High on Aspirations (On the PM’s address at the Combined Commanders Conference)

In a clear sign that long-neglected maritime security interests are gradually gaining prominence, the Navy hosted the President and the prime minister in less than two months. As many as 71 Indian ships and 50 navies of the world participated in the International Fleet Review held on February 6, where President Pranab Mukherjee took the salute.

Speaking on the occasion, the President said: “The Indian Navy… has re-aligned its maritime strategy, to reflect the changes in the evolving global environment, and has established a credible record of cooperative initiatives to promote stability of the oceans, and played a central role in ensuring safety of the vital sea lines of communication, across the Indian Ocean.”

On December 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a rare statement on India’s defence policy in his address to the Chiefs of Staff and the Commanders-in-Chief of the armed forces on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.

Modi spoke of a “new intensity and purpose” in the country’s foreign policy, noted that India is now being increasingly seen as a “force of regional and global peace, security and stability” and emphasised the need to strengthen India’s existing strategic partnerships while forging new ones. He mentioned India’s extensive outreach to countries along the rim of the Indian Ocean and noted with approval the articulation of a new maritime strategy.

The prime minister noted, “Our responsibilities are no longer confined to our borders and coastlines. They... spread across a world of widespread and unpredictable risks.” He said while the character of conflict and the objectives of war are changing with evolutions in defence technology, “Old rivalries can play out in new theatres such as space and cyber.”

Speaking about nuclear deterrence, Modi reiterated that India’s strategic deterrence is “robust and reliable”, in accordance with the country’s nuclear doctrine and “our political will is clear.” As doubts have been expressed about the yield of the fission-fusion warhead during the tests in May 1998, the statement was meant to reassure the armed forces and the nation. Nuclear signalling is always carefully noted by nuclear-armed adversaries as well as the international community.

The prime minister took stock of the full spectrum of threats and challenges in India’s neighbourhood and said that the shadow of West Asian instability is getting longer. Modi said he believed that “India and China can engage constructively across the complexity of their relationship” and stated his government’s intention to “develop greater mutual understanding and trust in our overlapping neighbourhood.”

On Pakistan, the prime minister said the renewed engagement would “try and turn the course of history,” but his bold gamble at Lahore was followed by terrorist strike at the Pathankot air base and on the Indian consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan.

On defence preparedness, Modi said the pace of improving border infrastructure and the process of defence procurement are being speeded up and many long-pending acquisitions of weapons and equipment have been approved. He spoke of “firm steps to address shortages and cater for replacements.”

Deficiencies still persist

Large scale deficiencies, however, continue to persist in the holdings of weapons, ammunition and equipment by combat units. The Ministry of Defence is unable to procure a suitable modern rifle – the basic weapon used by infantry soldiers. Successive Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports have highlighted the alarmingly low levels of operationally critical tank and artillery ammunition held by the Army.

In the past, the CAG has pointed out that the serviceability state of the Navy’s submarine fleet is rather low due to the non-availability of adequate spares. Another recent CAG report pointed out that the strength of the Indian Air Force is down to 35 squadrons (aviation analysts put the figure at 30 to 32); the serviceability rates of the Sukhoi fleet – India’s frontline fighter aircraft – is as low as 55-60 per cent due to the lack of spares and inadequate repair facilities.

Hence, while the prime minister recognised the imperative necessity of improving the level of defence preparedness by making up the existing deficiencies, he did not mention whether additional budgetary support would be forthcoming. Pegged at 1.74 per cent of the GDP in the current financial year, the defence budget has been steadily declining in real terms and is now at the lowest level that it has ever been since the debacle in the 1962 war with China.

Also, while the threats and challenges to national security are increasing and India is being called upon to contribute as a “net provider of security” in its area of strategic interest, the process of military modernisation has been stagnating. It was at a standstill during the 10 years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and has not yet been substantially speeded up due to the ongoing resource crunch, though weapons acquisition projects worth Rs 1,05,000 crore have been approved in principle.

It has even been reported that the Mountain Strike Corps approved by the UPA government is being raised by depleting the war reserves rather than by acquiring new weapons and equipment. The Indian armed forces are still a mid-20th century force facing a collusive threat from Pakistan and the rapidly modernising People’s Liberation Army of China, which is also undertaking structural reforms to improve its combat efficiency.

Finally, though Modi touched on the need for undertaking reforms in defence management, he made no mention of the government’s position on formulating a comprehensive national security strategy that is inter-ministerial, inter-departmental and inter-agency in approach so that India’s comprehensive national strength can be synergised to achieve the desired national security objectives.

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