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Indian Military: Hampered By Its Own Minister360°ANALYSIS

In March 2012, a letter written by then Indian Army Chief Gen VK Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh listing out major deficiencies in the Army found its way in the media creating a flutter in the establishment and showing up starkly, the ‘hollowness’ that existed in the Army.

“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,” DNA newspaper reported the General writing 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.”

What Gen VK Singh did not write was this: the Army’s light helicopters are more than 40 years old; it has not bought new artillery guns since 1987; it is also short of nearly 600,000 hand grenades. The list is endless.

Members of Parliament, media and military observers, all were naturally alarmed.  Deficiencies are however not the Army’s problem alone. The Indian Navy too is short of conventional submarines. Its fleet of diesel-powered submarines is down to a single digit. Its lone aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, formerly HMS Hermes of the Royal British Navy, and commissioned half a century ago, is on an extended lease of life, after two successive refits. Another aircraft carrier, being built in Russia, is five years behind schedule but is likely to join service at the end of 2013.

The Indian Air Force, which celebrated its 80th birthday, last October, is down to 33 Squadrons of fighter jets against the required strength of 39 squadrons. Its six year old plan to purchase 126 new combat jets is yet to fructify although a contract negotiating committee is currently talking to French manufacturer Dassault Aviation and hopes to ink a mammoth 15 billion dollar deal by end of 2013.

A combination of bureaucratic lethargy, cumbersome systems and bad planning has combined to bring the Indian military to such a sorry state.

But the biggest factor holding back the Indian military’s quest for rapid modernisation is the country’s defence minister AK Antony. As a politician concerned solely with preserving his squeaky clean image, Antony is even ready to sacrifice the interest of the armed forces.

His record as India’s longest serving Defence minister (October 2006 till date) is a clear testimony to this. During his tenure, Mr Antony has already barred four major international defence firms at the first hint of wrong doing and bribery. They are:

·         Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK)

·         Rheinmettal Air Defence

·         Israel Military Industry and

·         Denel

The ban on STK has meant India’s Rs 20,000 crore artillery upgrade process had to be restarted, causing a delay of at least four years in the acquisition programme. Similarly by barring Rheinmettal, Indian Army’s plan to modernising its anti-aircraft guns inventory has been pushed back considerably.

It is no body’s case that errant firms should not be dealt with strictly. Experts however say it is better to first establish the degree of wrong-doing and penalise the firms or recover losses from their contract money rather than imposing a blanket ban on them thus limiting India’s options.

Events of the past six years have also proved that blacklisting companies from as diverse countries as Singapore, Switzerland, Israel and South Africa does not end corruption. In February this year, yet another deal—this time to buy 12 VVIP helicopters from Italian firm Finmeccanica at over Rs 3,000 crore– has come under a cloud following revelations in Italy of bribes being paid in India and possibly to Indians among others. A thoroughly shaken Antony’s first instinct was to almost cancel the contract but so far (April 11) procedure and prudence has prevented him from doing that.

While Mr Antony’s fetish for a corruption-free Defence Ministry is public knowledge, there is another facet to his personality that is relatively lesser known: His reservations on moving too close to the US militarily.

Antony, known as a particularly cautious policy-maker, has repeatedly told his American counterparts in the past half a decade (Robert Gates, Leon Panetta) politely but firmly that India doesn’t wish to be seen as a U.S. alliance partner as Washington embarks on its Asia-Pacific ‘rebalance’ strategy.

Leon Panetta, during his stopover in New Delhi last June spelt out what US seeks from India: “I believe our relationship can and should become more strategic, more practical, and more collaborative. Our defence policy exchanges are now regular, candid, and invaluable. Our partnership is practical because we take concrete steps through military exercises and exchanges to improve our ability to operate together and with other nations to meet a range of challenges. And our defence relationship is growing ever more collaborative as we seek to do more advanced research and development, share new technologies, and enter into joint production of defence articles.”

Antony has been open to increasing bilateral engagement with Washington –India does in fact undertake a number of joint exercises across the three defence services—but the defence establishment in India, under his leadership are still wary of any military alliance, or even a formal partnership with the United States.

This attitude is partly because India doesn’t want to upset China, its main competitor in Asia, by openly embracing the United States. However, more fundamentally, Indian lawmakers and politicians like Antony continue to have reservations over the United States itself, doubts born largely from India’s perception of the past half a century that Washington has tended to side with India’s arch rival, Pakistan.

So far, AK Antony’s stand and his deliberately cultivated keep-a-distance-from the-US posture has at best been a matter of South Block speculation but now, thanks to Wikileaks releasing hundreds of thousands of US cables, it can be said with certainty that even Washington is aware of the Indian Defence Minister’s proclivity to keep the US at an arm’s length.

In a secret cable dated 16 May 2008 US Ambassador to India, David Mulford reported to Washington that he sought  clarification on the GOI (Government of India)’s position on bilateral and multilateral military exercises from Antony who clearly told him that ‘MoD welcomed exercises with the U.S., but that political sensitivities often prevailed in India’s decision making over what level of visibility to allow for coverage of the events.’

Ambassador Mulford, according to the cable, told the defence minister that lately ‘the USG (United States Government) has received mixed signals from the GOI on India’s willingness to be seen with us, such as when Antony expressed surprise at the USS Cole being involved in a recent port visit, and the media not being allowed to cover the Cole’s community relations events.’ The cable went on to add: ‘Antony responded that India is a complex democracy, with various parliamentary committees and political parties with competing interests.’ “We don’t want to create a political controversy by proceeding in a high profile manner,” Antony reasoned, adding “we have no problem with the exercises as such, but how to highlight them can be a problem.”

That remark, in essence sums up the current dilemma in New Delhi over the state of Indo-US defence relationship. The need for closer defence ties with US is acknowledged as important to the possible emergence of new security architecture in Asia but also viewed as politically problematic.

The three service, meanwhile continue to suffer due to an indecisive defence minister whose foremost desire is to preserve a lily white reputation for integrity even if it comes at the cost of slow modernisation of the armed forces.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.