No Guns, No Glory

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The battle between the Army Chief and the MoD has caused the force’s modernisation to slow down

Rahul Bedi, Defence Analyst

Awaiting upgrade A T-72 M1 Main Battle Tank during a drill
Awaiting upgrade: A T-72 M1 Main Battle Tank during a drill, Photo: AP

THE WAR-WAGING capability of India’s 1.2 million-strong army is severely handicapped, not only by acute equipment shortage, obsolete hardware and restricted night-fighting capability, but also by its increasingly strained relations with the Ministry of Defence (MOD), singly responsible for the force’s continually-postponed modernisation.

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Over the past two years, the growing faultlines between army chief Gen VK Singh and the MOD have adversely impacted efforts to replace the Soviet equipment that has reached obsolescence to enable it to wage a ‘two-front’ war with nuclear rivals China and Pakistan.

“This stand-off comes at a time when the army’s role is pivotal in national security,” says Brig (retd) Arun Sahgal, joint director of the Institute of National Security Studies in New Delhi. “But its overall ability to effectively perform this task is highly questionable because of its depreciated equipment profile and declining morale due to internecine intrigues.”

Hours after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, it disturbingly transpired that our armed forces, especially the army, had ineffectual options available for a punitive response against Pakistan. This yet again highlighted the inadequacies of India’s conventional deterrence potential that was linked largely to equipment inadequacies, senior officers privately conceded.

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Material shortages also circumscribed the capability to effectively operationalise the army’s newly enunciated ‘cold start’ doctrine of launching a pre-emptive conventional offensive against Pakistan in a limited war scenario to achieve negotiable military gains in a nuclear weapons environment. Predicated on deploying more efficient platforms than currently in service, this strategy envisages converting static formations deployed in a defensive role along the Pakistani frontier into ‘integrated battle groups’ capable of undertaking swift, punitive strikes with minimum reorganisation.

But ambitious plans to transform the army from a threat-based force to a capability-based service by 2020, capable of conducting the entire spectrum of conflict from nuclear war to counter-insurgency operations, have been consistently thwarted by the MOD and an equally inefficient army headquarters.

Acquiring military goods is highly demanding, requiring clearance that is grudgingly forthcoming from 18 MOD and related departments and agencies. Procurements that were mandated to be completed in 48 months took twice as long in addition to fostering widespread corruption. Concurrently, urgently-needed equipment, especially for the army via the MOD’s fast-track procurement (FTP) route with a 12-14 month timeline, rarely ever met that target.

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For instance, the import of 900-1,000 sniper rifles for the Special Forces (SF) via the FTP route, with its early-2011 deadline, has been further delayed following problems over trial procedures involving three competing models. Finland’s bolt-action SAKO TRG-22/24, IWI’s semi-automatic Galil 7.62x54mm sniper model and Sig Sauer’s SSG 3000 bolt-action, magazine-fed rifle were vying for the $10-$12 million contract and trials were held in December 2010 in the respective countries. But senior army sources said the tender would in all likelihood be reissued, jeopardising the army’s anti-insurgency operations.

The purchase of 1,568 9mm submachine guns for select ‘Ghatak’ infantry commando platoons and 1.3 million rounds of ammunition initiated nearly three years ago under the FTP procedures also awaits closure.

According to international management consultant Ernst & Young’s, India was possibly the biggest customer in the international arms bazaar, having allocated $80-$100 billion to acquiring material by 2022. A report by the CII and global financial consultants KPMG in 2011 revealed that India had inked military deals for $25 billion since 2007, of which the air force accounted for $17.46 billion, the navy $6.16 billion, the Coast Guard $616 million and the army a mere $420 million.

India imports over 74 percent of its military equipment — a proportion that is steadily rising — despite the assertions that the country would be largely self-reliant in this field by 2005.

“The army’s efforts at modernising its combat arms like armoured regiments and the infantry and support arms like the artillery, aviation, air defence, signals and engineering corps were all in shambles, plagued by a lack of timely planning and resource management,” says Maj Gen (retd) Sheru Thapliyal. “It needs to seriously kickstart its modernisation plans in order to survive in an increasingly militarised neighbourhood.”

