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Modernisation of Indian Army: Future Challenges

In this file photo, Army officers stand on Indian Army's Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher system. (Photo: Reuters)

In this file photo, Army officers stand on Indian Army's Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher system. (Photo: Reuters)

India has to concurrently build on its military power, in the modern context, to thwart the threats and challenges that it is likely to face in near future from our adversaries.

New Delhi: The Indian Army is the third largest army in the world in terms of size, based on the number of personnel. But this description obfuscates the fact that it is not as powerful as what such a portrayal should signify, in terms of its capacity to undertake military operations optimally in the multi-domain, technology dominated battlefields of the future.

The Indian Army essentially remains a force largely organised, equipped and trained to fight wars of the past. That is not to say that the Army cannot carry out its role and tasks successfully in the current context, more so, if it is provided the requisite means. Nonetheless, it needs no emphasis that the Army needs to modernize expeditiously if it has to be prepared to take on the security challenges of the future.

As India rises in stature economically and technologically towards a more eminent position in the region and the world, it has to concurrently build on its military power, in the modern context, to thwart the threats and challenges that it is likely to face along the way, from our potential adversaries. However, building up military power is not easy, given the budgetary constraints, especially when the country needs to concurrently meet the important requirement of economic development to provide human security and a better quality of life for its people.

The inadequacy of funds is compounded by bureaucratic prevarication and risk averseness, frequent changes in qualitative requirements by the Army and occasional corruption charges which result in blacklisting of vendors in an unplanned manner. Hence, not only is there a need to correctly identify the future orientation and equipment needs of the Army, in its role as the largest and most powerful component of the Indian military, but it is also important to find a way forward to build capacity and speed up the procurement process, while addressing the problems which invariably come in the way.

Future Security Scenarios

India's threats and challenges in the military realm primarily emanate from the historically inherited territorial disputes involving its two nuclear armed neighbours, over which five wars have already been fought. The growing nexus on military and nuclear matters between our potential adversaries suggests that, unlike in the past, India may face a ‘two front threat’, the next time round. The fact that the existing territorial disputes are ‘land-centric’ highlights the pre-dominant role of the Army in the Indian security context.

Further, one of these countries, Pakistan, has been running a sub-conventional campaign against India since the early 1990s which essentially involves stoking militancy in Muslim majority areas of Jammu and Kashmir and pushing terror modules across the border to cause casualties among civilians and security personnel, to keep the Kashmir issue alive.

Nuclear ‘sabre-rattling’ is used in conjunction with the cross-border terror strikes, to prevent India from ‘raising the ante’ and retaliating with a punitive conventional response. The last war fought in this backdrop was the Kargil War in 1999, limited in scope and duration, which was launched by the Indian Army, with support from the Air Force, to evict an ‘hybrid’ intrusion by the Pakistan Army across the Line of Control in the Ladakh sector of J&K.

Changing Nature of Conflicts

In the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the first decade of this century, the world has witnessed a reduction in full fledged ‘state vs state’ wars. Hybrid wars appear to be the new norm, involving a combination of two or more of the following:

- Conventional / Regular warfare – state vs state wars, primarily waged by conventional forces or regular troops on both/ all sides. In case of India, all such wars will be fought under a nuclear overhang, implying that escalation to the level of nuclear exchanges is possible, and must be planned for.

- Irregular warfare – conflict against a state by employing trained combatants who are not regular military. Pakistan has launched such ‘irregulars’ in all its wars against India.

- Asymmetric warfare – war between sides whose military power differs greatly, waged by the weaker side using non-traditional means like terrorism. Wars waged by insurgents/ terrorists against nation states, its government or people fall in this category, eg, 9/11 attack by al-Qaeda, Afghanistan war by the Taliban, and so on.

- Unconventional warfare- war waged by a country using means other than established forms of armed conflict, to make the adversary capitulate even without a classical war (economic wars, water wars, legal warsetc).

- Technological/ Informational warfare – combination of cyber, space, electronic, propaganda, psychological, media and social media wars.

The Indian Army, as the largest component of the military, should be prepared to deal with asymmetric, informational and/ orconventional threats in the backdrop of nuclear coercion from across our Western border in the short to middle term, and additionally, from the Northern border in the long term. Thus, the Indian Army must aim to achieve cross-spectrum (nuclear, conventional, counter sub-conventional) war fighting capability to achieve a favourable outcome even in a ‘two front war’ scenario, which would concurrently achieve credible or punitive deterrence, as required, against our potential adversaries.

Capability Building in the Indian Army

India is not the member of any traditional military alliance and thus has to maintain an independent military capability in keeping with the critical need to retain its strategic autonomy while protecting itself against possible threats to its unity and integrity. The Indian Armed Forces are structured to deal with the possible threats from potential adversaries as part of its capability to carry out its mandated role and tasks.

The primary role of the Indian Army is to ensure the territorial integrity of the nation by deterrence or by waging war. The secondary role of the Army is to provide assistance to civil authorities, when requisitioned, to respond to heightened law and order situations, for disaster management or for providing essential services.

In keeping with its mandated roles, the Army has to ensure multi-dimensional capability to deal with the external threats from our potential adversaries as also be prepared to assist in dealing with internal security threats of a heightened nature, especially those involving secessionist uprisings against the state.

