Military & Aerospace

Defence Preparedness: Inconvenient truths
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 10 Oct , 2018

Pakistan carries the “hurt” of its 1971 loss of East Pakistan, while China, with memory of its successful 1962 adventure, has its hegemonic aim of becoming the world’s dominant economic and military power, beginning with its neighbourhood. In the context of China and Pakistan teaming up, defence preparedness to protect India’s sovereignty is vital. 

It is time to recognize the reality of the situation and plan for the future, with a holistic understanding of the military which defends our borders to maintain our sovereignty.

If the following is viewed as taking a dim view of India’s defence preparedness, the present writer pleads guilty. There would perhaps be a bright side to the defence preparedness picture, but this writer is unable to spot it. In any case, it is not the writer’s intention to blame any political party in particular, because the problem of neglect of the defence sector by the politician-bureaucrat lobby is decades old.

What is undoubted is that our defence preparedness is a matter for serious concern. Unless we can understand it, recognize its shortcomings and take concerted, very urgent measures to rectify matters, we may repeat the situation of 1962 before the very same adversary, with Pakistan ever ready to open the western front.

This not a time for bravado and leaning on past laurels or immediate minor achievements. It is time to recognize the reality of the situation and plan for the future, with a holistic understanding of the military which defends our borders to maintain our sovereignty. In what follows, “military” refers to the three defence Services (or Armed Forces) namely, the army, the navy and the air force.

This writer believes that the matters which go into our defence preparedness to protect our territorial and political sovereignty need to reach a wider civilian audience. Hence some of what follows, though obvious or unnecessary for a military reader, is essential for a civilian to understand the issues.

That said, let us consider the matter in terms of military hardware, military skinware, military software & cyber capability, and military organization & communications.

Of the approximately 769 fighter aircraft our air force holds, and 106 on order including 36 Rafales, around 250 are obsolete, and there is a shortfall apart from obsolescence replacement.

Hardware

The Parliamentary Standing Committee for Defence headed by Maj Gen B.C.Khanduri is reported to have informed Parliament about the “critical low stock of armaments”. Among other shortcomings in defence preparedness, the Committee’s March report stated that 68% of equipment with the armed forces was in the vintage category [Ref.1]. That was serious enough, but more serious is the fact that the state of weapons, equipment and ammunition in the armed forces being below par has been in the public domain for several years now. This is undoubtedly in the knowledge of China and Pakistan.  

Of the approximately 769 fighter aircraft our air force holds, and 106 on order including 36 Rafales [Ref.2], around 250 are obsolete, and there is a shortfall apart from obsolescence replacement. According to IAF chief ACM Dhanoa, we are reeling under a severe shortage of fighter aircraft, holding 31 fighter squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 42, and even 42 falls short of the combined strength of China and Pakistan. This situation is not recent. It is worth noting that in a full-scale conflict, army operations can be seriously hampered without adequate offensive air support.

The shortfalls in weapons, vehicles and equipment in respect of the army, and of ships for the navy, which has a growing responsibility as the Chinese PLAN spreads into the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, are matters for no less concern.

The procurement processes and the indigenous production processes in respect of military hardware need the most serious consideration. There is no doubt that government is seized of the importance of the matter, but circumstances lead one to wonder whether the urgency is really appreciated.  

…what he may doubt is the leadership’s ability to support the soldier-in-the-field in terms of protecting him during internal security duties. This doubt is militarily unhealthy because it affects morale.

Skinware

If the weapons and equipment state is poor, the state of morale of army troops is not at its best either. The soldier’s morale is based upon a combination of several factors, including confidence in the chain of command. While the soldier may not doubt the competence of higher military command in the conduct of operations, what he may doubt is the leadership’s ability to support the soldier-in-the-field in terms of protecting him during internal security duties. This doubt is militarily unhealthy because it affects morale.

If this view is considered alarmist, one only has to note that over 700 serving soldiers of ranks ranging from Jawan to major general have gone over the heads of their command chain to the Supreme Court of India (SCI), pleading that they are being persecuted and prosecuted for their acts of commission or omission during internal security duties under the AFSPA. Whether their averment is “correct” or not will be decided by SCI in course of time. But whichever way the verdict goes, this over-the-commander’s-head initiative of 700 soldiers is being watched by 1.3 million other serving soldiers, sailors and airmen of all ranks. And it is not going to improve their flagging morale.

The several moves of the bureaucrat-politician nexus which have degraded the status of soldiers especially vis a vis other government agencies, despite over 80% of soldiers having to retire at age 38 to 42, and face high risk situations during service, has not escaped the notice of serving soldiers and veterans. This has its inevitable effect on a soldier’s morale, because he wonders why the military top brass does not speak up to the powers-that-be, and why the generals have forgotten their days when they were young officers fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the troops. The soldier may doubt the moral courage of his superiors, even while he has no doubt of their courage, initiative or professionalism in dangerous or life-threatening situations.

A great deal needs to be done, especially by the top echelons of military commanders strictly following the accepted dictum of country-first-troops-next-self-last, in all decision-making. It is clear that this dictum is not being followed. In all fairness, this was also happening earlier, although it was not as blatant as it appears to be today.

