's entire requirement of bullet-proof jackets.

The CAG does not provide a list of who enjoys the use of these facilities, but the obvious guess is probably correct. India's armed forces, proclaimed to be an island insulated from the evils of civil society, seem as deeply embedded in its culture of iniquity and corruption as anyone else.

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