Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will address the Army commanders’ conference in New Delhi on 21 April (Thursday). These deliberations, while restricted to the Army, are potentially import-laden and will involve several inter-linked policy tracks relevant to the efficacy of the Indian military. Cumulatively, the outcome of this conference will have a long-term effect on the higher management of India’s military security.
In terms of immediate challenges to national security and territorial integrity, India is dealing with a muted but tense stand-off with China along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh; the Galwan ‘incident’ of June 2020 remains unresolved.
The Atmanirbhar Route Provides No Alternatives
Within the Army, the baton is being passed on. The new chief, Lt. Gen Manoj Pande, will assume office on 1 May; it is also expected that the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) will also be appointed at that time. The received wisdom is that India’s second CDS will be General Manoj Naravane, the current Chief of Army Staff (COAS), who lays down office on 30 April.
The structural challenges that the Indian Army is grappling with are applicable to the other two services as well – the Navy and the Air Force. The concerns are mainly derived from the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the national economy over the last two years.
With the GDP declining, defence allocation is likely to remain depressed and all inventory acquisition and modernisation programmes will have to be rebooted as part of the ‘belt-tightening’.
The second major disruption is the war in Ukraine and the impact the US-led sanctions on Moscow will have on Russia’s ability to supply inventory and spares to the Indian military. The related challenge is reducing the import bill and enhancing ‘Atmanirbharta’, or self-reliance, in defence production. This is a high-priority issue for the Narendra Modi government, and a number of diktats have been issued to reduce the import of certain major platforms. But it is not clear how the gaps would be filled given that there is no credible domestic alternative in many cases.
All these issues are listed on the agenda for the conference. The official press release notes that the conference “will review the operational situation along the active borders, assess threats in the entire spectrum of conflict and undertake analysis of capability voids to further focus on capability development & operational preparedness plans”.
It adds, “Discussions on aspects pertaining to infrastructure development in border areas, modernisation through indigenisation, induction of niche tech and assessment on any impact of the Russia-Ukraine war are also scheduled.” This may be the first time that an official Indian press release uses the word ‘war’ for what Moscow describes as “special operations”.
The LAC Situation Remains Unresolved
A preliminary parsing of these sentences and key phrases sheds light on the daunting challenges ahead for the Defence Minister and the incoming COAS and the CDS.
The ‘operational situation’ along the LAC is not encouraging, and recent reports indicate that China is installing new mobile cell towers in the Hot Springs area.
China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) continues to remain entrenched in the positions that it has forcibly occupied by transgressing earlier agreements and protocols related to the ‘claim lines’ along the LAC.
Details about the total patrolling area that India has forfeited due to Chinese intransigence remain opaque. But one presumes that at the Army commanders’ conference in Delhi, the top brass will brief the Defence Minister about the ground reality and what this will entail for the long vigil to be maintained along the LAC.
The reference to an “analysis of capability voids” that the Army commanders will dwell upon may lead to some stark conclusions, which the Defence Minister will have to review objectively. The related links to “capability development & operational preparedness plans” in the backdrop of the ‘Atmanirbhar’ imperative – translated as “modernisation through indigenisation” – may well prove to be intractable in the short term.
Amber Lights Have Been Flashing for Some Time
The Army has an uphill task in complying with the political directive of ‘Atmanirbharta’. As an illustration, it merits recall that the majority of combat-worthy Indian armour (tanks) are of Soviet/Russian origin and there is no affordable and effective alternate supplier in the domestic arena, or, for that matter, among foreign suppliers.
Hence, the reference in the press statement to the “assessment” of the “impact of the Russia-Ukraine war” is critical. Not just the Army, but the Indian Navy and the Air Force are also highly dependent, though to varying degrees, on platforms, spares and related inventory from Russia and Ukraine.
The disruption of existing supply chains due to the war in eastern Europe and the impact on production facilities in both nations is compounded by the US-led trade-cum-banking sanctions on Russia. Together, these factors can prove to be enervating for the Indian military.
The result of all these challenges in the military domain may be comparable with the kind of drastic economic/fiscal crisis that India faced in the early 1990s, and the subsequent rescue effected by the then Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, and his able Finance Minister at the time, Dr Manmohan Singh.
A great responsibility devolves upon Rajnath Singh to make an objective and informed analysis of the Indian military’s predicament and apprise his colleagues in the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) of the amber lights that have been flashing for some time.
The make-believe that all is well with the Indian fauj (military) needs a reality check. General Pande will have multiple challenges to address on his watch as the Army chief. As the first sapper officer to be elevated to this office, he would have to deal with the many obstacles and minefields that bedevil India’s higher defence management.
(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)