During the NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee, as India confronted the Pakistani challenge in icy Kargil in 1999, the then army chief, General VP Malik, was forced to declare, “we will fight with what we have”. It was a stinging indictment of India’s military preparedness, where New Delhi was forced to request Israel, in the middle of a conflict, to fly in emergency supplies of ammunition and spares.
It seems that the clock hadn’t moved at all in 17 years. As India planned “surgical strikes” in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, it was worried about an escalation of conflict. Certain types of ammunition were again in short supply, and in some urgent moves, India was forced to fly the ammunition in from friendly countries. A ship, which had berthed with some other critical stores, was fast-tracked through customs for the army to be prepared to fight for a few days in the western sector.
The lessons from either Kargil or surgical strikes have clearly not been learnt by the government. The situation has only worsened in the past year, and any hopes of improvement were belied in the recent budget. Such is the squeezing of funds for defence that the vice chiefs of the three services were compelled to speak the unspeakable to the parliamentary standing committee on defence.
The army vice chief told the MPs that 68 per cent of army’s equipment is vintage, and the capital budget doesn’t even cater for the committed payments of 125 ongoing procurement deals, leave alone provide funds to replace the vintage equipment. There is no budget for making emergency procurements or for providing perimeter security to army camps susceptible to terrorist attacks. The powers to buy ammunition and spares for critical stocking levels, needed for 10 days of war-fighting, have been delegated to the defence services but not enough funds have been allocated for it. On top of that, the army will be saddled with an additional bill of Rs 5,000 crore due to increased taxes because of GST but no additional money has been made available for it. Besides paying salaries, there is little else that the army will be able to do with the money given by the government.
The situation is no better for the navy or the air force. They don’t have money to even pay for the ongoing procurement deals, and haven’t been allocated funds for additional payments to be made towards custom duties. The IAF has a depleting fleet, with 31 fighter squadrons instead of 42, and the Indian Navy urgently needs more modern submarines but neither have any hopes of making up the shortfall in the coming year, or of even initiating a process for the same.
It is an alarming state of affairs, and a few years ago, when General V K Singh was the army chief, he had written a scathing letter to the UPA government about the “hollowness in the army,” which got leaked to the press. The “hollowness” has only worsened since though Singh, now a minister in the BJP government, remains surprisingly unmoved. The 9 pm “nationalist” news-warriors on television have also ditched the army on this issue of inadequate support from the government. The armed forces have been left alone to fight this battle with the government, and they perhaps took the most prudent option by informing the parliamentary committee of the magnitude of the crisis.
The role and tasking of the defence services is decided by an official document called the Raksha Mantri’s Directive. They need a certain quantum of resources to fulfill that role, and a shortfall constrains their ability to execute the tasks. While the directive is issued by the defence ministry, the problem goes way beyond the ministry.
Senior military officers feel that a belief has gained ground at the highest levels of the government that a war is an absolutely impossibility in today’s times. This seems counter-intuitive, considering the bellicose statements and aggressive posturing from the ruling party. But the view that there cannot be, and will not be, a war has been expressed by the highest quarters of the government at top security forums. Whether it is due to the presence of nuclear weapons or structural geopolitical factors or a blind faith in India’s diplomacy is a matter of debate, but its consequences are damning.
Driven by this view, the government accords a lower priority to the demands of the defence services, whether it be in budgetary support or in implementing major defence reforms. The purse strings are loosened only for electorally sensitive matters such as defence pensions and salaries. For the rest, the can is kicked down the road.
Notwithstanding the government’s belief about impossibility of war, it has not amended the directive to the defence services accordingly: They are to be prepared for a two-front collusive threat from China and Pakistan. Nearly four years into office, the current government has not been able to issue a fresh directive to the defence services despite numerous deliberations on the draft of the directive a couple of years back.
The defence services are fully entitled to either seek more funds or demand a reduction in their tasking. While they have told the parliamentary committee so far only about the former, the day is not far when the defence services will start raising questions about the latter too.
In all likelihood, the issues of tasking have already been broached informally with the government by the defence services. If the alarming situation persists, the matter is bound to be raised more forcefully in the future. It would be an undesirable situation, but the defence services have been left with no other choice. The government must act quickly not merely to avoid that embarrassment but for the larger goal of ensuring India’s national security.