Get the basics right in defence matters

Now that every Ram, Rahim, Ricky and their uncle has given sound and comprehensive advice to Narendrabhai Modi on how to run the government, how to bifurcate, merge and in some cases, abolish ministries, let me attempt to flag issues that need urgent attention.

While many strategic gurus have spoken about the need to have big bang reforms in foreign and defence policy, as a foot soldier of this domain, I feel the new government should concentrate on getting the basics right, at least in the first one year. For example, the Indian Infantry – that hard working, non-complaining arm of the Army – needs urgent attention.

The 350-odd infantry battalions need new and more lethal weapons. So the assault rifle, the carbine, the light machine gun (LMG), the sniper rifle and even the anti-tank guided missile (ATGM)–essentials in an infantry battalion–need to be replaced over the next five years. Many of these weapons, currently used by the troops are of 1960s vintage. The Dragunov sniper rifle, for instance. Or the ATGMs which are on second generation variety.

To begin with, the current mix of 7.62 self-loading rifle and the 5.56 INSAS rifle used by some battalions is likely to be replaced by a new double barrel rifle complete with a conversion kit which will enable the troops to make dual use.

“When an infantry battalion is deployed in counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism (CI-CT) role , it will have the option to use the 7.62 mm barrel but when it gets posted to a peace station, the 7.62 mm barrel can be mothballed in field stores and the same rifle can then be converted to 5.56 mm bore.”

Each infantry battalion in the Indian Army normally holds about 494 pieces of the basic rifles. In the first phase, 120-odd battalions deployed in CI-CT role under Northern and Eastern Command should get the replacements first. In phase II, transfer of technology needs to be ensured and the production taken up by India’s Ordnance Factory Board (OFB).

Well-known gun brands like Colt and Beretta are among five or six companies competing for the big tender of 60,000 assault rifles estimated to cost Rs. 5,000 crore at current prices.The current version of the LMGs – 45 in each battalion – are of 5.56 mm bore and are bulky at 6.23 kg. The Army plans to replace them with much lighter and more lethal ones with longer range and 7.62×51 mm bore. The general staff qualitative requirements (GSQR) for the new LMGs are in place but a quick selection of the supplier and placing the order is needed.

Procurement of third generation ATGMs worth about Rs. 2,000 crore needs to be given priority since the current lot of eight launchers to each battalion is of much older vintage. The Army wants to graduate from the Milan ATGMs (which has a semi-automatic command line of sight) to a third generation ATGM which will be an ‘automatic command line of sight’ ability. In other words, it will have the “fire and forget” mechanism. Trials are currently on for this version of ATGMs in the western sector where they would be initially deployed given that tank warfare will dominate any conflict in this area.

The other big procurement on the anvil is the induction of the new generation carbine. India has plans to procure over 43,000 carbines at a cost of over Rs. 3,200 crore. Each infantry battalion currently holds an inventory of about 230 carbines. 

Two years ago when a letter written by the then Army Chief Gen VK Singh (who is now a BJP MP) to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found its way into the media, there was much outrage and anger over the state of Indian Army’s preparedness. “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,” the General wrote to the prime minister. The army’s entire tank fleet is “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks,” while the air defence system is “97% obsolete,” he wrote. The infantry is crippled with “deficiencies,” while the elite forces are “woefully short” of “essential weapons.” 
Since then, urgent steps have been taken to improve the deficiencies in some areas, especially in improving the stock of fresh ammunition. Still, many critical shortages remain unaddressed. For instance, the Army’s light helicopters are more than 40 years old; it has not bought new artillery guns since 1987; it is also short nearly 600,000 hand grenades. The list is endless.
The Indian Navy, too, is short of conventional submarines since its fleet of diesel-powered submarines is down to a single digit. Submarines in production in Indian shipyards are at least four years behind schedule. The Indian Air Force is down to 33 squadrons of fighter jets against the required strength of 39 squadrons. Its eight-year-old plan to purchase 126 new combat jets is yet to come to fruition, although a contract negotiating committee is currently in the final stages of negotiations with French manufacturers Dassault  and hopes to ink a mammoth 15 billion dollar deal as soon as the new government gives it the green light. Even then, the first lot of 18 aircraft will enter service only in 2017, and only then if the contract is signed before the end of 2014.
Acquiring critical weapons platform is but one of the facets of defence management. India has been found to be woefully inadequate in reforming its higher defence management structure. A combination of bureaucratic lethargy and cumbersome systems topped by a timid minister has weakened the Indian military alarmingly. The biggest hurdle in the Indian military’s quest for rapid modernization has been the country’s previous defence minister AK Antony. As a politician concerned solely with preserving his squeaky clean image, Antony had time and again put his personal obsessions above national interest during the UPA’s regime.
His record as India’s longest serving Defence minister (he’s held the post since October 2006) is a clear testimony to this. During his tenure, Antony has already barred or blacklisted half a dozen major international defence firms at the first hint of wrong doing and bribery and has cancelled contracts in the very last stage of the process leaving the three armed forces to battle with shortages and obsolescence.
In the second phase, the new government must take a closer look at the report of the Naresh Chandra Committee and implement its recommendations ( for the defence ministry to be more effective.
P.S. I wanted to suggest that the new government concentrate on improving India’s relations with its immediate neighbours but Modi and his advisors are obviously much faster on the draw: they have already extended a formal invite to all SAARC leaders for the new Prime Minister’s oath taking on Monday. Well begun…