Bottomline | Aimless Arming

Modernisation is not defence minister’s only job

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The truth is the opposite of what A.K. Antony, the longest serving defence minister since Independence, recently said at the Indian Naval Academy in Kunnur.

‘We have enough strength in securing our borders across land, sea, and air,’ is a statement which only an insensitive politician can make. The 28 November 2008 Pakistan-backed terrorists’ attacks in Mumbai showed that India’s maritime border was unsafe. The 15 April 2013 incursion by Chinese border guards in Ladakh, where they plonked themselves on Indian land for 20 days without giving a fig for the Indian Army, illustrated the helplessness of the Indian state. In both cases, Delhi kept its defence forces out of harm’s way, never mind that Mumbai was ravaged for three days, or Chinese had the last laugh as the drama unfolded according to their script. To be sure, neither Pakistan nor China was deterred by India’s military or else they would not have been gung-ho.

The reality, it seems, is more frightening than is believed. It is not that Antony has abdicated his responsibilities; he has never cared to know what a defence minister should be doing. Antony thinks that his task is three-fold: indigenisation of defence industry; approving service’s modernisation plan; and getting finances for approved procurements. In this context, he disclosed that modernisation was on-track and the defence services had spent Rs 3,000 crore more in 2012-2013 than had been allocated. This is not all. After the China’s Ladakh adventure, Antony appears to have pushed the finance ministry for clearing the raising of a new strike corps for the army, which now awaits cabinet approval. So, more money will be spent now, with no one in Delhi any wiser on how to keep Chinese militarily at bay. Where then is the problem? The political leadership, especially Antony, need to find out what will militarily deter Pakistan or China, and only then judiciously spend finances on modernisation of the defence services.

Unfortunately, while legally (according to government of India business rules) the defence secretary is responsible for the defence of India, the defence services have been left to device their own methods to secure India. This has resulted in fierce turf wars with each service hoping to get maximum of the defence pie. All three services have their own war doctrines, they lament about inadequate infrastructure, and lack of platforms, equipment and technology. The army is most worried about the disputed borders, especially with China; the navy about anti-piracy operations, and the air force about strategic reach. So consumed are the defence services with the need to grab the best for themselves that they have not felt it necessary to have a joint thinking or a joint paper on China.

It does not bother the army and the air force that operational jointness — the war winning factor — means unity of command. There are four Indian army commands (Northern, Western, central and Eastern) and two air force commands (Western and Eastern) at different locations responsible for the border with China. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), on the other hand, has a single Chengdu Military Area Command (MAC) responsible for the Tibet theatre. The MAC has a single land forces (People’s Liberation Army Army, PLAA) commander with all land and air assets (People’s Liberation Army Air Force, PLAAF) under him at the same place. The PLAA and PLAAF are organised into aero-commands, which is an interesting joint operations concept. During peacetime, the PLAAF does both separate training for honing its core-competencies, and joint training with PLAA. During war, the MAC will be called Aero-Command with both PLAA and PLAAF under a single commander whose war plans have been approved by the General Staff Headquarters (GSHQ), the joint forces command directly under the Central Military Commission headed by President Xi Jinping.

The Indian Army since years has been asking for a theatre command for the border with China, something that the IAF has been resisting saying that coordination instead of single command would be adequate. This argument has found favour with the bureaucracy (believer in status quo) which argues that theatre command is necessary for nations which conduct out of area operations like the US and the UK, and not for India whose armed forces are meant for the defence of own territory. This thinking does not hold good considering the PLA has done major organisational restructurings like forming aero-commands along with modernisation of its defence services.

So, Antony’s task is really cut-out: To identify military threats from Pakistan and China; to decide the purpose of Indian defence forces and what political objectives they would be employed to achieve; to oversee formation of necessary organisations at the strategic and operational level to fully integrate defence forces to deliver what they should, deterrence and should it fail, capability to win a war; and then focus on the need for their modernisation. Just spending finances for modernisation without knowing the outcome or purpose it would serve is a wasteful and self-defeating exercise. And last not least, it should be remembered that territorial integrity is paramount. Seeking big power status in the Indian Ocean cannot be real if India is not safe.


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