Last Saturday, Chief of Army Staff Bipin Rawat declared in an interview to the news agency ANI that India was now prepared for a “two-and-a-half front war”. By this, he meant that India was capable of fighting a war with China and Pakistan simultaneously, while also taking on internal security duties in Kashmir.
There was just one problem with his assertion: the facts on the ground do not support Rawat. Even his counterpart in the Indian Air Force is not so sure. Just a little over a year ago, Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal BS Dhanoa, who was the vice chief at that time, said that the IAF fleet could not handle a two-front conflict. At a press conference, he had said: “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario”.
Modern conflict has made it clear that air power, and not land forces, generally shape the outcome of battles. If the IAF chief is clear that he does not have the fighter squadrons to fight on two fronts simultaneously, why did Rawat make such an assertion? This question is even more important given that even the Army, which Rawat commands, is far from fit to fight on a single front, let alone two or two-and-a-half fronts at the same time.
An obsolete Army
In March 2012, Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to apprise him of the Army’s woeful preparedness in the event of a war. Singh wrote that the Army’s tanks were outdated and running out of ammunition, air defence was obsolete, and the infantry was short of critical weapons.
In February, newspapers reported that India had decided to make “urgent purchases” to make up critical deficiencies in its defence preparedness. Reports suggested that the Modi government had cleared purchases worth Rs 20,000 crore to help the Indian military “undertake at least 10 days of ‘intense fighting’ without worrying about ammunition, spares and other reserves”. However, much of the equipment listed for this urgent purchase – tank ammunition, artillery guns, assault rifles –was the same as those Singh listed in his 2012 letter to the prime minister. Clearly, in the four years since that letter, the pace of upgrading and modernising the Indian Army’s weapons has been far from desirable.
Also, if the military needed urgent purchases to just fight an “intense war for 10 days” in February is there any truth in Rawat’s assertion made four months later? As per established practice, the Indian military should hold enough reserves to fight for 40 days. With emergency purchases being made to undertake just 10 days of “intense fighting” what was the reality?
The fact is that while India’s military equipment is ageing rapidly, replacements are just not keeping pace. The majority of its infantry soldiers still use the outdated Indian Small Arms System, or INSAS, rifle, considered to be unreliable because of frequent jamming and an outdated design. There were reports last year that the government had cleared the purchase of 185,000 modern assault rifles, but no tenders have been issued so far.
Similarly, the Army’s artillery wing has not been modernised since the Bofors gun was inducted in the 1980s. In 1999, after the Kargil War, the Army drew up ambitious plans to induct nearly 3,500 new artillery guns of various capacities and capabilities in the next “15 to 20 years” under the Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan. The first two light artillery guns landed in India only this month. Reality, clearly, is much harsher than an assertion.
All this means that structurally, the Army is in no better position than where it was during the Kargil war when India had to make emergency purchases of artillery shells from Israel. After the war, a committee was set up to recommend major restructuring by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. But most of the key restructuring recommendations, like appointing a Chief of Defence Staff, joint theatre commands, an integrated Ministry of Defence, are yet to be implemented.
A depleted force
The Air Force is in no better shape. It is authorised to have 42 combat squadrons as per the 11th plan, and is officially down to 33. Some senior Air Force officers say that the actual squadron strength may be less than that. This is so because the bulk of the Air Force fleet at present comprises the ageing MiG-21 aircraft, which are nearly 230 in number, and are slated to be eased out in the next 10 years. These aircraft continue to be deployed despite having crossed their maximum years of service due to India’s inability to replace them. In 2015, India decided to cancel a contract for 126 French Rafale aircraft, and instead decided to buy just 36. With the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft failing to find favour with the Indian Air Force, it continues to stare at a massive shortfall of aircraft.
As far as India’s naval defences are concerned, the Indian Navy, which is authorised over 190 sea-going vessels, is also struggling to maintain force levels. Its ambitious Project 75 submarine programme – under which six Scorpene-class submarines are being built by Mazagon Dock Limited in Mumbai – is almost five years behind schedule, and the submarines are nowhere near completion. In sharp contrast, the Chinese navy has already established a major presence in the neighbourhood, and is reported to have fielded nearly 12 naval vessels in the Indian Ocean according to Indian intelligence estimates.
India’s Special Forces are in no better shape. As the nature of warfare changes, the Special Forces are playing a leading role in all conflicts. Several recommendations, including by the Naresh Chandra Task Force set up by the previous Manmohan Singh-led government, have been made in the past to set up a joint Special Forces Command. But it has been stymied due to lack of consensus among the three services. All this is affecting India’s ability to operate in modern conflicts.
Rawat may believe that the Indian military is ready, but the facts on ground are a stark reminder that reality is very different from populist claims.