In all the talk of josh, our netas and babus lack vital hosh about revitalising our defence forces

No other military of any other major country suffers from the sort of deficiencies that the Indian armed forces contend with. The sarkaari rhetoric on defence is great. The reality of it is abysmal.

 |  8-minute read |   14-02-2019
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‘How’s the josh?’ As a tagline, this one has great resonance, whether in the context of the Indian cricket team notching up victories Down Under, or the defence forces giving a bloody nose to the adversary across the Line of Control.

But when ruling party spokesmen use it to give a positive spin to the defence budget, this tagline sounds quite incongruous.

This is because even though the ‘josh’ is never lacking in the Indian armed forces, modern wars aren’t fought on ‘josh’ alone. While ‘josh’, or morale, is important, even necessary, it isn’t enough to wage, much less win, wars.

soldier-690_021419111018.jpgYes, the josh is high. But josh alone is not enough to wage, much less, win a war. (Source: Reuters)

The history of war teaches us that wars aren’t always won by the braver and fiercer fighters — rather, they are won by the better-equipped, well-trained, highly disciplined and well-led armies. Superior tactics and weaponry are as, if not more, important as high ‘josh’ in worsting the enemy.

Unfortunately, the focus on ‘josh’ has drowned the ‘hosh’ that the armed forces need adequate funds to not lose their bite. 

The Interim Budget 2019 followed the same sorry trajectory of keeping the defence forces starved of the funds they need to equip themselves, not just for the wars of yesterday, but even more, for the wars of today and tomorrow. Every finance minister speciously claims he has done a lot for the defence forces — but the very fact that every budget speech contains the line “More will be allocated if required” gives the game away. This line is a tacit admission that the finance minister knows he has shafted the armed forces by denying them the funds they needed.

Worse, it betrays the politician and the babu as being utterly clueless of the dynamics of defence preparedness. They seem to think that “if required”, i.e., if there is an emergency, then just as you can go and buy some milk and bread when you run short of it, you can go and buy fighters, submarines, guns or ammunition if a war is staring you in the face. It is like what happened during the Kargil War in 1999 when the then-army chief General VP Malik said the “army will fight with what it has”.

While that war was won primarily on ‘josh’, expecting the same to happen again is really pushing your luck.

malik-690_021419111229.jpgDuring the Kargil war, General VP Malik said the army would fight with whatever it has. (Source: India Today)

There has been a lot of crowing about how the current year’s defence budget is the largest ever and has for the first time crossed ₹3 lakh crore — but this is so much hogwash.

Every year’s defence budget is the "largest ever" because there is invariably some increase over the previous year’s budget. Crossing the ₹3 lakh crore mark is more a function of a natural progression of the very modest increases in the defence budget, something that happened by default, not by design. Instead of measuring the defence budget in absolute terms, it makes more sense to evaluate the defence budget in relative terms — as a per cent of GDP, as a per cent of expenditure, as a per cent of revenue. This gives a better idea of how much resources the government is spending on securing the country — and how much priority it accords to a strong and well-equipped defence force.

While strategists believe that as a rule of thumb, spending 3 per cent of GDP on defence is an ideal amount, there is no real sanctity attached to this number. Ultimately, defence spending has to be a function of the threats and challenges facing a country and the resources it needs to spend to ensure that its forces are equipped with the stuff they require to do their jobs. India is currently spending around 1.5-1.6 per cent of GDP on defence — this is the lowest India has spent on defence since the 1962 debacle.

Worse, over the years, this number has been only falling. Defenders of the government wave the absolute amount to claim that enough is being spent on defence. But what they often gloss over is that bulk of the money is spent on salaries of personnel — and very little on modernisation, weapon systems and platforms.

