Over the last decade, when every modern army embarked on downsizing in favour of technology-oriented forces, the Indian Army beefed up on divisions

by Somnath Mukherjee

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” – Cassius might have succeeded in goading Brutus to do the right thing with this evocative line. Unfortunately, no such luck with the Indian military’s leadership, which continues to blame their (and by derivation), our, stars, in the form of insensitive politicians/bureaucrats, for the ostensible mess that India’s defence preparedness is supposed to be in.

The latest example of this came last week, when the Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCAS) told a Parliamentary committee that government underfunding is mortally wounding the modernisation plans of the Army. In cue, the media erupted in a volley of laments, led by ex-servicemen, on how politicians don’t “get it”, and India’s military needs much higher levels of funding to meet the multiple security threats confronting the country.

Unfortunately, as is generally the case, no one (either in the Parliamentary committee or in the media) asked the VCAS the elementary question: What does the Army do with the 5th largest defence budget in the world, if its shortfalls are indeed so apocalyptic in nature. To put things in perspective, India ranks a lowly 126th in the world in per-capita income. In other words, a barely lower-middle income country, a democracy at that, is incurring first world levels of expenditure on defence.

In this basic question lies a cruel reality – of India’s military leadership letting the country down. In a democracy, the onus of outcomes typically lies with politicians, as it should be. At the same time, leaders of important institutions (like the military) are expected to step up.

How have we come to such a pass? It has been a series of missteps, for which the military leadership bears at least as much responsibility as the political leadership.

One, the manpower pattern of the Indian Army. Over the last decade, when every single modern army, including China, embarked on massive downsizing of standing armies in favour of more technology-oriented forces, Indian Army beefed up on divisions. As we speak, even more divisions are being raised to staff the newly-formed Mountain Strike Corps. To top it up, the military, aided by an amazingly sophisticated PR campaign run by ex-servicemen, has gotten itself the OROP (One Rank One Pension). Predictably, pension bill has shot up, and now that alone exceeds the capital expenditure budget of the military. Naturally, resources being finite, the hit has been taken by modernisation heads of the defence budget.

Two, failure to build institutional coherence and unanimity on long-debated reforms, none more striking than the requirement of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), integrating all arms of the military into modern structures. Recently, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Bipin Rawat darkly reminded his sister services about the primacy of the Army in India’s military matrix. Not to be left behind, Air Marshal Arjun Subramanium (retd) wrote eloquently on how it is an absolute non-sequitur to involve the Air Force in a structural integration exercise around theatre commands. It has been many decades of debate, and multiple government committees (latest being the Naresh Chandra committee), but we are about as far from CDS and integration as we ever were. In the meanwhile, the military keeps spending resources on turf wars. Last year, the Indian Army got approvals to induct six Apache helicopter gunships, at a cost of nearly Rs 5,000 crore. This is after the IAF has already paid for, and will start inducting 22 Apaches in its own fleet. A duplication of cost/capability when apparently there is no money to buy assault rifles.

The lack of coherence isn’t restricted to inter-service communications either, it goes down to senior intra-service conception of objectives. While the current COAS has publicly spoken of expecting and being ready for a two-and-a-half front (against Pakistan, China and Counter-Insurgency in J&K) war, his Army Commander (Lt Gen Surinder Singh), also publicly, recently said it was not a “good idea” at all, adding for good measure that the country should use diplomacy to improve relations with China and gain leverage over Pakistan.

Three, the Indian military leadership, with the exception of the Navy, has taken a hands-off, nearly hostile view of developing a Military Industrial Complex (MIC). Nowhere has it been more pronounced than the saga of the Arjun tank and Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Over many years, Army and Air Force took a nearly hostile view of both projects – delaying induction and then doing so at small, conditional levels. In the meanwhile, they went in for expensive imports – T90 tanks and Rafale. Not surprisingly, India is the largest military importer in the world today, and yet, the military complains of not being adequately equipped. In the meanwhile, both China and Pakistan develop domestic MIC by progressively inducting local equipment, even if they are far behind the global state-of-the-art.

Not surprisingly, a combination of lack of integration, high manpower, turf wars and fascination with the fanciest imported platform, has made for lopsided planning outcomes. Navy inducts billion dollar warships without towed-array sonars costing less than 50 million. Indian Army wants assault rifles with specifications that stump every single gunsmith in the world, repeatedly. Add in the enormous and galloping cost of pension, post-OROP, and we have just the perfect storm.

The politicians and bureaucrats need to step up and perform radical surgery, to rescue this situation. National security is too important a business to be left to generals, it would seem!

The author is Managing Partner of ASK Wealth Advisors. Views expressed are personal.