Defence modernisation: The long road ahead

Updated: Jun 24, 2014, 15:01 PM IST

Amartya Sinha

On September 15, 2013 an Agni V ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) took off from the Wheeler Island in Odisha. The missile travelled almost 5000 kilometres towards the South before splashing down into the Indian Ocean near Australia. The launch took place with copybook precision and put India in the league of countries that had mastered the crucial ICBM capability. The missile will undergo a few more tests before being inducted into the Indian armed forces. The second test of Agni V led to a new debate in American and Chinese strategic circles about India’s growing ICBM capability. The Agni V test came as a morale booster for Indians at a time when Pakistani troops have been repeatedly violating the ceasefire along the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir and the adventurist Chinese troops have been making frequent intrusions into the Indian territory in Ladakh.

The political innings of UPA-2 has now ended. But when one looks back at former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s legacy, one may easily find that he has been a dove throughout his entire political career. On July 9, 2006 the Agni III IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) was tested by the UPA-1 regime at a time when the global media’s attention was focussed on North Korea’s “provocative” missile tests. The failed maiden test of Agni III was followed by successive successful tests of the same missile. The Agni III’s legacy was taken forward by the Agni IV and the Agni V missiles. After the maiden test flight of Agni V on April 19, 2012, a section of the Chinese media speculated that the real range of Agni V is 8000 kilometres and that the Indian government had deliberately downplayed the vehicle’s range under Western pressure. The Indian government again played dove by reiterating that the missile’s range is around 5000 kilometres.

At a time when the ambitious IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Program) is yielding significant results, the morale of our countrymen is being degraded by repeated incursions by Chinese troops in the Chumar area of Ladakh. While China has built a well connected network of highways and railways over the last three decades, the erstwhille UPA-2 government has just sanctioned the raising of a dedicated mountain strike corps and the operationalisation of a few Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) in Leh, Ladakh and the Northeast in recent years. The Chinese have reportedly stationed their air defence units and mobile ballistic missile launchers and have also set up their air bases (with night landing capabilities) along with forward operating bases in the entire Tibetan plateau which pose a direct threat to Indian forces positioned near the LAC (Line of Actual Control).

On the Indian side there is a lack of motorable roads which will definitely hamper our capability to deploy mechanised infantry units, 135 mm and 155 mm self propelled artillery systems and truck mounted cruise missile batteries during a possible future war with the Communist giant. When one looks back at the resources available with the Indian armed forces stationed in the area, one may find that the country lacks effective air defence systems on the lines of Russian-made S 300 systems deployed by China. The nation`s military capabilities have also been hampered due to the lack of laser guided, satellite guided and radar guided artillery shells. The absence of 155 mm howitzers also cripples the Indian Army’s much required firepower.

The last time when the country witnessed the use of precision guided munition was during the Kargil War when the Indian Army fired Russian made Krasnopol laser guided artillery shells to cleanse the Kargil heights of Pakistani intruders. The indigenous 155 mm howitzer (India Field Gun) project is yet to see the light of the day whereas the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) - Tejas is also yet to make its maiden flight with the indigenous turbofan (Kaveri) installed on it. Again, the government is yet to float a global tender for acquiring 100,000 automatic assault rifles for the Indian Army.

On the other hand when one looks at the dilapidated condition of the Indian Navy, one finds that the design of the proposed second indigenous aircraft carrier hasn’t yet been finalised while the navy lacks a credible underwater based second strike capability. This at a time when a huge fleet of Chinese nuclear submarines poses a direct threat to our military and civilian ports in the event of an armed confrontation.

Recent reports highlighted the fact that the Indian Army and special operations troops urgently require helmet mounted night vision goggles, Level 5 bullet proof Kevlar vests, thermal imagers, satellite navigation equipments (SatNavs) and hand held laser designators (for guiding laser guided artillery shells to targets). Former defence minister AK Antony had been very reluctant to meet and modernise the basic requirements of our armed forces. Rather than looking into this matter with a serious note of concern, he only managed to blacklist a number of foreign OEMs (Original Equipmnent Manufacturers) which sounds quite strange. It looks like the defence minister may have been more concerned about saving his own image as an honest politician rather than taking bold decisions in national interest. A decade of inaction by the erstwhille UPA government has left the armed forces in a very sorry state.

