The Debate

India General: We’re Unfit for War

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The Debate

India General: We’re Unfit for War

India’s army chief writes a scathing letter to the prime minister about the Indian military. Is he right?

India’s million man-plus armed forces are unfit to fight a war, according to the country’s army chief. “The army’s tanks have run out of ammunition, the air defense is as good as obsolete and the infantry is short of critical weapons,” Gen. V.K. Singh wrote in a leaked letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India’s DNA news agency has reported.

Singh is said to have approached the prime minister after failing to get a response from the Defense Ministry. He warns in the letter that the state of India’s military is “alarming,” noting that the country’s air defense is “97 percent obsolete,” while the elite Special Forces are described as “woefully short” of “essential weapons.”

“This news is causing a lot of angst here,” said The Diplomat contributor Manpreet Sethi, who lectures regularly at India’s armed forces training centers. “Reports are pouring in from both sides – those who are angry with the general for allowing such a leak to happen, especially in the wake of allegations over a bribe he supposedly made earlier in the week, and those who believe that the corruption in the system can only be cleansed if such issues come out in the public.”

“The government is really on the back foot, as it has been on many issues for some time now,” she said.

Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony confirmed to parliament Wednesday that Singh had indeed sent the letter, and he vowed to “protect every inch of our motherland” by upping the pace of modernization efforts. According to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2007 and 2011, India emerged as the world’s largest weapons importer. India’s defense budget, meanwhile, is rising by between 13 and 19 percent, depending on the interpretation of the numbers, against forecast GDP growth of 7.6 percent.

“Like any commander of the armed services, he (Singh) is determined to do the best for his service and has accordingly informed the prime minister about the poor decision making in the Defense Ministry and the long delays his army is suffering,” said Devindra Sethi, a retired Indian naval captain. “What’s shocking is that it has been leaked to the media. As only two copies exist, one with the prime minister and the other with the commander of the armed services, it now remains to be confirmed which copy has been copied and leaked.”

The leak comes at an uncomfortable time for New Delhi. With neighbor China itself ramping up military spending in recent years, and with the border between the two still tense, India has felt compelled to revise its own military plans, including deepening ties with allies and focusing on modernizing the country’s Air Force.

“The Air Force, currently the largest beneficiary of India’s rising military budget, is in the middle of shifting its focus from being a purely Pakistan-centric force, to one that will be capable of simultaneously meeting the twin threats posed by an insecure Pakistan and an increasingly belligerent China,” defense analyst Nitin Gokhale wrote in The Diplomat. “In fiscal 2009-10 alone, for instance, the Air Force spent over $4 billion in capital acquisition, almost three times the amount spent by the Army.”

Gokhale says that over the next few years, the Air Force budget for new purchases is only likely to rise with plans to buy six new-generation tanker transports, 22 attack helicopters, 12 heavy-lift helicopters and nearly 200 basic trainer aircraft.

But Indian Decade writer Rajeev Sharma argues that Singh’s letter anyway has politics written all over it.

“This is the first time a serving army chief has posed such political problems to the government. The Indian armed forces have been apolitical for the past 65 years, since independence,” Sharma noted, drawing a contrast with neighbors Pakistan and Nepal. “So the general mood in India on this subject is that the general has been speaking more like a politician of late and therefore his words need to be taken with a pinch of salt.”

Still, fellow Indian Decade contributor Sumit Ganguly suggests where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

“I fear that Singh’s revelations, though possibly motivated by a sense of personal piqué, are essentially correct,” Ganguly said. “India’s weapons acquisitions process is dilatory, cumbersome and plodding. I’ve no independent means of affirming if the situation is as dire as the general has claimed. However, reliable press reports suggest that there is some truth to his assertions.”

“The revelations and the ensuing controversy also underscore the current political disarray within India. For months, there has been an unseemly battle between the Chief of Staff and the Defense Ministry about his age. With the latest revelations, the political atmosphere will become even more miasmic raising serious questions about the workings of civil-military relations in India.”