Ajai Shukla: General indifference

Last Updated: Mon, Nov 26, 2012 19:41 hrs

Four years ago, after the 26/11 Mumbai attack, the three service chiefs dashed off letters to the defence ministry listing out the equipment deficiencies that hamstrung their forces. Their barely disguised accusation to the politicians and bureaucrats: you have failed to equip us, so think carefully about what you ask us to do!

Pakistani generals know well that the Indian Army is unfit to take the field against them. In making this bald statement, I give away no secrets. Every effective military intelligence organisation – and Pakistan we know has one – possesses devastating compilations of our army’s crippling shortage of tank ammunition; the night-blindness of our tanks; the absence of modern artillery; our obsolete air defence network; and shortfalls in practically every parameter by which an army’s equipment readiness is gauged. All this is kept secret only from the Indian people who faithfully support their army, sending sons and daughters to die for the country, often in unnecessary ways.

Of course our army is fit for war, these patriotic citizens will say, pointing to the decades of counter-insurgency in J&K and the northeast that have claimed more soldiers’ lives than all the wars fought by independent India. But rolling back secessionism is different from fighting a full-scale war. All that is needed for counter-insurgency is excellent light infantry, and India’s infantry battalions are equal to that task. Kargil, too, was an infantry job, even if one that took all our reserves of 155-millimetre artillery shells to drive home. But full-scale war requires much more; and our mechanised forces, field artillery, air defence networks, combat engineers and logistics are woefully unequal to the task. This was true during the 1999 Kargil conflict; when India mobilised in Operation Parakram after the 2001 attacks on Parliament; it was true four years ago during 26/11; and it remains true today.

But nobody looks at this cold-eyed, because the generals hide their shortfalls behind the heroism of the fighting troops. Go through the recent media coverage of the 1962 war and, astonishingly for such an abject defeat, the army comes out smelling of lotuses, floating beatifically in the mire. Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna Menon and B N Malik are blamed for throwing our brave jawans under the Chinese bus! Could this have happened had the generals held fast? When army chief General K S Thimayya resigned in 1959, Nehru personally intervened to minimise the damage. If a chief were to resign today over equipment shortfalls, does anyone doubt the intensity of the political inquisition that would follow?

But there is a twofold reason why army chiefs do not resign or even thump their boss’ tables. Firstly, they seem unable to contemplate giving up power and the institutionalised perks and privileges associated with senior rank. Secondly, and this is crucial, the generals know that the military, far more than the bureaucrats and politicians, is responsible for the lack of war readiness.

Take the deplorable state of affairs in the armoured corps, which operates the armoured tanks that are the cutting edge of India’s three strike corps. As this newspaper reported on Monday (“Army scuttles Arjun trials to push through T-90 purchase”, November 26, 2012), the army much prefers to buy equipment off the shelf from countries like Russia, rather than painstakingly developing and manufacturing equipment better suited for our own operating environment.

Incredibly, the army has not developed an indigenous armour philosophy in the last 65 years. Every serious army, even Israel, designs its tanks around a custom-made philosophy. Since human resources are a key constraint in tiny Israel, and distances are small, Israeli tanks are heavily armoured, lumbering vehicles where crew protection counts for more than the ability to quickly move long distances. In contrast, Russian tanks, designed to sweep rapidly through the vast expanses of Europe, are mobile, lightly armoured and have a smaller, three-man crew since a tank is expendable. The Indian Army, with one of the world’s largest fleets of 4,000 tanks, has neither an armour philosophy nor a tank design bureau that can produce indigenous designs.

The army has more generals than the Government of India has secretaries. But none, from the army chief downwards, has insisted on an armour philosophy, an essential prerequisite for an India-specific tank. Instead, the T-90 tank, designed and built for freezing Russia, is now being air-conditioned (heresy!) so that its electronics can survive the Indian summers. In an incredible moral contortion, those who back the indigenous Arjun are branded anti-national; while the generals who support the Russian T-90 style themselves as patriots!

Crafting an armour philosophy is not an intellectual feat. Three bright armoured corps colonels could do it in a week, given inputs on India’s border geography; war termination objectives; likely adversaries; the army’s manpower profile; and India’s industrial capabilities. But generations of armoured corps generals have had better things to do with their time; successive army chiefs and directors of operations and planning have been too preoccupied, or simply unconcerned, to ask why this is so.

If the army’s entire planning hierarchy has ever questioned the absence of any doctrinal coherence in the strike formations’ equipment, this has not resulted in any remedial action. But our generals believe the road to salvation passes through Moscow; respond to the challenge of indigenisation by buying more T-90s, just as the air marshals buy more and more Sukhoi-30 fighters. Does this point to Russia’s colonisation of our generals’ operational thinking, or it is just apathy and lack of professionalism? Either way, the answer is depressing. 

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