/Going into 2019, India’s defence challenges are shocking
picture 320

Going into 2019, India’s defence challenges are shocking

The Indian armed forces, by habit, prepare to fight yesterday’s wars.

Not one of the services has a forward-looking plan for capability build-up for conflicts of the future, which will feature proactive and defensive cyber warfare wherewithal and Artificial Intelligence-driven robotic systems cued to assigned tasks by a multitude of space- air-, land- and sea-based sensors passing real-time intelligence on the enemy force disposition that are able to assess operational situations and even concert with other friendly ‘warbots’ in the field to attack the target(s).

Most such systems have progressed beyond the testing stage and are on the brink of deployment in the more advanced militaries. In India, there’s not a hint of any thinking about robotic warfare, and even less of robotic warfare systems being designed and developed. A basic rover to handle/disarm live munitions/improvised explosive devices is about the extent of our achievement in the military robotics field.

Rather, the Indian military remains committed to World War II-era genus of weapons platforms — tanks, artillery, combat aircraft, aircraft carriers, in the main and then they are nowhere near cutting-edge, technology-wise. This is evident in the force modernisation plans.

The army has the replacement of the venerable T-72 tank with the newer Russian T-90 tank as priority; the air force wishes to induct the French Rafale multi-role combat aircraft in large numbers. Except, 36 of these aircraft that have actually been bought are too valuable to commit to action and too few to muster operational clout; and the navy is so besotted by aircraft carriers that to afford them the country is compelled to make do with fewer, smaller, fighting ships (frigates and destroyers) and a thinned out presence in the Indian Ocean (unless the naval budget is increased manifold, which’s not on the cards).

Most such backward-looking schemes are deemed adequate because the political class and the military brass, quixotically, cannot think of danger beyond Pakistan, this even though China — the only credible threat — looms spectre-like. Thus, Pakistan is the adversary the Indian Air Force mentions to justify the Rafale buy and bungs in a nuclear bombing role for it to overawe the media and the people.

Likewise, the Indian naval chief assures the country in a Navy Day newspaper supplement that his force is superior to its Pakistani counterpart. The army chief on his part, when not advising Pakistan to become more secular if it wants to live in amity with India, warns of more “surgical strikes”. With the Pakistan bogey so much on the military’s mind, who has time for the real world?

Meanwhile, the Narendra Modi government, in lieu of any actual expenditure of scarce funds, gives the impression of buttressing the country’s defence effort with the periodic announcements of the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC) approving purchases of major armaments costing thousands of crores. However, because the DAC’s approval is about the first step in an onerous process that involves a lot of bureaucratic grind, little that is announced comes down the arms pipeline quickly, and military modernisation schemes, such as they are, mark time. Consider this: In the period October 2017 and October 2018, total capital buys worth Rs 86,030 crore were cleared by the DAC, but no contract was signed.

This is part of the pattern from when the erstwhile defence minister Manohar Parrikar boasted of the DAC clearing Rs 3 lakh crore worth of military procurement in the first three years, with only a small fraction of the sum actually translating into weaponry with the forces. Of course, the tortuous defence procurement system is to blame but no government has sought to simplify and streamline it — perhaps, because it serves the purposes of the vested interests that continue to grow fat on arms deals or through ‘Make in India’ schemes of ‘screwdrivering’ hardware from imported kits.

This essentially leaves India exposed in the basic binary areas — nuclear and conventional. Nuclear security has traditionally been the Indian government’s blindspot, with nothing being done to resume underground tests and augment capabilities. This even as established nuclear powers induct new thermonuclear weapons and delivery systems, a trend likely to accelerate now that the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty banning nuclear missiles of 500-5,000 mile range from being deployed in Europe is defunct.

Meanwhile, the Indian military doggedly acquires short-legged aircraft, like the Rafale, not strategic bombers such as the advanced ‘Backfire’ Tu-22M3M or the more lethal ‘Blackjack’ Tu-160M2, invests in tank forces long after they are of any real use, opts for aircraft carriers vulnerable to supersonic cruise and hypersonic guided missiles, and struggles to raise its first offensive warfare-capable mountain corps to take the fight to China on the Tibetan Plateau and spurns light tanks as its main equipment.