The Army chief’s letter is not a betrayal. The real betrayal lies not in India’s weakness being uncovered, but in putting a lid on it.
When a surface-to-surface Agni-V missile was launched from the Wheeler Island off Odisha in April this year, the avowed intention was not to be missed. The missile, it is said, can hit targets more than 5,000 km away. With this launch, India entered an ‘exclusive’ club of nations that have this capability. There must be a sense of pride attached to a sense of exclusivity. Though the affair was kept deliberately low-key, it took some 40 years after India first conducted a nuclear test at Pokhran, that she has finally got Beijing and Shanghai within the radar of its nuclear forces. It is beside the point that the Agni-V remains some way from actually being inducted into the armed forces which experts say would require four or five more tests to confirm its flight path, accuracy and overall competence, before production could actually begin.
Chinese experts feel that there is more fire power to India's successful long-range nuclear-capable missile Agni-V than what New Delhi is making the world community to believe. Du Wenlong, a Chinese researcher said the missile “actually has the potential to reach targets 8,000 km away.” Zhang Zhaozhong, a professor with the People’s Liberation Army National Defence University, told the Global Times that according to China’s standard, an ICBM should have a range of at least 8,000 km. Compared to India, China’s nuclear delivery system is equipped with multiple warhead (MIRV) ICBMs like DF-5A (12000+ km) and DF-4 (7500+ km). It also fields submarine launched SLBMs like JL-2 (8500+ km) and strategic fighter bombers like Su-27 Flanker in its nuclear delivery arsenal.
With China in mind in India’s defence policy, without any unnecessary drumming up, what should grab media attention was rather the Army chief General V K Singh’s pointer to the loopholes in India’s operational capabilities – in his letter to the PM – burdened with tanks running out of ammunition, obsolete air defence systems and lack of adequate weaponry for infantry and special forces battalions.
Many raised a hue and cry about a service chief sounding alarm bells on the country’s defence preparedness. Many also questioned the rationale of the facts of India’s ‘weakness’ be put in the public domain as it might expose the ‘shortcomings’ to one and all, including interests ‘inimical’ to India. To them, this act was akin to betrayal. But is hiding unsavoury facts from public scrutiny that might jeopardise national security any more patriotic?
The trouble is, though the leak might amount to a dangerous faux pas, the contents must point to a greater malaise which might not have come to light without the letter. The letter says the army’s entire tank fleet is “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks”. The existing air defence systems are inadequate against enemy air attacks since they are ‘97 per cent obsolete,’ the letter warns. The letter further points to ‘large scale voids’ in essential weaponry as well as critical surveillance and night-fighting capabilities.
Army chief’s observations are not misplaced. The Army itself has painted a grim picture in its 11th Plan (2007-2012) review, pointing at ‘operational gaps’ in fields ranging from artillery, aviation, air defence and night-fighting to ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles), PGMs (precision guided munitions) and specialised tank and rifle ammunition. Though the Navy and IAF are on the modernisation track – however slowly – the Army looks like a laggard. In one estimate, the 1.13-million strong force needs as much as Rs 41,000 crore to even meet its existing shortages in equipment and ammunition.
So, while conceding that however big a technological achievement was Agni-V, a number of analysts noted that it was but a small step in forging any military parity with its giant regional adversary. “We are still way behind China. In terms of missile numbers, range and quality, they are way ahead of us,” commented C Raja Mohan, a security analyst and senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a policy think-tank in Delhi.
Be that as it may, the former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta (who preceded Admiral Nirmal Kumar Verma) was spot on in admitting once that India cannot match Chinese military force. “In military terms, both conventional and non-conventional, we neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force for force,” he said.
He further warned – perhaps mindful of the slow pace of India's military modernisation – that whether in terms of GDP, defence spending or any other parameter, the gap between the two is too wide to bridge and is getting wider by the day.
Perhaps prodded on by the recommendations of successive standing committees on defence that it should be at least 3 per cent if the emerging threats and challenges are to be successfully countered, the defence budget this year was substantially hiked by more than 17 per cent to Rs 1,93,407 crore from last year's Rs 1,64,415 crore. But a considerable hike is sure to wobble India’s other financial priorities.
An article by Bharat Verma, a former cavalry officer and editor of ‘Indian Defence Review’ infamously predicted that China will attack India before 2012. The article drew a lot of flak but the central thesis was that “India, with its growing affiliation with the west, is yet weak under China’s fire”. His posers were many. Verma questioned if the Indian military is equipped to face the two-front war by Beijing and Islamabad. “Is the Indian civil administration geared to meet the internal security challenges that the external actors will sponsor simultaneously through their doctrine of unrestricted warfare?”
The ghosts of 1962 still haunt the nation. The real betrayal lies not in India’s weakness being uncovered, but to put a lid on it.
****** in Indian armour