Acquiring military goods requires clearance from 18 MoD and related departments

A cursory audit of the army’s equipment profile is worrisome. A big proportion of its mechanised forces, around 2,000-2,200 Russian and locally built T-72 and T-72M1s ‘Ajeya’ Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), which form the backbone of its 59-odd armour regiments, and some 2,200 Soviet-designed ‘Sarath’ BMP-II infantry combat vehicles (ICVs) lack night-fighting capability.

The majority of T-72s await upgrades that will provide them with either full-solution thermal imaging fire control systems (TIFCS) or partial-solution thermal imaging standalone systems (TISAS) to enable them to operate at night. Till now, just 310 partial- solution TISAS had been acquired and installed on the T-72M1s, while an equal number were under acquisition.

Around 657 imported Russian T-90S MBTs with an additional 1,000 to be built locally under licence and 124 indigenously designed Arjun MKI tanks are capable of operating in the dark, but they are too few to make any difference in conflict.

HOWEVER, PLANS to locally build 1,000 T-90S MBTs were handicapped by piecemeal orders from the army and reportedly by the lack of full-technology transfer by the Russians. The MBTs also faced shortages of 125mm rounds last year after war wastage reserves dropped below ‘critical levels’, necessitating imports of around 66,000 Russian armour piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot (APFSDS) rounds on grounds of ‘operational necessity’. MOD sources said the emergency procurement reportedly at ‘inflated prices’ also precluded the 30 percent offset obligation mandated by acquisition procedures.

The army’s artillery profile was possibly the most dire with 180-odd field artillery regiments employing at least six calibers that were either obsolete or fast approaching that state. Around 32 artillery regiments were equipped with 410 FH-77B 155mm Bofors guns imported in the late 1980s and 180 Soviet 130mm M-46 field guns upgraded unsatisfactorily to 155 mm/45 caliber status jointly by Soltam of Israel and the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) under a programme that was under CBI inquiry. The remaining 148 regiments still operate Soviet D-30 122mm guns, the locally-designed and OFB-built 105mm Indian Field Guns, its Light Field Gun derivative and imported 130mm M46 guns dating back to the 1960s.

The proposal under the Artillery Rationalisation Plan to acquire by 2020-25 a mix of 3,600 155mm/39 caliber lightweight and 155mm/52 cal towed, mounted, self-propelled (tracked and wheeled) and ultra light-weight 155mm/39 cal howitzers has been postponed for nearly a decade.

Tenders for these guns were issued, withdrawn and reissued. Matters were further complicated by the MOD completely or partially blacklisting at least four top overseas howitzer manufacturers without providing any clarity on their status.

The plan of upgrading 465 infantry and ‘dedicated’ paramilitary Rashtriya Rifles battalions by 2020 under the Future Infantry Soldier As a System (F-INSAS) project is also years behind schedule. The plan includes a fully modernised personal equipment platform and enhanced firepower for the digitalised battlefield.

Even the army’s eight-odd SF battalions face an identity crisis, operating without a specialised operational mandate, organisational support or “dedicated budget”, resulting in piecemeal and incomplete weapon and equipment packages, many of which had been in the pipeline for over a decade.

Last November, the MOD had issued a global tender to 43 overseas vendors for 66,000 5.56mm ARs for an estimated $700 million to replace the inefficient, locally designed Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) 5.56mm AR, which the army had been coerced into using since the mid-1990s. The requirement for the proposed AR is expected to be around 2 million units for use not only by the army but also the paramilitaries and provincial police forces in a project estimated at around $3 billion.

Other infantry shortages include 1,60,800 5.56mm close quarter battle carbines to supplant the outdated 9mm models, 15,000 general-purpose machine guns, 1,100 lightweight anti-material rifles, 225 mine-protected vehicles and 64 snow scooters for use at heights above 21,000 feet in Siachen.

The bulk of the army’s air defence guns and missiles date back 30-40 years and need replacing, while efforts to replace obsolete assets like the Chetak and Cheetah helicopters under the Army Aviation Corps Vision 2017 were postponed after the MOD in November 2007 scrapped the acquisition of 197 Eurocopter AS 550 C3 Fennec light observation helicopters.

The MOD claimed irregularities in the selection procedure following nearly four years of evaluation and the contract is currently under reassessment.

“There has been no reduction in the time taken to conclude contracts. Every proposal continues to flounder in the labyrinth of bureaucratic functioning,” says Maj Gen (retd) Mrinal Suman.

Every deal is getting embroiled in controversy due to alleged infirmities of the selection process, he adds, castigating the deeply flawed modernisation process.

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