National Security: India’s Enemy Number One is the Sloth Within

According to a recent news report, soldiers of the Indian army are being forced to buy their own boots because those issued to them are of poor quality. Their rifles, it is well known, are outdated and tenders to replace them have been cancelled repeatedly. They do not have sufficient ammunition for their primary guns and tanks to fight for more than 10 to 12 days. (The Kargil conflict lasted 50 days.)

Nor do they have night vision devices and bullet proof jackets in sufficient numbers. And, when they come down from the mountains and counter-insurgency operational areas to “peace” stations, they get a family quarter for 10 months to a year – if they are lucky to get one at all. To cap it all, the Seventh Pay Commission has further degraded their status and left them wondering why the nation does not care.

Former Army Chief, General VK Singh’s letter to the then Prime Minister and the CAG’s reports of 2012 and 2015, have highlighted the precarious state of defence preparedness. Attributing the deficiencies to ‘hollowness’ in the defence procurement system, General VK Singh wrote in his letter to the PM, ‘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.’
According to the former COAS, the army’s entire tank fleet is ‘devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks,’ the air defence equipment is ‘97% obsolete and it doesn’t give the deemed confidence to protect…from the air,’ the infantry is crippled with ‘deficiencies of crew served weapons’ and lacks ‘night fighting’ capabilities, the elite Special Forces are ‘woefully short of essential weapons,’ and there are ‘large-scale voids’ in critical surveillance.

Who Is to Blame for This Mess?

While the political masters and the armed forces leadership must accept their fair share, most of the blame must be laid squarely on the shoulders of the civilian bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Ministry of Finance (MoF), the Department of Defence Production, the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) and the senior scientists of the DRDO, who have failed to give the army even low-technology weapons like rifles, carbines and machine guns. Chairpersons of the defence PSUs and the ordnance factories must also take the rap.

Most of these officials have mastered the art of making an important file disappear into an orbit from which the file is unlikely to come back for the rest of their tenure. When the file on raising a mountain strike corps was being readied for approval by the Cabinet Committee on Security, a bureaucrat in the MoF is reported to have enquired whether the threat from China would last beyond five years.

If military modernisation is stagnating and defence reforms are not being implemented in a timely manner, the Defence Secretary must be held accountable. If the defence budget is not spent in full, the Financial Advisor Defence Services must be held accountable. If the defence production targets are not met, the Secretary, Defence Production and the Chairman, Ordnance Factories Board must be held accountable. Unfortunately, at present there is no system in place by which a bureaucrat can be held responsible for poor performance. He can only be transferred and that is not a deterrent punishment.

The Way Forward

As Defence Minister, George Fernandes, had sent a few junior bureaucrats to Siachen Glacier to familiarise them with the hardships faced by the troops at the world’s highest battlefield. Such visits to forward areas should be made an annual feature. In fact, the concept of “national service” should be introduced for the bureaucracy. All future recruitment for the IAS, IFS, IPS and the allied services should be through the armed forces.

After serving for five years, officers should be permitted to take the UPSC exam and join the central services if selected. This will be a win-win situation all round. Bureaucrats will be well informed about national security issues and armed forces officers will have friends in the bureaucracy.

Finally, a great deal needs to be done to improve the quality of decision-making for national security, enhance defence preparedness, bridge the civil-military divide and boost the morale of armed forces personnel. The first step is to recognise that there are serious problems and challenges that need to be addressed. To identify the fault lines and rectify the weaknesses, the Prime Minister should appoint a National Security Commission. And, it should be headed by a former Chief of Staff of one of the armed forces – not by a former bureaucrat.

(The writer is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi)