By Col. R. Hariharan
“Army chief’s letter bomb” screamed TV anchors when leaked contents of a letter from the Army Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh addressed to the Prime Minister reached the media. In his letter he had made ten points to show that the army’s fighting capability. The Army Chief listed ten points which have rendered the army ineffective to face threats to national security. All of them related the lack of timely procurements of armaments and ammunition to the troops.
The reaction to this national security fiasco in parliament was typical. Many members including the Right and Left, spent more time on the danger posed to national security by the leak, than its damaging contents. Some members like the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lallu Prasad Yadav, who was no paragon of probity, wanted the Army Chief to be sacked summarily for leaking the letter, without even bothering to find out who did it. His cohorts from UP and Bihar of the Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal (U) echoed the same sentiments.
Even experienced minister like Vayalar Ravi dismissed the letter as out pouring of a “frustrated” man, who lost the case to get his date of birth corrected. Congress party said national security was a sensitive issue and cannot be loosely discussed. Even the BJP which smells blood in every issue that affects government performance, only sniffed the peripheries of the issue.
The leak of the letter addressed to the Prime Minister comes at a particularly inconvenient time for the ruling coalition, which is getting tired of playing to the whimsical tunes of its regional partners. Only the day before, it was put on the defensive by a media interview by the Army Chief. In his interview he claimed he was offered Rs 14 crore bribe by a retired General, acting on behalf of a vehicle manufacturer to clear 600 substandard trucks destined for the army. Already the Army Chief had not made him popular with the ruling coalition when he approached the Supreme Court after his abortive attempts to get his date of birth corrected failed.
As a result of unholy combination of these controversies, General VK Singh’s damaging assessment on battle readiness of the army, runs the risk of not being taken seriously by not only the parliament but also nation. This is evident from the clichéd assurance the defence minister AK Antony gave in parliament when the contents of the Chief’s letter triggered a storm in parliament. He said the government was committed to ensure the safety and security of the nation.
Deficiencies in army’s weaponry, armament and ammunition have been nagging ulcers eating into our national security preparedness for a long time. Every war – from the 1962 war with China to the 1971 war to the Kargil conflict had glaringly highlighted such deficiencies faced by troops at the battle front. But beyond appointing committees to go into them we seem to be making no headway to improve the situation.
Lack of knowledge of matters relating to strategic security and failure to appreciate the real time needs of ever-changing technology requirements of modern battlefield make a mockery of our obsolete defence procurement procedure.
For defence procurement the Services concerned has to generate General Staff Quality Requirement (GSQR) for the item. This takes into consideration the battle scenario say in the next few years. Once GSQR is projected to Defence Ministry the first of the 7-step Indian defence procurement process starts. It is easy to understand why Stephen Cohen and Sunil Das Gupta of Brookings Institute in their book “Arming without Aiming: India’s military modernization” call this acquisition method as “convoluted” because enough opportunities for corruption and delay are built-in the process.
The combersome process has been taking anything from five to ten years to be completed, during which developments in weapon technology make the procured weapon system out of date, if not obsolete. As these deals involve billions of dollars the final decision is affected by diplomatic pressure from manufacturing nations.
Apart from this, after the bitter experience of the Bofors scandal, fear of allegations of corruption cropping up in defence deals has made the bureaucracy involved in the process overcautious. This fear in tandem with the Defence Minister AK Antony, who has sworn to weed out corruption on his charge at the helm, has seen the black listing of a dozen major armament suppliers of the world at various stages of the process adding to the delay. Despite the Defence Minister’s repeated assurances to speed up the process there had been no visible improvement on the ground.
Previously such delays were affecting procurement of modern missiles such sophisticated weapon systems, aircraft and naval ships. However, now Army’s battle readiness is slowly being crippled as demands for even basic essentials of infantry weapons and artillery weapons have been pending for over a decade.
For instance infantry battalions are still not equipped with lighter rifles capable of better performance; we need about two million rifles to completely re-equip and replenish this basic arm. Similarly Army’s demand for heavy machine guns has also not materialized.
