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Prime Minister’s address to Military leaders: No clarity on National Security Strategy

Indian Navy [CC BY 2.5 in (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/in/deed.en) or CC BY 2.5 in (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/in/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

In his address to the Chiefs of Staff and the Commanders-in-Chief of the armed forces on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya on December 15, 2015, the Prime Minister made a rare statement on India’s defence policy.

The PM lauded the sacrifices and the role played by the armed forces in defending India’s borders and in protecting the citizens. He complimented them for their stellar contribution in providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in Nepal, Yemen and Chennai.

He spoke of a “new intensity and purpose” in the country’s foreign policy, noted that India is now being increasingly seen as a “force of regional and global peace, security and stability” and emphasised the need to strengthen India’s existing strategic partnerships while forging new ones. He mentioned India’s extensive outreach to countries along the rim of the Indian Ocean and noted with approval the articulation of a new maritime strategy.

The PM took stock of the full spectrum of threats and challenges in India’s neighbourhood, including “terrorism and ceasefire violations; reckless nuclear build up and threats; border transgressions; …continuing military modernization and expansion; …and, internal conflicts.” He also said that the shadow of West Asian instability is getting longer.

The PM said he believed that “India and China can engage constructively across the complexity of their relationship” and stated his government’s intention to build closer relations with China to harness the full potential of the economic partnership, address outstanding issues, maintain stability on the border, and “develop greater mutual understanding and trust in our overlapping neighbourhood.”
In respect of Pakistan the PM said the renewed engagement would “try and turn the course of history.” Unfortunately, his bold gamble in stopping over at Lahore to meet PM Nawaz Sharif on Christmas Day was followed within a week by an ISI-sponsored terrorist strike at the Pathankot air base and on the Indian consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan.

The PM praised the recently concluded Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh and reiterated India’s commitment to supporting Afghanistan’s transition to peace and prosperity. While another round of Afghan peace talks is underway, India is once again not part of the process.

The PM noted that, “Our responsibilities are no longer confined to our borders and coastlines. They… spread across a world of widespread and unpredictable risks.” He said that while the character of conflict and the objectives of war are changing with evolutions in defence technology, “Old rivalries can play out in new theatres such as space and cyber.”

Speaking about nuclear deterrence, the PM reiterated that India’s strategic deterrence is “robust and reliable”, in accordance with the country’s nuclear doctrine and “our political will is clear.” As doubts have been expressed about the yield of the fission-fusion warhead during the tests in May 1998, the PM’s statement was meant to reassure the armed forces and the nation. Nuclear signalling is always carefully noted by nuclear-armed adversaries as well as the international community.

On defence preparedness, the PM said the pace of improving border infrastructure and the process of defence procurement are being speeded up and many long-pending acquisitions of weapons and equipment have been approved. He spoke of “firm steps to address shortages and cater for replacements.”

However, large-scale deficiencies continue to persist in the holdings of weapons, ammunition and equipment by combat units. The MoD has been unable to procure a suitable modern rifle – the basic weapon used by infantry soldiers. Successive CAG reports have highlighted the alarmingly low levels of operationally critical tank and artillery ammunition held by the army. In the past the CAG has pointed out that the serviceability state of the navy’s submarine fleet is rather low due to the non-availability of adequate spares.
Another recent CAG report pointed out that the strength of the IAF is down to 35 squadrons (aviation analysts put the figure at 30 to 32); the serviceability rates of the Sukhoi fleet – India’s frontline fighter aircraft – are as low as 55-60 per cent due to the lack of spares and inadequate repair facilities; and, the bulk of the helicopter fleet is obsolete. Thirty helicopters have crashed since 2010, claiming 50 lives. In March 2015, a group of army wives had complained to the Defence Minister that there had been far too many crashes of light helicopters.

Hence, while the PM recognised the imperative necessity of improving the level of defence preparedness by making up the existing deficiencies, he did not mention whether additional budgetary support would be forthcoming. Pegged at 1.74 per cent of the GDP in the current financial year, the defence budget has been steadily declining in real terms and is now at the lowest level that it has ever been since the debacle in the 1962 war with China.

Also, while the threats and challenges to national security are increasing and India is being called upon to contribute as a “net provider of security” in its area of strategic interest, the process of military modernisation has been stagnating. It was at a standstill during the ten years of the UPA government and has not yet been substantially speeded up due to the ongoing resources crunch even though weapons acquisition projects worth Rs 1,05,000 crore have been approved in principle.

It has even been reported that the Mountain Strike Corps approved by the UPA government is being raised by depleting the war reserves rather than by acquiring new weapons and equipment. The Indian armed forces are still a mid-20th century force facing a collusive threat from Pakistan and the rapidly modernising People’s Liberation Army of China.

Finally, though the PM touched on the need for undertaking reforms in defence management, he made no mention of the government’s position on formulating a comprehensive national security strategy that is inter-ministerial, inter-departmental and inter-agency in approach so that India’s comprehensive national strength can be synergised to achieve the desired national security objectives.

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal, Visiting Fellow, VIF
12 February 2016
(The writer is Visiting Fellow, VIF, and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi)

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