India's Army is Economically Unprepared to Engage in Conventional Warfare with Pakistan

An analysis of various reports shows that it is highly unlikely that India has the artillery and ammunition resources to fight another war like Kargil.

The attack on Uri and the death of 17 soldiers has triggered a review of India’s security establishment in terms of military prowess and war preparedness. Any war between India and Pakistan involves more than just strategic and political underpinnings. Civil society’s call for declaring war on Pakistan in the wake of the recent attack, has been full-mouthed and the pressure to retaliate, even using extreme measures, is high.

India must not forget that the crossroads of the Silk Route, the Himalayas and Karakoram, all have the makings of a regional theatre of war. Given that China, India and Pakistan are all countries that are part of the equation, the situation needs to be handled with far more care than most policymakers, experts and analysts let on.

India generally has three options before her – conventional, sub-conventional and nuclear warfare. Nobody obviously wants an all-out nuclear war. Sub-conventional warfare involves stealth attacks and guerrilla tactics, similar to the surgical strikes announced by India’s army yesterday.

The third option is conventional warfare. Notwithstanding the importance of regional, strategic and political considerations and all that is lost in the rhetoric, the truth is India is not economically prepared to wage war in this manner.  

In any conventional warfare with Pakistan it is the Indian army that will play a crucial role. The revenue expenditure to capital expenditure ratio of army spending has always been skewed, on an average, towards 85:15. For the navy and air force this ratio stands at approximately 50:50 and 65:35 respectively. This indicates that a large amount of budget-spend for the army is towards pay and allowances rather than for capital expenditure. Further examination of data suggests that ratio of indigenous acquisition (including those through domestic JVs with foreign partners) to foreign sources (imports) stands approximately at 70:30 for the army, 50:50 for the navy and 35:65 for the air force. The army’s over dependence on domestic acquisition is driven by its dependence on ordnance factories (OFs) for meeting their artillery and ammunition needs. The press release covering the 2015 CAG Report No. 44, page 4 states, “The Ordnance Factories’ production of weapons is meant mainly to meet the needs of the Army. In turn, the reliance of the Army on the Factories is also substantial.” This over dependence on OFs has left the army at its most vulnerable in terms of its war wastage reserves (WWR).

As per the army’s operational doctrine, India is required to maintain a WWR of 40 ‘days of intense war’ or ‘war (I). After the Kargil war of 1999, the army headquarters (AHQ) introduced a new target of Minimum Accepted Risk Level (MARL), which was set at 20 war (I). The findings of a CAG report show that the army’s current WWR stands at a critical low of 10 war (I) or even less as of March 2013. As per data in the report, of the 48 ammunition categories audited by CAG, it was found that OFs were unable to meet their production targets across 52% of the product categories. Of this 52%, in 23% of the product categories, the production shortfall was well over 50%. Data further indicates that between the period of 2009-2013 the shortfall in ammunition has increased dramatically from 15% to 50%.  It is only expected that these shortfalls would have further increased in the last three years due to the succession in which low-intensity conflicts such as Pathankot and Pampore have occurred. As a result of the ordnance factory board (OFB) not being able to meet production requirement in line with WWR targets, the army had provided for a roll on indent plan to the OFB with a view to at least meet the MARL target requirements. Yet, the CAG report notes that the OFB was unable to meet even this target and fell short by as much as 73%.

The first question that comes to mind is who is to blame for this gross mismanagement? The AHQ blames the OFB by arguing that the OFB just did not budget for the requisite production for meeting the MARL targets. The CAG report holds the AHQ equally responsible by stating that the AHQ had not taken the critical levels of shortage seriously enough, because their communication of the problem to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was merely verbal and not forceful enough. The OFB blames both the AHQ and the MoD stating that the OFB never had the capacity to meet the target production requirements of MARL, though CAG disagrees with the OFB since the MARL targets were set by AHQ in consultation with the OFB.

To attribute our current critical security concern to just lack of coordination amongst the three agencies (AHQ, MoD and OFB) would be grossly understating the problem. The problem runs far deeper than mere miscommunication. It is true that the production capacity of the OFs has continued to hover around Rs. 11,000 crore for the last five years. It is also true that the AHQ has not taken the MARL targets that they had set seriously enough. Despite the knowledge of our near crisis situation, the AHQ has done little to devise a strategy to improve the levels of our reserves. In fact, as of September 2015, our shortfall for 17 types of critical ammunition continues to remain at 84 per cent. In all of this the MoD is guilty of not taking the OFs to task for what seems to be inexcusable complacency in neither meeting production targets nor working towards increasing production capacity.

Whether India has the artillery and ammunition resources to fight another war like Kargil, which lasted for almost three months, is something that the MoD, the armed forces and the PMO must deeply introspect on, because the numbers certainly do not add up.  

Nirupama Soundararajan is a Senior Fellow at Pahle India Foundation. Dnyanada Palkar is a Senior Research Associate at Pahle Foundation.