Though the possibility of a new India-China military confrontation is slim, India should develop the technological capability to fight with a hostile and mighty army in the Northeast in the very uncertain near future. In the eventuality of a full blown assault by our Communist neighbour, we will require the capability to deter the enemy from overrunning our Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) at the LAC. The outdated Russian made Igla MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defence Systems), automatic assault rifles/sub machine guns (SMGs) with telescopic vision and the lack of shoulder mounted anti tank guided missiles with the Indian Army will badly hamper our capability to cause significant damage to intruding hostile forces in the Northeast. One has to take note of the ground reality that the country also lacks hypersonic Theatre Ranged Ballistic Missiles (TBMs) on the lines of the Russian `Iskander` systems to neutralise Chinese TEL BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence) and AAD (Advanced Air Defence) batteries installed in Tibet. The Indo-Russian BrahMos 2 hypersonic cruise missile project is yet to see the light of the day.

When one looks at the country`s strategic capability to intercept hostile spy satellites, one may find that we lack an effective surface launched/air launched capability to shoot down enemy satellites in the low earth/medium earth orbit. Despite the fact that the country aspires to be a 21st century power, India is yet to demonstate and deploy an effective ASAT (Anti-Satellite weapon) capability. In the eventuality of a nuclear/thermonuclear exchange with China, the first six hours of the war will be very crucial as the country will need to neutralise the enemy`s radar units, air defence batteries, artillery positions, mechanised columns, TELs (Transporter Erector Launchers) and air bases with cross border surgical strikes and simultaneously blind the enemy`s reconnaissance satellite coverage over the Indian peninsula. This must be done with copybook precision during the first six hours of the war to effectively degrade and destroy (if not obliterate) the Communist rhetoric in Beijing.

Taking into consideration India`s superpower ambitions, one must emphasise that the country needs to increase its ICBMs` ranges and potentially develop a global strike capability. This will be possible if the newly elected government in New Delhi takes bold decision of sanctioning the long pending Agni-VI and Surya ICBM projects. At a time when defence analysts are talking about such futuristic projects, a lot of ambiguity remains about India`s thermonuclear deterrence capability. Recent reports quoting DRDO official K Santhanam suggest that India is yet to weaponise the 200 kiloton theromonuclear design detonated in Pokhran in 1998 and that the Shakti 1 test was a fizzle. If the need arises the country should opt for one more round of nuclear test detonations (Pokhran 3) and master the Hydrogen bomb (thermonuclear device) technology in the next few years before effectively miniaturising and weaponising the design to fit atop Agni V, Agni VI and Surya missiles. On the mere basis of rationalism, the country should confidently sign and endorse the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) after successfully concluding Pokhran 3.

At a time when the global geopolitical equations are changing at a fast pace, the country needs to deter all potentially hostile nations from eating into its diplomatic weight either by military or by economic means. In a May 19, 1999 article published by The Hindustan Times, reknowned strategic expert Brahma Chellaney clearly raises the need for India to develop a global strike ICBM capability. He clearly states that India needs to develop the capability to hit Western and American cities if a NATO-Kosovo/Serbia like flare up ever takes place over the Indian peninsula. On the other hand, the Indian Air Force urgently needs to raise squadrons of radar-evading fifth generation fighter jets to effectively deliver strikes on hostile bases in the region, while a number of Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) are required to support it.

At a time when the country has witnessed a historic political transformation and it aspires to be a superpower, the new government in New Delhi must go that extra mile in rapidly modernising the nation`s military infrastructure on a massive scale. Recently, the incumbent NDA-2 government proposed to raise the FDI cap in defence hardware manufacturing to 100% which is a step in the right direction.

Lastly, we must not forget that our motherland is bordered by an Islamic terrorist sponsoring state in the West and a communist giant in the Northeast. It is important for us to secure our land and sea borders in all fronts so that we can peacefully sleep in our bedrooms with a sense of fulfilment. A bold step in the right direction by the new Narendra Modi government at the Centre will provide the much needed impetus to the ambitious defence modernisation program of the nation. The buck has now been passed to the NDA-2 government.

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