Arms and the man December 28th, 2010 By Shankar Roychowdhury

If wars can be classified as good, bad or indifferent in terms of their impact on the national psyche, then Bangladesh 1971 was a very good war for India and the Sino-Indian border war of 1962 a very bad one indeed. In 1971, all relevant factors — political, diplomatic, and above all the Indian military — meshed together perfectly to fashion a triumph of classic proportions over a traditional enemy; 1962 was just the opposite. Apart from spirited individual performances, the Army and its political guidance was like a badly synchronised gearbox that soon stripped its pinions and crashed. The Indian armed forces remember 1962 with mortification, and 1971 with triumph, which they commemorate as Vijay Diwas on the 16th of December every year. The particular confluence of circumstances, happenstance and personalities that brought both 1962 and 1971 about, are unlikely to recur. So after celebrating Vijay Diwas 2010, the 39th commemoration of “Victory in Bangladesh”, it would be appropriate to reflect on how far the Indian military has traveled since the Sela Pass in 1962 and Bangladesh in 1971, and its likely future azimuth.

Barring the first Kashmir War of 1947, China has been a constant background presence in all Indo-Pak matters, especially during India’s other wars with Pakistan. These have so far all been single-front affairs (notwithstanding Chinese expressions of solidarity for Pakistan in 1965 and 1971), but India’s worst case will always be the two-front scenario — a Pakistan-China combo, with an interlinked nuclear and now a cyber and internal security dimension as well, from covert operations sponsored by the Pakistan Army through its quasi-state jihadi stable. Such externally-sponsored conflicts are unlikely to be resolved by political dialogue or socio-economic initiatives alone. They will require hard and significant military measures to establish a stable environment for negotiated conflict resolution. This has been amply proven by the Indian experience in Jammu and Kashmir.

The role of India’s armed forces, though never officially formalised, has crystallised through prolonged deployments in wars, proxy wars, counter terrorism and counter insurgency, into the strategically defensive one of territorial, maritime and aerospace defence of the homeland. India’s armed forces are well trained and highly motivated professionals, who have performed outstandingly in every assignment in war or peace, both within as well as outside the country. But their military capabilities have not been kept in pace with the operational imperatives of their role, which demand a full two-and-a-half front operational capability across the entire spectrum of warfare. By that token, their current capabilities are definitely inadequate.

Morale is high, but weapons and equipment are obsolescent, and in many cases severely deficient and outmoded, leaving huge gaps in the performance envelope. Each individual service has its own tale of horrors, whether night vision devices, air defence weapons or artillery for the Army, submarines for the Navy, or the fast-depleting squadron strengths in the Air Force. The major reason for the wasting disease in India’s defence capabilities is the scant attention paid to indigenous defence research, development and production. The armed forces naturally require a high state of readiness at all times, but successive governments have consistently chosen the easier option of imports rather than bite the bullet and develop an indigenous defence industry.

A typical case in point is the impending purchase of the 126 multi-role combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force at an estimated cost of `42,000 crore, which cannot be seen in isolation from the agreement with Russia to produce the future fifth-generation fighter for the Indian Air Force as a joint venture expected to ultimately cost an estimated `1.5 lakh crore. The preliminary step was the `1,500 crore pact with Russia finalised during the recent visit of President Dmitry Medvedev to India. The two processes cannot be mutually exclusive. The proposed acquisition of 126 new Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA) is of course an urgent necessity for the Air Force, but has to be planned as a lead in series for the PAKT-50. The implications for selection of the MRCA should be obvious.

But even more important is the future of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and the Indian aerospace industry. Pakistan is co-producing the JF-17 (also an LCA) with China to induct it into the Pakistan Air Force. How confident is India, specifically the Indian Air Force, about Tejas? How does it stack up against the JF-17? The bottom line is, can the proposed MRCA acquisitions be off-set to a greater or lesser extent by producing additional Tejas? Can immediate operational requirements be balanced against long-term development of indigenous aerospace capabilities? Can Indian industrial capacity deliver?

Questions are endless — from small arms to main battle tanks. Why German Heckler and Koch, Israeli Tabor or even the now ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifles and not the indigenous Excalibur developed by small arms factory Ishapore? Why not the Arjun Main Battle Tank (MBT) produced at the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi (near Chennai) instead of the T-90 Russian tank? And then the biggest question: If Indian military equipment is perceived by the users as unreliable, maintenance-heavy and defect-prone, what punitive accountability for this has been imposed for systemic failure in the ministry of defence, the prime government agency under whom fall the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the ordnance factory board?

India seems to have become addicted over the
years to a high-calorie diet of imports, taking a strange and even perverse pride in the dubious honour of ranking amongst world’s top 10 importers of weapons. Do such profligate imports reflect the true state of the country’s scientific and engineering capabilities? These are hard questions which need to be asked and firm answers obtained.

The year 2010 has not been a good year for the country. Gloom, despondency and bitter cynicism pervade the national horizon. Under these overcast skies, the story of victory in Bangladesh in 1971 told on Vijay Diwas every year needs telling and retelling, as a reminder of what the nation can achieve, should it have the will to do so.

- Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former Member of Parliament

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