There Is a 'Critical Hollowness' in India's Defence Preparedness

Nearly half of India's weapons, including tanks and artillery guns, have stocks for less than ten days of combat.

With attempts at infiltration being made virtually every night and frequent exchanges of small arms and artillery fire, the line of control (LoC) with Pakistan is more active than it has been in the last five years. The number of terrorist attacks in Kashmir has also risen sharply this summer. The stand-off with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Doklam has stretched to two months. The rhetoric being spewed out by the Chinese government-controlled media is getting shriller by the day. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) now under construction will lead to further increase in their military collusion.

The net effect of India’s deteriorating security environment will be that the country will be confronted with a two-front situation during future conflict. With the dogs of war barking in the distance, in July, the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) of India released a disquieting report about continuing ammunition shortages. There are large-scale deficiencies in other important military items of equipment as well. Addressing the inadequacies in the state of India’s defence preparedness, termed as ‘critical hollowness’ by former army chief General V.K. Singh, merits the government’s urgent attention.

Deficiencies in ammunition have an adverse impact on the ability to sustain military operations over the period of time that is necessary. According to the CAG, in March 2013, 50% of the different categories of weapons (including tanks and artillery guns) had stocks for less than ten days of fighting. Since then, there has been some improvement, but for 40% of its weapons, the army still holds stocks for less than ten days of conflict.

The Kargil conflict in 1999 lasted 50 days and we must acknowledge that any future border conflict may also be prolonged. During the Kargil conflict, 50,000 rounds of 155 mm artillery ammunition had to be imported from South Africa. The occurrence of such a critical situation during a time of crisis must be avoided through a prudent replenishment and stocking policy.

The army’s sister services are no better off. While the Indian navy is far from acquiring the capabilities of a blue water navy, the People’s Liberation Army navy is getting ready to sail into the Indian Ocean, and is acquiring bases and port facilities in fast-forward mode. Over the last five years, the Indian navy has had major accidents on board submarines INS Sindhurakshak and INS Sindhuratna. In another accident, submarine batteries that should have been replaced much earlier were still being used due to inordinately long acquisition procedures. Meanwhile, the indigenous production of six Scorpene submarines has been delayed by almost five years.

From its peak at 39 squadrons over a decade ago, the fighting strength of the Indian air force has gone down to 32-33 squadrons, whereas actually 42-45 squadrons will be required to meet future threats and challenges. Obsolescent fighter aircraft like MiG-21s and MiG-27s and vintage helicopters are still in service. The holding of surface-to-air missile systems for air defence operations is grossly inadequate as indigenous research and development projects have been plagued by time and cost overruns. The fortification of forward air bases against terrorist attacks has not yet been completed, despite the attack on the Pathankot air base in January 2016.

The continuation in service of obsolete and obsolescent weapons and equipment also affects the country’s defence preparedness as fighter and bomber aircraft are extremely difficult to maintain towards the end of the life cycle. Modernisation of the armed forces has been stagnating due to the inadequacy of funds, the black-listing of several defence manufacturers and bureaucratic red tape that stymies the acquisition process. However, several pragmatic amendments were approved by Manohar Parrikar, then defence minister, in the new Defence Procurement Procedure to streamline procurement procedures and encourage participation of the private sector in defence manufacture.

Defence procurement projects worth over Rs 1,50,000 crore have been accorded ‘acceptance of necessity’, or approval in principle, by the NDA government, but it will take up to five years before deliveries of the weapons systems begin. And, like in the UPA regime, significantly large amounts of funds continue to be surrendered unspent from the capital budget.

In the army, artillery modernisation has been stagnating. There is an urgent need to acquire approximately 3,000 pieces of 155 mm/52-calibre guns to replace obsolescent towed and self-propelled guns and howitzers. So far a contract has been signed only for 145 pieces of M777 155 mm/45-calibre howitzers from the US.  Another contract for 114 pieces of 155 mm/45-calibre Dhanush howitzers based on the Bofors design is expected to be signed with the Ordnance Factories Board shortly if the gun clears all trials. Air defence and army aviation units are also equipped with obsolete equipment that has substantially reduced their combat effectiveness and created vulnerabilities.

Modern wars are fought mostly during the hours of darkness, but a large number of the army’s armoured fighting vehicles – tanks and infantry combat vehicles – are still ‘night blind’. Only about 650 T-90S tanks of Russian origin have genuine night fighting capability. The infantry battalions need over 30,000 third generation night vision devices, new assault rifles – a soldier’s basic weapon, carbines for close quarter battle, general purpose machine guns, light-weight anti-materiel rifles, mine protected vehicles, 390,000 ballistic helmets, and 180,000 lightweight bullet proof jackets.

The navy is in the process of commissioning an air defence ship at Kochi to replace the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant and is building six Scorpene submarines at Mazagon Docks. It is also building 22 destroyers, frigates, corvettes, fast attack craft, landing ships and support ships. However, India’s maritime security challenges are growing and the navy not only needs to modernise but also expand its footprint in the Indo-Pacific region along with the navies of India’s strategic partners.

The modernisation plans of the air force are making progress, but at a snail’s pace. The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft project to acquire 126 fighter aircraft to replace obsolete MiG-21s is stuck in a groove, with the exception of the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters from France. Lockheed Martin (F-16) and Boeing (F-18) have jumped into the fray again with offers to produce their fighter aircraft locally with transfer of technology.

The IAF also requires several additional AWACS early warning aircraft, six mid-air refueller tankers, 56 transporter planes, 20 advance jet trainers, 38 basic trainers, 48 medium-lift helicopters, reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic warfare suites. All three Services need to upgrade their C4I2SR capabilities to prepare for effects-based operations in a network-centric environment and to match ever increasing Chinese military capabilities.

The planned acquisitions are capital intensive and the present defence budget cannot support many of them. The defence budget has dipped to 1.56% of the country’s projected GDP for 2017-18 – the lowest level since the disastrous 1962 war with China. It must be progressively raised to 3.0% of the GDP if India is to build the defence capabilities that it needs to meet future threats and challenges and discharge its growing responsibilities as a regional power in Southern Asia.

The government has recently sanctioned some funds and delegated financial powers to the three services to acquire the wherewithal necessary for combat readiness. However, unless the remaining deficiencies in weapons, ammunition and equipment are also made up quickly, the management of the defence budget improves by an order of magnitude and the defence procurement process is streamlined further, thoughts of critical hollowness in  defence preparedness will continue to haunt India’s defence planners.

Gurmeet Kanwal is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.