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SOURCE: INDIA TODAY

In 1991, multiple factors produced a military-strategic crisis unseen in India in previous decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union, New Delhi’s strategic partner, created a support vacuum which extended far beyond the immediate problem of sourcing spares for its Russian-origin military machine. A balance of payments crisis that year—most of it fuelled by an arms buying spree in the 1980s—led to an economic crisis which led to the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) pledging gold to raise foreign exchange.

The Indian army had exited a bruising counter-insurgency deployment in Sri Lanka. It had already been fighting insurgency in the Northeast for four decades when it entered Jammu and Kashmir to fight a Pakistan-supported insurgency. The economic crisis that year, however, led to an economic liberalisation that created wealth and increased the capacity of the state to pay for military modernisation.

Three decades later, a convergence of challenges presents similar conundrums. In March 2020, even as New Delhi geared up for a health emergency and locked the country down to halt the spread of the coronavirus, it saw traditional threats resurfacing along a 5,000-kilometre-long disputed boundary with Pakistan and China. A massive mobilisation by the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh in the summer of 2020 led to a military stalemate that continues into 2021. Tensions spiked after a clash on June 15, in which 20 Indian soldiers and an undetermined number of Chinese soldiers were killed. Nine Indian soldiers and two BSF troopers died in cross-border firing along the LoC (Line of Control) with Pakistan last year. It was the first instance post-Independence where the army has lost lives on both fronts. The prospect of increased military collusion between China and Pakistan is already playing on the minds of India’s military planners.

The erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is now the theatre for a Mexican standoff between three nuclear-armed states, two ranged against one. This nadir in India’s ties with China and Pakistan in over three decades comes amidst an uptick in its strategic relationship with the United States. China is India’s largest trading partner, but under its president for life Xi Jinping, it is also a significant strategic threat of a kind that India has not faced in recent years. How these challenges and opportunities are navigated will decide the road ahead for India’s national security over this decade.

Bang for the buck

The first challenge this year will be budgetary. A deep economic crisis brought about by the lockdown has put a question mark on even the modest 10 per cent annual hike in the defence budget. An ongoing military modernisation, estimated to cost over $100 billion over this decade, could be hit as the government reprioritises budgetary spending on healthcare, distributing vaccines and reviving the economy.

Spending cuts can grievously harm military capabilities, a particularly dangerous situation with two adversaries eager to redraw disputed boundaries. In 1999, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf erred in calculating that his blatant attempt to alter the LoC would go unchallenged. He was perhaps correct in estimating that the Indian armed forces, hollowed out by reduced military spending post-1991, lacked the resources to launch a conventional military offensive. To prevent a recurrence, government officials have initiated belt-tightening schemes to conserve their budgets. In this vein, one such proposal from Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat seeks to save the defence ministry a few thousand crores in the short term by increasing the retirement age of armed forces officials. However, solutions like these could prove to be band-aid remedies.

More than at any other time in its recent past, India needs a swift and holistic reassessment of its national security spending. It spends Rs 4 lakh crore on its military every year and is among the top five defence spenders in the world. Additionally, the government spends Rs 1.05 lakh crore a year to maintain one of the world’s largest paramilitary forces, mostly for internal security duties. Defence already makes up 15.5 per cent of central government spending. It is the largest chunk of government spending and is more than the combined expenditure on food and public distribution, agriculture, rural development and education.

Yet, this huge expenditure has not provided an enduring solution to Pakistan’s support for the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. Military coercion has not worked against a country whose entire military budget is half of India’s spending on defence pensions alone. Cross-border special forces raids in 2016 and the Balakot airstrikes on a JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammed) terror training camp in 2019 drew red lines and signalled political resolve, but have done nothing to wean GHQ Rawalpindi away from its policy of using terrorism as a low-cost option to tie thousands of Indian army soldiers down in Jammu and Kashmir. The rinse-and-repeat-forever war has continued for over 30 years with no signs of ending. Questions need to be asked here. Where should New Delhi direct its budgetary resources to produce compliance? Is the prolonged deployment of the army in internal security duties affecting its main task of deterring external aggression? Is there a roadmap for a gradual handover of internal security responsibilities from the army to the central armed police forces?

