USI Strategic Perspectives
Period: Apr – Jun 2020
The COVID-19’s relentless journey has already covered 213 countries and territories. In Indian official circles, there is growing acceptance of the reality, that we will have to learn to live with it. Indian economy has taken a massive blow and is reflected in the decision of a 20% cut across the board including the defence budget, for the first quarter. India’s national development process has suffered a severe setback and so will our capacity for military modernisation.
India’s military modernisation has, for long, been incapacitated by an ecosystem that has lacked sufficient political will for reform and not provided adequate guidance to the Armed Forces; it is compounded by an inter-service jointness approach that leaves plenty of room for improvement. The fragile defence industrial base has been unable to deliver and for ever the two sides, supply and demand, have been blaming each other for the existing reality that India, on the global stage has been for several decades, the second largest arms importer.
Meaningful reform must encompass all elements of the ecosystem. Luckily a major structural reform in the form of CDS, DMA and Permanent Chairman- Chief of Staff Committee (PC-COSC) has already taken place and could provide a major impetus for bringing about other long pending reforms especially on the demand side. The main challenge is being posed by competing demands from the Services that would put a severe strain on the spirit of jointness. For, shortages inevitably create tensions since there is not enough to go around and everybody wants someone else to compromise.
Prioritisation and shelving will have to be done. Both actions are hampered due to the lack of political guidance. Though an RM’s Directive exists it is not informed by a National Security Strategy. The first step must be to evolve a military strategy that is informed by the financial support likely to be available. Defence outlay is a political decision and should be taken by the National Security Council and not left to the Finance Ministry to decide.
The second step will have to involve the revision by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) of the 15 Year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP), Five-Year Services Capital Acquisition Plans (SCAPs), which could shelve and/or prioritise projects. Both the steps would require time, as they involve interaction with many actors that includes the other departments of the MOD, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of External Affairs, National Security Council Secretariat, private sector entities etc. Once both are approved by the DAC, the CDS as the Head of the DMA could in consultation with the Chiefs, firm up the Two-Year Annual Acquisition Plan for approval of the Defence Procurement Board. The HQ IDS with the CDS wearing the hat of PC-COSC would anchor this process. However, some recent public statements of the CDS seem to signal a different approach.
Decisions seem to have been taken and aired in public that surely would rankle the service involved. Speaking to the press on 9 May 2020, the CDS questioned the Navy for pushing for a third aircraft carrier at this stage and argued that, “anything on the surface could be picked up by satellites and knocked off by missiles”. In short, the third aircraft carrier was being shelved through a tactical argument that reveals a lack of understanding of the role a carrier task force can play in war and peace. Going by the CDS logic, China which is planning for five aircraft carriers is apparently unaware of the ‘vulnerability from missiles’ argument. Such an argument seems to suggest that no prior consultation with the Naval Chief was done.
India’s choice is not a binary one between aircraft carriers and submarines which is another argument made by the CDS. However, both are two sides of the same coin of naval power. The utility of an aircraft carrier group which includes submarines during war and peace is undisputed. For sure, the question in times of financial distress is whether we can afford it.
The issue of 114 fighters for the IAF, and the recent public statements of the CDS and Air Chief reveals contradictions that should be resolved in house. For these issues, cannot be seen in isolation and can only be answered after a comprehensive assessment of competing demands viewed in the background of operational necessity that is informed by a military strategy.
Military strategy would indicate the need to shift some of India’s hard power from the West to the North and invest more in the Navy. However naval and air power is costly and therefore delay in development is now inevitable. But tossing out central elements of that power without adequate consultation and assessment is certainly unwarranted and incubates a source of friction in sustaining jointness, which is the need of the hour.
On 17 May, the Government announced its intention to notify within a week, a list of weapons and platforms that would be banned from imports and the CDS would be making the list. While the intention is noble, such a list will have to confront the hard rock of the existing weaknesses in India’s defence industrial base and balance it with operational priorities. The snag is that CDS has control of one side and absolutely no control of the other.
If the military as the user goes by past experience, indigenous incapacity in research, development, and production is a major impediment to import avoidance. Any list that is drawn up, based on the promises of the public and private sector should be avoided. Instead, the list must include only those items that have already been tested and proven. To ban first and await the research and development cycle to be completed, risks emergency imports that must be avoided. In fact, why have a ban list in the first place when it is nearly impossible to judge who and when will finally deliver.
While self-reliance is a strategic necessity and must forever remain the beacon of military modernisation, military effectiveness should remain the determinant. Knee jerk decisions that have not been put through a joint service consultative process may be easier to implement due to the creation of the DMA but should be eschewed.
The power vested in the CDS must be strategically applied and not succumb to the blowing winds of COVID-19, however severe it seems now. For decision making in defence preparations must adopt the long-term view while retaining the ability to answer the call of war at short notice. It was never easy and is much more challenging now. More importantly, it can only be met by deepened cooperation between the Services and cannot be imposed from the top. An empowered and three hatted CDS cannot do it alone. He should not even try to.
This article first appeared in the United Services Institution, Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, web journal Strategic Perspectives.