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Indian Armed Forces: Glory Sitting on Feet of Clay

Professor of Financial Economics and Part-time Value Investor, Transfin.
Sep 16, 2017 4:30 AM 3 min read

The months-long military stand-off at Doklam ended on a relatively tame note. Even if one rejoices at the actual or imagined “power shift” in our favour, the episode is nevertheless a grim reminder of the wide gaps prevalent within Indian Armed Forces. Considering the geopolitical misfortune of being surrounded by hostile neighbours, the scenario of a single or two-front conflict involving China has lately jumped from the realm of possibility to probability. With a new Defence Minister coming on board, a comprehensive review of the nation’s war preparedness couldn’t be more timely.


Around 65% of the annual defence spending goes to the Indian Army with 30% to the Air Force and Navy. The remainder is allocated between the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which leads indigenous weapons research and various Ordnance Factories (OFs), in-charge of domestic production.


India’s present status as one of the world’s largest arms importers is testament to our failure in producing high performance indigenously-designed weapons, stock, and equipment. Even accounting for imports, political and administrative laxity has ensured that upgradation of systems and stocking of ammunition (ammo) is nowhere near sufficient to withstand the operational needs of a full-scale conflict.


The former is illustrated by the much-delayed acquisition of new artillery systems such as 155mm howitzers pending since 1990, with only a small share of the requirement fulfilled by recent orders. These systems are essential for tactical support to infantry across both the Pakistan and Chinese fronts. Insufficient artillery overhaul is coupled with a chronic shortage of mobile tanks and army trucks. The infantry itself operate at a disadvantage with an undersupply of mountain gear, specialised parachutes, and high-altitude clothing. The data on ammo stocks is even more grim. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) concluded in its 2016 OF Audit that out of a total of 152 types of ammo used by the military, 80% of stock will run out in less than 40 days, and an alarming 40% will run out in less than 10 days. Moreover, over 80% of available high calibre ammo needed by Tanks and Artillery is currently unsuitable for battle usage.


These issues can find parallels in other forces as well. The Indian Navy lost close to 38 naval ships and submarines between 2008 and 2016 due to crew and material failures surfacing during training exercises. Acquisition of new vessels can take more than eight to ten years, with the shortage accentuated by a relatively low domestic availability of mandatory spares. The strategic airlifter of the Indian Air Force i.e. the Ilyushin (IL) also suffers from poor serviceability due to low availability of spares.


Aside from maintaining current reserves with and without imports to ensure preparedness, there is a fundamental need to indigenise. Foreign suppliers will without doubt serve as fickle partners in times of war, squeezing our military’s bandwidth when they need it the most.


The Make in India (MII) initiative in the defence sector is expected to balance this wide gap without affecting requirements and capability. The creation of JVs between foreign defence contractors with Indian companies is a major opportunity to build a localised eco-system. However, the absence of standards and transparency to-date leading to surprise initiation of neophytes like the Anil Ambani promoted Reliance Defence and Adani Group, hints at opportunity being wasted in exchange for cronyism and corruption.


The political establishment needs to seriously take stock of this quandary and work towards quickly establishing a multi-pronged line of defence across land, sea, and air. A deterrence oriented approach would be key, starting with accelerated completion of Indo China Border Roads Project (only 36% of planned works completed). A strategic missile system (already approved but delayed due to quality and production glitches) along the Eastern border supported by solid reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities should be next in line.


Prioritisation of the much delayed modernisation initiatives, with a transparent and energised MII to build domestic capabilities would go a long way to ensure we don’t pray for diplomatic common-sense to prevail the next time.