Sword and Shield: Rusting away?

Most of us would have cast our votes in the recent Parliamentary elections, praying for a better future and a better India – not just for Facebook selfies. Voter turnout has generally been better than at any time in the past. Touted as the “world’s largest elections” this election was being watched closely by the international media for more reasons than one. With the Narendera Modi led BJP now forming the next government, all eyes are on that party and its leaders. Not without reason.

Once considered one of the biggest success stories in Asia after China, India’s rising economic growth has totally slumbered to near standstill. The union government and several state governments are running budgets with high fiscal deficits. Funding for infrastructure projects like national highways, irrigation programmes, power generation etc., has fallen to its lowest rate of growth in more than a decade. Foreign investment is trickling down and the Rupee has devalued badly. Indi’s foreign policy is directionless. The Indian armed forces are rotting from the inside and the spending on defence has fallen to a measly 1.74% of the GDP – the lowest since the 1962 debacle with China. In this two-part series, we take a journey through the challenges and hurdles that await the new government on both the Foreign Policy and Defence fronts.

The BJP’s unusually detailed defence manifesto, which forms part of the “BJP Election Manifesto 2014” that was released in New Delhi on 7th April 2014, appears to be a mix of polemic, populism, plagiarism and pragmatic planning. Significantly for a party that is often accused of pursuing a divisive, majoritarian agenda, the BJP has defined security in comprehensive terms — specifically mentioning “social cohesion and harmony” as a component of national security along with “military security; economic security; cyber security; energy, food and water and health security.”

Predictably attacking the UPA’s custodianship of security, the BJP holds it responsible for border intrusions by China, the shortage of combat aircraft in the air force, multiple accidents involving naval vessels, Maoist attacks, a growing presence of “Pakistan backed terror groups” and illegal immigration from Bangladesh. While these issues are mostly real, many go back decades and were grappled with by the NDA government from 1998-2004.

Like the BJP’s 1998 manifesto, which made substantive promises, e.g. to test nuclear weapons, the current manifesto makes important commitments on crucial issues. It pledges to “Study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” This has set off speculation that a BJP government would reconsider, if not abandon, the “No First Use” policy that New Delhi has so far held. Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, quickly denied any such intention. The manifesto also pledges to “Maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities.” It is unclear whether this means a larger nuclear arsenal, or the creation of an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to counter Pakistan’s much-hyped TNW weapons.

The very fact that the BJP’s election manifesto, released just 5 days after India’s outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, told a conference that: “As a responsible nuclear weapon state that remains committed to non-proliferation, India supports the idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world because we believe that it enhances not just India’s security, but also global security.” India’s 15-year old nuclear doctrine decrees “no-first use” of nuclear weapons – a policy that was put in place by the last BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. If the BJP indeed comes to power and then delivers on its promise, it would mark a major shift in India’s nuclear policy. Tweaking or changing the course of India’s nuclear doctrine will surely alter India’s foreign policy too. The challenge for the new government will be to balance India’s own national interest with the current – and fast-changing – geopolitical situation in Eurasia.

The debate, however, has come alive. Many have urged on various social media platforms that the new government should reconsider NFU and also India’s commitment to “massive retaliation”, which binds New Delhi to respond to nuclear, biological or chemical weapons attack on Indian targets anywhere with all-out nuclear strikes on the aggressor’s cities that could kill tens of millions.

Since both India’s regional adversaries, Pakistan and China, possess a robust second-strike capability, or a nuclear arsenal that would survive an all-out Indian attack, equal retaliation should be expected across India. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile is also rumoured to be already more than India’s. It has already dispersed its stockpiles very effectively across the country and has raised a new 25,000 strong elite force to protect its nuclear assets. Instead of this mayhem, which Indian policymakers would probably shrink from triggering anyway. Should India’s leaders have no choice but “suicide or surrender”? Remember that New Delhi, under BJP rule in 1999 (Kargil) and 2001-02 (Parliament attack), and under Congress rule in 2008 (Mumbai attack) shrank from employing even conventional military force against Pakistan. Will New Delhi sanction massive nuclear retaliation that could lead to the aptly-termed MAD —mutual assured destruction? The new government needs to clarify some of the vagueness that surrounds India’s nuclear doctrine.

The Indian military is in shambles not least because it is stuck with a largely 19th century mindset, is mostly armed with 20th century weapons, but has a 21st century ambition. The stark mismatch, topped by a risk-averse Defence minister -who seemed more interested in safe guarding his personal “Mr. Clean” image than the interest of the country and the services – has left India’s military forces at their lowest ebb in decades.

Two years ago when a letter written by the then Army Chief Gen VK Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found its way into the media, there was much outrage and anger over the state of Indian Army’s preparedness. “The state of the major (fighting) arms i.e. mechanised forces, artillery, air defence, infantry and special forces, as well as the engineers and signals, is indeed alarming,” the General wrote to the prime minister. The army’s entire tank fleet is “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks,” while the air defence system is “97% obsolete,” he wrote. The infantry is crippled with “deficiencies,” while the elite forces are “woefully short” of “essential weapons.” Singh has since joined the resurgent BJP and is hoping to win a seat in parliament when results are declared on May 16. Rumours abound that if he wins, he may be made the defence minister of the new BJP-led, NDA government.

The list of fixes that need to be done to make the Indian forces as formidable as they should be – considering the very real possibility of fighting a Two-Front war with both Pakistan and China in the future – is long and exhaustive, courtesy of a systematic 8 year delay in the modernisation process. For instance, the Army’s light helicopters are more than 40 years old; it has not bought new artillery guns since 1987; it is also short nearly 600,000 hand grenades. The list is endless. The Indian Navy, too, is short of conventional submarines. Its fleet of diesel-powered submarines is down to a single digit. Submarines in production in Indian shipyards are at least four years behind schedule. The Indian Air Force is down to 33 squadrons of fighter jets against the required strength of 39 squadrons. Its eight-year-old plan to purchase 126 new combat jets is yet to come to fruition, although a contract negotiating committee is currently talking to French manufacturer Dassault Aviation and hopes to ink a mammoth 15 billion dollar deal as soon as the next government gives it the green light. Even then, the first lot of 18 aircraft will enter service only in 2017, and only then if the contract is signed before the end of 2014.

Acquiring critical weapons platform is but one of the facets of defence management. India has been found to be woefully inadequate in reforming its higher defence management structure. A combination of bureaucratic lethargy and cumbersome systems topped by a timid minister has weakened the Indian military alarmingly. His record as India’s longest serving Defence minister (he’s held the post since October 2006) is a clear testimony to this. During his tenure, Antony has already barred or blacklisted half a dozen major international defence firms at the first hint of wrong doing and bribery and has cancelled contracts in the very last stage of the process leaving the three armed forces to battle with shortages and obsolescence.

In 1998, the BJP manifesto had noted “the country’s defence budget has been declining in real terms… from 3.4 per cent of the GDP in 1989-90 to a mere 2.2 per cent this year (i.e. 1998-99). After six years in power, the BJP managed to raise defence spending to just 2.4 per cent of GDP in 2004-05. This, year the UPA shrunk it to a 5-decade low of 1.74% of GDP in the name of fiscal prudence. The new government’s finance minister and the defence minister would probably have a hard field day on this.

The new government has a lot or work to do. And after doing our duty to vote them into power, we can do nothing but wait and watch. If we do not build our military capability, telling our General’s to later “throw the Pakistani’s/ Chinese out” like how the late PM Nehru was rumoured to have told the then Army Chief, P.N. Thapar will be nothing but a joke. A sad joke.

Kirish Raj
An article by:
Kirish Raj

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