Last month, India’s Parliament was up in arms over the leak of a supposedly top secret letter written by Army Chief Gen. V.K. Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In typical Indian fashion, the uproar – partly spontaneous, partly orchestrated – was at first more about the leak of a highly confidential letter than the critical shortages of weapons and equipment that were pointed to.
Among the problems Singh pointed to were the claim that the Army’s entire fleet of tanks is “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks,”the suggestion that the country’s air defense were “97 percent obsolete,” and criticism that the Elite Special Forces was “woefully short” of “essential weapons.”
After the initial din died down, however, the import of the Army Chief’s letter gradually dawned on lawmakers asked the government and the Army to explain why the shortages haven’t been addressed. Indeed, the shortages are all the more baffling because India’s Defense Ministry reported it had spent its full quota of funds in each of the last three financial years, while the Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said recently that between 2006 and 2010, India ranked first in terms of arms imports.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
So why all these shortfalls?
The answer lies in the convoluted and often excruciatingly slow acquisition process that exists within the Defense Ministry. By even some conservative estimates, it can take anywhere between three and five years for a proposal mooted by a service headquarters to come to fruition. This snail’s pace has been noted by lawmakers in the past.
The Standing Committee on Defense (2008-09), a cross-party body of lawmakers, said in its report: “In the opinion of the Committee, the present state of affairs in the Ministry is clearly indicative of lack of seriousness towards timely finalization of plans, which ultimately leads to adverse bearing on modernization process in the armed forces.”
In his first interview on assuming office on April 1, 2010, Singh told me bluntly: “Our biggest challenge is how to remove our hollowness in terms of deficiencies in various fields, and the second one is modernization. Both need to be addressed (as a) priority so that whatever the Army requires that makes it battle worthy is there.
“When I talk of ‘hollowness,’ it is when you authorize something, but it may not be there because over a period of time, the procurement (process has) delayed acquisition,” he said, adding that such delays inevitably mean that some of the equipment is obsolete by the time it is available for combat units.
Two years on, and it’s clear that despite the voicing of such concerns, even the day-to-day requirements of many combat units are at dangerously low levels. Singh wrote first to Defense Minister A.K. Antony and then to the prime minister to highlight this fact.
But it shouldn’t have taken a letter from Singh to make clear shortcomings that were already obvious to many. Numerous commentators and analysts had already pointed out the sorry state of India’s air defenses and artillery. Gurmeet Kanwal, until recently director of the Army’s think tank, the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, has written:
“Sadly, the Indian Army has almost completely missed the ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs…The Corps of Army Air Defense is also faced with serious problems of obsolescence. The vintage L-70 40 mm AD gun system, the four-barreled ZSU-23-4 Schilka AD gun system, the SAM-6 (Kvadrat) and the SAM-8 OSA-AK have all seen better days and need to be urgently replaced by more responsive modern AD systems that are capable of defeating current and future threats.”
One of the key reasons for the military shortfalls has simply been the duplication of effort in processing a procurement proposal at both the Service Headquarters and the Defense Ministry, since the two aren’t integrated at the functional level. As a result, files are typically initiated and processed at the service headquarters before undergoing the same process at the ministry.