Over the past one and a half week, despite not being at war, the nation has been discussing whether India is awfully short on its defence preparedness. And the trigger for this debate was none other than the country’s Army Chief, General VK Singh.
His double disclosures – some calling them twin bombs – on being offered a bribe to clear the purchase of a tranche of (Tatra) trucks and on the gaps in the armed forces’ defence preparedness led to calls of sacking the Army Chief for bringing to public domain highly secretive matters.
While the General himself revealed the bribe offer in an interview to the media, his letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on gaps in defence preparedness was leaked to the press by someone either in the Army or in the government (read the Defence Ministry or the PMO).
A shell-shocked government has already launched a manhunt to find the ‘mole’ who leaked national secrets. The Army Chief has denied having any hand in it, calling it an act of “treason” and the entire episode “a cynical approach to tar his reputation”.
But the question that everyone is asking is: should the focus be on finding the man who leaked the confidential correspondence between the head of the Army and the chief of the government or on addressing the concerns raised in the letter – mind you, the gaps in preparedness highlighted are scary.
If India were to be attacked today by either Pakistan or China – our tanks would be able to battle those of the enemy only for two days – that’s the number of days for which we have tank ammo.
The letter also goes on to say that 97 percent of our air defence system is obsolete while the infantry and elite forces are awfully short of armoury.
Actually, the disclosures are no secret – the under-preparedness has been documented well in the past too. (To give the government credit where it’s due, the establishment has taken several steps in the recent past to overcome the shortages.)
Many in the political circles and intellectual arena say that disclosing such details harms national security. Well, it would be like living in a fool’s paradise if we believe Pakistan and China, among other nations, are not aware of how well prepared we are to defend ourselves. Their intelligence here must be gathering and sending back regular updates to their leadership.
Also, if the Indian government and the armed forces are aware of the critical shortages but are doing too little too late to bridge the gaps, such confidential matters ought to be brought to public notice – to shame the two and force them to act. If there are procurement related procedural issues, they need to be addressed and not rued over.
An Indian citizen has a right to know whether his Army (and Air Force and Navy) is fully equipped to deal with the enemy. He also ought to know if the jawans being sent to the battlefield by the Army leadership have the necessary equipment to take on the enemy. The nation holds its head high when its jawan dies as a martyr fighting the enemy, not when his gun fails to fire or when the tank runs out of ammo when the enemy approaches.
Remember, the Kargil war exposed how underprepared we were to battle the Pakistani infiltrators when caught almost off guard.
The revelations have come at a time when China has undertaken military modernisation on a massive scale and hiked its defence budget to over USD 100 billion. India's 2012-13 defence budget stands at USD 40.4 billion.
In India, the problem is not of not enough money being at disposal to modernise the armed forces. It is the lack of quick decision-making and procurement delays in acquiring weaponry. As a matter of fact, India has negligible indigenous defence production (and what finally comes through is decades late – take the case of Arjun tanks and LCA) and is officially the world’s largest importer of defence equipment.
Even when it is just a matter of purchase, we take decades in deciding from where to buy and what to buy (take the case of Rafale fighter jets).
For long the war of words has been going on between the armed forces and the bureaucracy. The former accuses the latter of delaying the processing of files, while the latter blames the former for delay in procurement due to prolonged field trials.
But, both the parties need to understand that we can delay importing oil etc. but not weaponry when two enemies are sitting on our head. It is both the government as well as armed forces’ duty to sit together and overcome the problem of equipment shortage rather than reminding each other of their follies.
Several defence observers have already warned that in case of a conflict, no friend – European or American – would come to our aid (at least in a full-fledged manner). This is an SOS for national security. Left unaddressed, it would prove to be an open invitation to the enemies. And at the end, it’s only we who will have to fight to save our country.