Military reforms

In 2013, after President Xi initiated China’s military reforms, reducing the size of the PLA to two million soldiers, creating integrated theatre commands and modernising the military, a security analyst in New Delhi predicted India had a decade to prepare for an inevitable showdown when the reforms were completed. His assessment for the government was eerily prescient. The 2020 mobilisation of two PLA divisions atop newly built infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau was also a test of Beijing’s ability to rapidly rush its troops to the border in the event of another border war with India.

India now has no choice but to accelerate its own military reforms, most of which were suggested over 20 years ago. This year, the defence ministry will begin the process of setting up the first of its two theatre commands—a Maritime Theatre Command and a National Air Defence Command. The reduction of India’s 17 single service commands into just five integrated commands, the pooling of the resources of the three services and a Chief of Defence Staff to drive jointmanship are part of the most significant restructuring of the armed forces since Independence.

Leapfrogging nearly two decades of inertia in defence reform is going to be a key challenge. Reducing India’s crippling dependence on imported arms—it is the world’s second-largest arms importer—will be another. Last year’s crisis-inspired policy reforms saw decisions like increasing the limit for FDI in defence from 49 per cent to 74 per cent to encourage foreign firms to set up manufacturing facilities in India and a decision to corporatise India’s ordnance factories to improve their efficiency. The MoD (Ministry of Defence) also announced negative lists banning the imports of military hardware that are produced within the country, and export targets of $5 billion in five years.

Ambitious programmes like Atmanirbhar Bharat, also announced last year, run the risk of failing like the 2016 ‘Make in India’ plan to achieve defence self-sufficiency. The previous indigenisation drive failed because the government did not clearly identify goals and milestones, nor did it work on a roadmap. Budgetary resources, for instance, continue to be directed towards acquisitions for which indigenous alternatives already exist—India has not one but two state-owned factories making AK-47 clones but will nonetheless pay Russia to set up a third factory to produce the AK-203. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd has perfected a completely indigenous light utility helicopter, but the government wants to buy a Russian machine, the Ka-226. An indigenous carbine has cleared trials but the army is keen on importing over 90,000 weapons from the UAE.

Future wars

Another challenge will be to prepare the Indian military to fight the wars of the future. A two-month conflict in the fall of 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh offered an insight into what this war could look like. Azerbaijan’s fleet of Turkish-supplied drones shattered Armenian tanks, combat vehicles, radars and surface to air missiles. These reverses forced Moscow to intervene with a ceasefire to protect its ally from a decisive defeat and further loss of territory. Azerbaijan’s sensor-fitted drone fleet had rendered the battlefield transparent—their ability to see targets by day and night was as significant as their ability to hit them. How yesterday’s weapons—battle tanks, aircraft carriers and manned fighter aircraft—perform in the wars of tomorrow is a key question India’s defence planners need to be asking.

The vast Himalayan stretches are clearly areas where Indian forces need to replace boots with bots. The Indian military needs to prioritise acquiring technology to look deep into enemy territory round the clock and in all weather conditions. It needs to fix a ponderous procurement process in which it can take up to a decade to acquire anything from a boot to a battleship. The military acquisition system is currently entirely geared towards acquiring in-service weapon systems off the shelf rather than developing them. Investment in cutting-edge technology is a tiny fraction of the resources being set aside for traditional military hardware. A general might speak of the need for artificial intelligence, drones and robotics one day and sign a contract to buy Rs 10,000 crore worth of tanks the next. This system needs to be upgraded with services driving the development and acquisition of cutting-edge weapons like hypersonic missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles in collaboration with the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), industry and academia.

Indian decision-makers need to think out of the box to offset Beijing’s pressure on its land frontiers. The activation of the so-called Quadrilateral of Democracies (‘the Quad’)—India, US, Australia and Japan—with its first joint naval exercises in 13 years was one such signal. New Delhi will clearly need many more such initiatives to prevent being firewalled into South Asia by Beijing.