Even more importantly, they ignore the threat matrix that is only becoming worse. The region is in flux. India’s relations with Pakistan are as bad as they can be — and are likely to go further south with the Pakistanis once again becoming hyperactive, not just in Kashmir but also trying to reignite terrorism in Punjab. China remains a huge threat and the China-Pakistan nexus holds the spectre of a two-front situation. Chinese entry into the Indian Ocean is a serious strategic challenge to India — unless this is countered, it will confront India with a fait accompli.

pakistan-690_021419111708.jpgPakistanis have once again becoming hyperactive, aiming even at trying to reignite terrorism in Punjab. (Source: Twitter)

Afghanistan is being destabilised and could once again become the epicentre of Islamist terrorism — a lot of which will be exported to India through Pakistan. Add all this up and then ask if India’s defence capabilities and capacities are keeping pace to meet these challenges.

The answer is a resounding negative, more so in light of the grand ambitions India harbours and boasts of being a net security provider in the region.

What is also scary is that over the years, the neglect of the armed forces has meant that not only are we ill-prepared to meet the threats looming large over us, we are also inadequately prepared to meet the challenges of today. A lot of the equipment is already antiquated. There are also serious equipment shortfalls. Although the Modi government has taken steps to fill up some of the more egregious gaps and procure the necessary equipment to make up for shortfalls, a lot more needs to be done. Perhaps, if India had a robust indigenous defence industry, many of these problems could have been sorted out and we could have got more bang for every buck we spend.

Alas, most of the defence PSUs and ordinance factories are dysfunctional, defunct and very 19th century. Since we cannot provision our forces indigenously, we are dependent on foreign suppliers. But apart from the expense this entails, there is the whole issue of reliability — today, the Russians can’t be trusted like they could be in the 1970s and 1980s, the Americans are unreliable and fickle, the British irrelevant, the French, we are hell-bent on alienating because of silly domestic politics, the Israelis are more dependable but they can’t meet all our requirements.

There is then the whole issue of ‘technology transfer’. We talk of it like it is candy being dispensed at a kirana store. The simple fact that no one gives you any meaningful technology escapes our obtuse minds. We just don’t get it that technology is either stolen or developed — and we do neither. What we want is technology on a platter, which will either not happen, or if it does, then the technology we will get won’t be worth it.

Ideally, we should be doubling down on our own research capabilities, and alongside pulling out all stops for foreign direct investment in the defence sector. That is one way of getting trained manpower and also absorbing technology to build an indigenous industry.

But again, such is the disconnect in our heads that while we are okay with the ‘flying coffins’, aka MiG 21s of 1960s vintage, we are loath to go in for the F16s which are still frontline fighters in many countries and will be for another two decades. Ironically, even as we marvel at the technological leaps made by the Chinese, we conveniently forget that for decades, the Chinese flew virtually junk aircraft which they made themselves and steadily improved through their own R&D and through the time-honoured method of stealing technology.

mig-690_021419111410.jpgAn IAF MiG-21 fighter jet crash site.  MiG 21s have often been called 'flying coffins'. Yet, we seem ok with them. (Source: PTI)

At a time when new technologies are changing the way wars of the future will be fought, India is still caught in the mid-20th century, seeking safety and security in a large standing army.  Meanwhile, the Chinese and others are going in for a technology-based war-fighting capacity — which is far more lethal and effective than the foot soldier.

In fact, this technology enhances the fighting capability of the foot soldier, making him more effective. All this costs money, but we are spending the bulk of our budgets in the salaries of the soldiery.

There has been some talk but no real effort to restructure the defence forces in a way that we can spend more on weapons than on manpower. The armed forces are not an employment agency and generating employment is not their job. None of this is rocket science. Nor does it require any great insight into the revolution in military affairs unfolding before our eyes in other countries, including in the neighbourhood among our adversaries. In fact, all of this is known to the politician and the bureaucrat — but they just don’t care, and even if they do, their priorities are different.

It is, of course, entirely true that no army anywhere in the world gets everything it wants. But it is also a fact that no other military of any other major country suffers from the sort of deficiencies that the Indian armed forces are having to contend with.

We can do all the chest-thumping we want over the ‘surgical strikes’ and the great movie based on them. But in the real world, India would be better off and more secure if it starts to pay greater attention to the defence needs of tomorrow rather than of yesterday.

Also read: Budget 2019: Despite the big talk, it's clear the Modi government doesn't really care much about defence

Writer

Sushant Sareen Sushant Sareen @sushantsareen

The writer is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

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