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Indian Military at 75: Past Successes, Future, and Need for 'Atmanirbharta'

In recent years, some transformational changes in the military have been initiated, yet much more needs to be done.

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At the time of independence 75 years ago, our military was highly combat-experienced, having participated in World War II. However, we were taken by surprise by Pakistan in 1947 and by China in 1962. But today, we are the ones who are surprising our adversaries, be it the Surgical Strikes or Balakot air strikes, be it stopping the Chinese advance in Doklam in 2017 or blocking them at Ladakh in 2020.

In 1947, Pakistan employed invaders as well as army soldiers to attack Jammu & Kashmir, which led to J&K joining India. Then the Indian Army was inducted, and they stopped the Pakistan advance bravely. In1962, Indian Army was surprised by Chinese assaults in the face of peace overtures between both countries. It was more a political failure than a military one.

Despite inadequacies in weapons and equipment, there were several glorious battles like Rezangla and many more, where Indian soldier­­s proved their mettle and the world acknowledged their bravery. Time famously wrote, "The Indian Army lacked everything but courage."

Recognising Pakistan as a frontline state, the United States gave massive military aid to Pakistan in the early 1960s, to the tune of $3.2 billion. It had the best fighter aircraft like Sabre Jets and Starfighters, and Patton tanks and AMX-13 Tanks. So Pakistan launched an offensive in 1965 with superior confidence and hoped that Kashmiris would revolt against India when they launched Operation Gulmarg. However, owing to the reverses suffered in 1962, our defence preparedness was sharper. Pakistan failed on all counts – our forces fought them back bravely and Kashmiris proved to be loyal.

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The Many Past Successes of the Indian Military

The Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 was a huge victory with unprecedented success; 93,000 Pakistani soldiers soldiers laid down their arms in a formal surrender ceremony and another country was created. It was arguably the largest victory since World War II.

All along, the Indian Army also continued to battle internal insurgencies when the state governments and Union police forces could not control the situation in Northeast, Punjab, and J&K. In 1987-89, Indian Army conducted operations in Sri Lanka at the request of Sri Lanka government. The Indian Army acquitted itself well and helped the neighbour. It is not easy to fight an insurgency in another country, as the fiascos in Vietnam and Afghanistan have shown. In 1988, Indian Army assisted the Maldives government against a coup by a swift and professional response. These operations go to show the country's capability and the faith reposed by the neighbouring countries.

In the 1980s, Indian Army also established dominance at the Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield in the world. In 1998, India successfully carried out the nuclear tests again and entered the select club of nuclear nations. In 1999, Pakistan intruded forces in Kargil with a sinister aim to cut off the Siachen glacier and Ladakh. The Indian Army resolutely evicted the intruders, with scores of frontal battles at the icy heights with young leaders doing the country proud by leading from the front and inspiring the soldiers to success against all odds.

In addition, during all these decades, Indian Army has been guarding the country's territorial integrity at two active and unresolved borders – Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, besides controlling the terrorist violence in J&K and Northeast.

Another common denominator is the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), in which the Indian Army is supposed to be the instrument of last resort, but more often than not ends up being the first responder. We have provided HADR to other countries as well, which has earned global appreciation.

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Making the Army Future-Ready

This was our past, but we can't rest on old laurels, we must make the army future-ready. The need of the hour is to prepare the army for the future, and convert India from a military force to a military power. In brief, we have to prepare for future conflicts, a two-front threat, and grey zone warfare.

The two-front is a collusive threat emanating from China and Pakistan, which is likely to be complimented by the proxy war through terrorists. The grey zone warfare includes several non-kinetic instruments of war like cyber, space, information warfare, and legal warfare in addition to diplomatic sanctions, economic leverages, food security, energy security and more of such elements, like we are seeing in the Russia-Ukraine war.

In recent years, certain bold operational decisions have been taken, and some transformational changes have been initiated, yet much more needs to be done. When terrorists launched an attack on the Army Base at Uri and we lost 18 young soldiers, Indian Army boldly launched surgical strikes at the terrorist camps across the Line of Control. The enemy was taken totally by surprise, as he had least expected this unprecedented action. A couple of years later when we lost 40 CRPF men to a terror attack launched by a Pakistan-based terror outfit, India’s precision air strikes caused havoc at a terrorist camp at Jabba Top near Balakot, deep inside Pakistan. On the LAC, when the Chinese PLA attempted to advance into Bhutan territory at Dolam Plateau, the Indian Army forced the PLA to stop on his side of the LAC in 2017. In 2020, when PLA tried to alter the LAC unilaterally in Ladakh, they were stopped at the expense of a bloody battle at Galwan, in which both sides lost soldiers, for the first time in half a century.

Military reforms had been ushered in after the Kargil war, but were left unfinished. HQ Integrated Defence Staff had been raised, but a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) had not been appointed. This shortcoming was removed and a CDS was appointed on 1 January 2020 to usher in transformational reforms and integration of structures and processes of armed forces. This was a game changer. Raising a separate Department of Military Affairs was another significant reform, which was a long-standing need to streamline the office procedures. Such reforms will go a long way to strengthen military machinery for a shorter decision matrix, which is the need of the hour in this era where multiple inputs have to be processed simultaneously to arrive at decisions with speed.

Sensitive to the demands of new-age warfare, Defence Cyber and Space Agencies have been raised. Information Warfare processes have also been strengthened and integrated. A Special Operations Division has also been established to coordinate the Special Forces operations of all three services. Such structures will help in negotiating the grey zone warfare.

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The Importance of Self-Reliance

No country that aspires for a regional role can remain dependent on foreign arms and equipment. Hence, some transformational and never-before reforms have been ushered in to make India self-reliant (Atmanirbhar Bharat) in defence needs. A boost has been given to domestic industry and special incentives to the private sector. Under strategic partnership, defence manufacturers are being encouraged to form a partnership with foreign defence manufacturers to bring in better technology as well as investment. Since India is a huge defence market, big global players are keen to set up shop here.

For the first time, an allocation of 25% percent of R&D budget has been reserved for the private sector. Several advanced countries follow this model, and it will pay good dividends in the long run. The government has announced a negative import list, or a positive 'atmanirbharta' list, listing over 300 defence components that cannot be imported; they must be procured indigenously. Such steps will give a boost to the private sector, especially Medium and Small and Micro Enterprises (MSMEs).

Defence corridors for manufacturing have been set up in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, Technology hubs have been set up in Pune and Bengaluru. Both of these will support, incentivise, and synergise an entire ecosystem of defence manufactures, especially MSMEs. Under the IDEX scheme, innovations by the academia or industry are being encouraged through government funding.

So far India has depended largely on the public sector for its defence needs. This is changing in keeping with the best global practices. The 41 Ordnance Factories have been corporatised, making seven public sector undertakings out of them to usher in better accountability and efficiency. The aim is to have 70-90 % indigenisation by 2030.

It has already started showing results. From being a net importer of defence equipment, India has started exporting as well. India's exports of arms and defence technologies touched a record Rs 13,000 crore this fiscal, with 70% coming from the private sector. An increase of more than five times has been registered from 2015, when it was Rs 2,059 crore only.

While these transformational reforms are a must, Indian Army's biggest asset is that it is totally apolitical and truly nationalistic. And India must capitalise on it. It is also incumbent on the nation to make it future-ready, and make India into a military power.

(Lt General Satish Dua is a former Corps Commander in Kashmir, who retired as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. Views are personal.)

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