LESSON FROM STANDOFF: There is belated realisation that China is the biggest adversary, with the only antidote being capability-building. Our commendable response, especially in Ladakh, is largely due to the human factor honed by training and the unit ethos. It will be in order that desired deterrence levels are spelt out, backed by quantified net assessment parameters. The way forward is a functional procurement policy with committed, non-lapsable funds

by Lt Gen KJ Singh (Retd)

VICENNIAL is a rarely used term, defined as ‘occurring once every 20 years’. The first two decades of the 21st century are over. Ravaged by Covid-19, India has skipped annual, let alone decadal or vicennial strategic reviews. In our context, the period from 2001 to 2020 is unique, meriting a special analysis. It triggered a slew of reforms in the aftermath of the Kargil shock in 1999 and ended with the attempted Ladakh grab by China, catalysing more reforms. On both occasions, the armed forces reacted admirably to restore the situation, notwithstanding our propensity to get surprised.

This century dawned with the spectre of the looming Y2K disaster. Twenty years down the line, the threat of disruptive technologies like armed drones threaten the very relevance of existing platforms like tanks and aircraft. The raging pandemic has made public health a key ingredient of Comprehensive National Power. With the Dragon administering a rude shock on the LAC, there is belated realisation that China is indeed the biggest adversary, and the only antidote is capability-building.

This period started with the NDA government till it was replaced by the UPA. The latter ruled for two successive terms, followed by the NDA, now in its second spell. In essence, both have had 10 years at the helm, yet there is an unabated tendency to pass the buck to escape accountability. It is time our political parties consider national security in the bipartisan format and forge national consensus.

Most advanced countries, including even opaque ones (like China), publish white papers and reviews. The US puts out a quadrennial review, which is both educative and prescriptive. We have an annual report of the Ministry of Defence, largely a bureaucratic compilation, lacking analysis. The aim of this review is basically to flag some key trends and promote greater transparency and accountability. It is anchored in five key parameters — policy, readiness, structures, force levels and logistics.

On the policy front, we continue to await the promulgation of the national security strategy, which seems to be a work in progress, albeit with no deadline. Secrecy and ambiguity seem to be the cornerstones of the current strategy. The Raksha Mantri had once even advocated ambiguity in the nuclear policy, which was later described as his personal opinion. Surprise, indeed, unnerves the enemy; credit on this score is due for the surgical strikes and pre-emptive occupation of the Kailash Range. However, in the long term, clearly articulated red lines, especially among nuclear-armed nations with certainty of response, ensure stability and deterrence. As per Clausewitz, ‘a successful commander, while leveraging deception, has to remain largely predictable to his command’.

Readiness is best measured by deterrence levels achieved and the responses to enemy action. It is a function of budgetary allocations, procurement and training. Unfortunately, defence spending has remained low, leading to critical shortages. Post Kargil and during the current crisis, emergency procurement had to be invoked. Much-hyped but limited big-ticket purchases like those of Rafale, Apache and S-400 have not been able to achieve desired credible dissuasion. Our commendable response, especially in Ladakh, is largely due to the human factor honed by training and the unit ethos. It will be in order that desired deterrence levels are spelt out, backed by quantified net assessment parameters. There is urgency on the part of the government to kickstart modernisation and Atmanirbharta initiatives, but the way forward is a functional procurement policy with committed, non-lapsable funds. Defence plans, which are known more for slippages, need to be put back on the rails.

During the Kargil conflict, it required a reading of the riot act by America to control Pakistan’s nuclear sabre-rattling. However, the Balakot airstrike called Pakistan’s bluff conclusively. India needs to sharpen its punitive response backed by other leverages to shackle Pakistan’s proxy war strategy.

The Kargil Review Committee’s major recommendations included the establishment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), theatre commands, intelligence structures, border management (one border, one force) and the National Defence University (NDU). After initial impetus, the reform process was put on the back burner by the UPA government. It goes to the credit of the current government that not only CDS but also the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) is in place and theatre commands seem imminent.

It is high time the issues of operational control of ITBP and Assam Rifles are resolved. It is an enduring mystery why the NDU has not yet found traction. We need to critically appraise intelligence and surveillance structures to avoid being surprised time and again. A review of diplomacy is the crying need as Act East and Neighbourhood First policies have not yet found desired traction.

The Kargil conflict resulted in the creation of Ladakh Corps. The current crisis has kick-started belated rebalancing to the northern borders. Reassignment of corps-sized formation to Ladakh has created the second mountain strike corps. The first one, raised during the UPA regime on a standard, unwieldy format, is now exclusively assigned to NE. It is hoped that these formations will be customised and modernised. The desired fighter strength needs an empirical revisit to factor in drones, current capabilities and costs. Concurrently, maritime capability to heighten China’s Malacca dilemma and neutralise the Gwadar advantage needs to be funded.

Critical logistics have improved with enhanced ammunition stocking levels but quality control needs urgent improvement with built-in accountability. The renewed focus on connectivity (roads, tunnels and bridges) and most importantly, the removal of hurdles of environmental clearance are indeed commendable. To sum up, it will be appropriate to quote Robert Frost, “...and miles to go before I sleep”. Reviews will certainly keep the journey focused.