Strictly speaking, the Chief was pointing out nothing “new” in his letter to the Prime Minister. Earlier he had made a presentation on the same points to the Defence Minister; later a similar presentation was to a parliamentary committee also. Apparently the General shot off the missive to the Prime Minister as the last resort of an outgoing Chief who wanted desperately to make a change. And the Defence Minister was aware of the letter.
It is a shame that our defence research and development organization which has scored impressive achievements in rocket and missile development has not been able to fill in our requirements in some of the basic weaponry requirements. A major reason for this is the inordinate delay in developing a proto type and from proto type to final product.
Indian industry is quite capable of manufacturing many of the weapons and weapon systems. However, there is a political mental block as manufacture of arms, ammunition and equipment has been reserved for the public sector. These public sector units suffer from all the ailments of public sector – highly unionized workforce laying down norms, poor productivity, perennial failure to keep up manufacturing schedules, inadequate investment and poor quality of output. Though much has been said about public-private partnership Indian industries have not been given their due share in the ever growing defence pie.
According to Ashley Tellis, Carnegie Endowment scholar, Indian defency policy suffers from internal defence thinking. He says: “civil-military relations restrain military modernization and this is not accidental but deliberate.” By and large this appears to be a correct observation, if we see the parliament’s totally futile reaction of targeting the Army Chief for leaked letter rather paying attention to its damaging assessment on national security readiness.
This seeming lack of interest in national security affairs has become part of the political culture where national security has been treated as a holy cow, allowed to fend for itself. That is why the response to defence requirements has been to allocate more funds rather than critically scrutinise and reform our systems..
After 60 years of independence we should be ashamed to be world’s largest importer of weapon systems. It is clear there is disconnect between the rapid progress the country has made in various fields and defence production. We need to integrate defence requirements with national development, so that the progress made in science and technology as well as industrial progress is gainfully utilized to meet the needs of armed forces. In a welcome step, the union government has constituted the Naresh Chandra Committee in July 2011 to review national security. Considering the competing demands of ever growing developmental needs, and defence expenditure, it would be worthwhile to examine this aspect while evolving the security doctrine.
It seems yet another salvo has been fired by the irrepressible General VK Singh with one more allegation of corruption in high places. According to the latest media report, the Army Chief has requested CBI to look into the allegations contained in a letter written by Trinamool MP Ambika Banerjee in May 2011 alleging widespread procurement scams committed by Lt General Dalbir Singh when he was the Inspector General of the Special Frontier Force (SFF). It is significant that General Dalbir Singh, currently commanding 3 Corps, is in line to succeed Lt General Bikram Singh designated as the next COAS. The MP is also reported to have named army officers including a former Army Chief who are alleged to have received crores of rupees in kickbacks in defence procurements.
It is clear General VK Singh is in a combative mood. He appears to be determined to root out corruption as best as he could in the few days he is in service. In the bargain he has antagonised the political class, in particular the ruling coalition, which is rocked by corruption scandals one after the other. Some retired Generals are unhappy with Army Chief’s conduct. They talk of its demoralising effect on the armed forces. They are forgetting it is time for catharsis in the armed forces. Both the defence ministry and the armed forces are as much accountable to the people as any limb of the government. They cannot hide under the garb of secrecy to allow a corrupt system to go unchecked lest corruption compromises national security.
Political class is unaccustomed to a man in uniform questioning the validity of their existing systems. This class having built a cosy set up with existing systems are not going to allow the General’s forays unchallenged. We can see the storm signals going up for such action; but before any precipitate action is taken, parliamentarians should ponder over the issues the General has raised. I have some simple posers to parliament members who got so worked up because of the General’s letter to the Prime Minister:
- What is the core issue affecting national security? Leaking of the letter or ilI-equipped army which its chief says cannot perform effectively?
- If they sack the General, will it improve national security? Will it remove the glaring deficiencies and weaknesses he has pointed out?
Politicians have a bloated self-image as guardians of democracy. It is good to remember General VK Singh, despite his frontal assault in true Rajput style, has raised fundamental issues because he values the democratic system as much as politicians do.
The nation should be careful how it handles the issue as storm signals are up on national security. It is time for some serious introspection from all of us.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected] Blog: www.colhariharan.org)