Enemy interference by hacking or otherwise attacking databases, can stall or hamper not just the military effort but even the national economy.

Software and cyber security

Boots-on-the-ground, warships-at-sea and fighters-airborne-in-minutes in real-time combat situations cannot succeed without cyber-dependent operations and logistics. The nation’s military as a credible deterrent, or as an effective defensive or strike force, is dependent upon its offensive and defensive cyber capability.

There are real threats to national security, which is not limited to military capability. This can be due to loss, leakage or corruption of data in critical economic, infrastructure and governmental command-and-control systems, whether due to ignorance, inadvertence or cyber attack.

The rapidity and effectiveness of military deterrence in threat situations, and of actual combat operations in rapidly changing situations, is dependent upon its inter-service and intra-service communications, and on the capacity to rapidly and efficiently shift reserves across operational theatres if and when required. All this is dependent upon the security and integrity of IT (computer-based) systems which control databases and communications.

Enemy interference by hacking or otherwise attacking databases, can stall or hamper not just the military effort but even the national economy [Ref.3].

The critical IT hardware (e.g., processors, servers, motherboards) and critical software (e.g., firewalls) which are at the core of our IT infrastructure, are purchased from the international market. Since most of our critical IT hardware is manufactured in countries over which China has the capability of influence on production processes, we need to understand that there is no such thing as a “safe” supplier in the cloak-and-dagger world of cyber warfare. [Ref.4 & Note below].

Until the NSC works out policy and action plans for adequate indigenous production of reliable IT equipment, the operations and logistics of our military remains open to interference from countries which have well-defined strategies and superior cyber warfare capability.

…as on date, the cabinet or the NSC does not have the benefit of a single-point-of-advice on military matters, whether they concern hardware, skinware, software, deployment or performance.

Ineffective cyber security is a military weakness and compromises deterrence capability. Our military’s dependence on imported critical cyber equipment calls for immediate, deliberate review of India’s real-time military capability for the IT-centric warfare of tomorrow. Inadequate understanding at top military echelons regarding cyber vulnerability and its effect on overall military capability, can have serious consequences. 

Organization and communications

The defence Services (or Armed Forces, the term used in the Constitution of India) comprise the army, the navy and the air force. These Services, headed by a general, an admiral and an air chief marshal, are organized, equipped, trained and regularly exercised for their role in defending India’s land and sea borders and air space respectively. They have always displayed the highest standards of military performance. When called upon for joint operations, the three Service chiefs work out the details of inter-services support, using the “platform” of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which is chaired by whichever Service chief happens to be the seniormost at the time. Chairing the COSC does not confer any authority over the other two services. Each Service chief is essentially a Chief of Staff – of the army (COAS), the navy (CNS) and the air force (CAS) – to advise the defence minister, the cabinet or the National Security Council (NSC).

Precisely because a Service chief is primarily responsible for his own service and answerable concerning its deployment and performance, as chairman of COSC without authority, his advice to the cabinet or the NSC cannot be holistic in the sense of taking into account the capabilities, of the other two services. Thus, as on date, the cabinet or the NSC does not have the benefit of a single-point-of-advice on military matters, whether they concern hardware, skinware, software, deployment or performance. The problem of single-point-of-advice can only be solved by creating the position of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who will be superior to the three Service chiefs, and be the advisor on military and external security matters to the PM in his capacity of Chairman of NSC, or as head of the cabinet.

The different physical locations of headquarters is a shortcoming because joint operations are hampered due to top commanders being unable to meet easily and readily.

Even if this post of CDS is created, there is another reason which inhibits the real-time, effective integration of the three Services. But before discussing this matter, we need to know that the highest executive commanders of the three services are GOC-in-C of each of seven army “Commands”, FOC-in-C of four naval Commands, and AOC-in-C of six air force Commands, all inclusive of a Training Command each. These Commanders-in-Chief are of the rank of Lieutenant General, Vice Admiral and Air Marshal for the army, navy and air force, each with a specific and defined theatre of responsibility. For example, the army has its Eastern Command, Central Command, Western Command, Northern Command, South-Western Command and Southern Command to cover the country’s entire territory. The navy and air force similarly have their own “Commands”. There are two joint Commands headed by an army, navy and air force officer in rotation, namely, the Andaman & Nicobar Command, and the Strategic Force Command.

The point at issue here is that, as rightly pointed out by a retired service chief, the Command headquarters of the various army, navy and air force Commands are not co-located. Further, even if their theatres are similarly named (e.g., army Eastern Command and air force Eastern Command), the geographic areas of their operational responsibility are not the same.

The different physical locations of headquarters is a shortcoming because joint operations are hampered due to top commanders being unable to meet easily and readily. Furthermore, the internal communications systems of army, navy and air force have developed independently, and as on date there is no direct and secure communication at the Command levels between the three services, because the systems are not technically compatible.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen S G Vombatkere

retired as major general after 35 years in the Indian military, from the post of Additional DG in charge of Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ.

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