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Unlearned lessons from the 1962 war

By Ashok K Mehta

Defence Minister Arun Jaitley’s statement in the Rajya Sabha regarding defence preparedness was generic but can be challenged on two counts: Operational readiness and learning lessons. Unusually, both Prime Minister Narendra Modiand Defence Minister Arun Jaitley conspicuously skipped mentioning China or Pakistan in their traditional Independence Day speeches.

Though speaking in the Rajya Sabha last week, Jaitley was less than accurate when he said that the Armed Forces were “strong enough to meet any challenge to the country’s security”, underlining that lessons have been learnt from the 1962 war.

The statement is generic but can be challenged on two counts: Operational readiness and learning lessons. Incidentally, both these incomplete missions are for the political leadership to accomplish. Jaitley added that compared to 1962, the Armed Forces were stronger in 1965 and 1971 wars.

He forgot to mention that in 1965, India was poised to make strategic gains in Pakistan but had to settle for the British-brokered ceasefire as it had run out of critical ammunition for tanks and artillery. He did not mention Kargil when Army chief, Gen Ved Malik said, “We will fight with what we have”. But for emergency help from South Africa and Israel, Kargil might have gone the other way.

Then, as now, except for 1971 war, there is no long-term planning and political resolve based on a systematic strategic defence and security review to invest sufficient resources in defence preparedness and deterrence.

You only have to read successive reports of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence and Comptroller and Auditor-General of India’s (CAG) reports where shortfalls in operational readiness are regularly red-flagged, not to mention the pronouncements of Service chiefs. Defence Budget for the year 2017-18 was the lowest at 1.56 per cent of the gross domestic product since 1962 and capital account for modernisation barely sufficient to meet old liabilities.

Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat, earlier in the year, noted that the services were not getting their due share of resources due to the perception that expenditure on defence was a burden on the economy. Within 48 hours, he was told by Jaitley to contact him when he ran short of funds. Gen Rawat had also said that the Army was tasked to fight a two-and-a-half front war.

Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa has observed that he needs minimum 42 combat squadrons against the current 32 to dominate a two-front collusive situation and likened the handicap to a cricket team playing with seven instead of 11 players.

Chief of Naval Staff, Sunil Lanba, whose fleet is precariously deficient in submarines, speaking on disparity in preparedness said, “The way national security is being handled is not commensurate with the security environment which is extremely serious at the moment”. Our service chiefs have not shown the courage to put their job on the line.

Only last month, the French Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Pierre de Villiers resigned as he could not ensure security of France since Euro one billion was cut from the defence Budget.  In UK, Admiral David Luce resigned on cancellation of the aircraft carrier programme. American Generals have invariably demanded resource-matching missions, quitting when their pleas were ignored.

Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray counselled his ally, the Modi Government, to focus on conflicts with China and Pakistan rather than on winning elections. Prior to a by-election, the BJP in Goa hailed former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar for enabling India to stand up to Beijing and the surgical strikes.

But it was during the brief debate in the Rajya Sabha on foreign policy that Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav observed that defence and military power are key to India’s regional pre-eminence. Congress leader Anand Sharma quoted George Washington, “To be prepared for war is the best way to preserve peace”. Sadly, Governments are forever planning the next election victory.

The CAG report tabled last month in Parliament pointed out drastic shortfalls in ammunition inventories though some progress has been made in the last three years after junior minister, Gen VK Singh, the Army chief in 2013, referred to critical hollowness in defence preparedness. Reason: Neither the ordnance factories have enhanced production nor the procurement process streamlined.

Of the 152 types of ammunition, stocking is done at different levels. But critical ammunitions are sufficient to fight a short and intense war. It is not clear if this war is 10, 20 or 40 days and whether it is two-front. It is reported that training ammunition has also been cut drastically.

Last month, the Department of Defence Production approved higher scales of ammunition for tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, third generation missiles and L/70 air defence ammunition in the ‘Make in India’ category where only Indian vendors are eligible.

The products from this process could take years to  materialise. In addition, last year, Vice Chiefs of the Armed Forces were empowered to acquire emergency ammunition and equipment without the clearance of the Defence Acquisition Council to ensure ammunition and spares for a minimum of 10 days of intense fighting. Some progress has been here.

Last month, the Defence Ministry sought an additional Rs 20,000 crore for slippages in defence modernisation as well as routine operating costs five months ahead of the next Budget likely to be announced on January 1, 2018. It seems the Doklam face-off and political uncertainty in Pakistan have created the possibility of a worst case two-front scenario.

Some panic reactions outlined above would not have obtained had the Defence Ministry and the Armed Forces been in sync on long-term defence planning, based on realistic defence and security assessments and review and fiscal guidelines, leading to tasks and matching resources. In absence of any higher political direction and defence reforms, adhocism prevails.

Outgoing Vice President Hamid Ansari, speaking on ‘Make in India’ lamented that India cannot produce even an indigenous rifle  the one made failed miserably in field trials. Our investment in research and development is peanuts. Two Indian T90 tanks sent to Russia for an international competition crashed out due to mechanical failures.

The indigenously produced Bofors Dhanush gun was found to contain fake Chinese parts (marked made in Germany) and is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation. This is akin to Israelis inserting Stucknet virus into Iranian centrifuges.

With Doklam staring us in the face, it is time to catch up with China’s reform and modernisation drive supervised by President Xi Jinping himself. Seventeen Mountain Corps under raising to be any deterrent requires to be made operational and Sikkim and Ladakh provided with infrastructure to make it deployable in both places. Obviously, all the lessons of 1962 have not been fully learnt.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs expert).



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