Accordingly, as most of our current threats pertain to conventional conflict over disputed land borders and sub conventional challenges like insurgencies and cross-border terrorism, the Indian Army has been structured as a ‘two and a half front’ force, whereby, not only has the Army built up conventional capabilities to deal with threats along the Western and Northern Fronts, but it has also the capacity to deal with the lesser ‘sub-conventional front’, by employment of the ‘Rashtriya Rifles’ independently or in combination with regular, paramilitary or police forces.

Capability building of the Army is a continuing process, where budget, especially capital funds, are requested for annually, based on the projected needs for implementing a 15 year long term perspective plan. However, it has been the experience for many years now that adequate capital funds for modernisation are not allotted, and consequently, there are majorshortfalls in acquiring new equipment and other war-fighting capability in a time bound manner.

Modernisation Needs of the Army

The Army of the future will have to be technologically oriented, with many more specialists, as compared to generalists. It will have to be equipped progressively with modern weapons and weapon systems, supported by technology based processes and automation to meet the needs and challenges of the future battlefield.

Accordingly, the Army will need to replace or upgrade its ageing inventory of weapons and equipment while also restructuring and right-sizing in a transformational way. However, considering that the modernisation plans of the Army are lagging far behind already, budgetary constraints will play an important part in formulating and executing plans for the future.

As far as weapons and equipment are concerned, the Army needs the following on priority to replace or rejuvenate vintage equipment as part of the capability development programme:

- Infantry - The infantry, which is continuously being employed in counter-terrorist or counter-insurgency operations, needs to be empowered immediately by provision of new generation lightweight assault rifles, bullet proof jackets and helmets, hand held thermal imagers (HHTIs) as well as a host of other modern weapons like carbines, machine guns, rocket launchers, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), mortars, night vision devices, radio sets and better back packs, to replace the older generation weapons and equipment. Further, the infantry needs to reduce the number of general duty (GD) soldiers, by replacing them with specialists. To that extent, it is worth serious consideration that many more infantry battalions be converted as Special Forces Battalions and further, the fourth company of each infantry battalion needs to be converted as a Special Operations company.

- Artillery–Adequate quantities of new 155 mm artillery guns, including indigenously manufactured Dhanush systems, as well as more lethal, precision artillery systems like BrahMos cruise missiles, Smerch and Pinaka rocket systems, need to be inducted immediately to replace its earlier vintage 105mm and 130 mm guns and vintage rocket systems. Also, the procurement of M-777 light howitzers must be expedited, for early deployment along the mountainous terrain of the northern borders.

- UAVs – More quantities of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of latest technology must be inducted in adequate numbers for surveillance and precision attack operations in both peace and war.

- Mechanised Forces–Additional quantities of ‘current technology’, T-90 tanks and ICVs,night enabled and equipped with long range ATGMs,need to be inducted on priority. Older generation T-72 tanks and ICVs must be refurbished and technologically upgraded at the earliest. The Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV) and Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) projects must be pursued with vigour so that the next generation ‘state of art’ replacements of tanks (FRCVs) and ICVs (FICVs) are inducted within the next 10 years or so.

- Army Aviation–Acquisition of three squadrons worth of new generation Apache attack helicopters into the Army Aviation has been reportedly sanctioned, as a follow up of the Air Force order. Further, the Kamov replacement helicopters, indigenous Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) and Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) projects must be pursued vigorously so that they start delivering reliable helicopters to the Army at the earliest.

- Air Defence(AD) –The Army AD is undergoing a total revamp of equipment. The various army air defence weapon acquisition projects for acquisition of all types of surface to air missile systems as well as upgrading old generation systems must be provided fresh impetus so that these materialise at the earliest.

- Engineers - The combat engineers need to be provided new generation of bridging equipment,mine-laying equipment as well as mine clearance equipment. Where possible, old equipment must be upgraded indigenously.

- Night Vision Devices -All arms of the Army have to be night equipped with light weight, long range and easily usable night vision devices.

Challenges in Capability Building

There are huge ongoing challenges in the process of capacity building of the Indian Army. The more important of these are discussed as follows:-

- Currently, military planning is hamstrung by lack of a clearly articulated and integrated military strategy.In such a situation, the three wings of the military are left to devise their own strategies and military philosophies, which could end up being at cross purposes with each other. The reasons that can be ascribed to this state of affairs is the absence of military expertise at the apex level of national security and defence matters, exacerbated by non-institution of the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff to coordinate defence policy and strategy more meaningfully.

- Lack of modernisation. An alarmingly large percentage of equipment is of old vintage, due to many proposals for acquisition and upgradation of new equipment having been inordinately delayed.

- Expanding hollowness in arms and ammunition over the years, due to quality issues related to indigenous production of modern ammunition, compounded by inadequate budgetary support, especially the revenue component.

- Lack of ‘capital budget’ for new procurement schemes, especially ‘big ticket’ items. This is due to the fact that there has been inadequate allocation of defence budget for many years now. Whereas at least 2.5% of the GDP should be allotted for defence expenditure other than pension, in actual fact, only 1.5 to 1.7% is allotted, resulting in reduction of budget allocation in real terms, after taking into account the annual inflation component. The Army’s inter-Service share within the defence budget has taken a dip – from 60% in 1990-91 to about 52% in the current budget. The problem is exacerbated by the burgeoning ‘revenue’ expenditure,especially on pay and allowances, as also the alacrity displayed by the Finance Ministry in withdrawing defence capital funds year on year, apparently for balancing shortfalls and deficits under other heads of budget expenditure, cleverly projecting these as ‘surrenders’. Whereas at least 40 % of the Army’s budget should be spent on Capital procurement, including committed liabilities, this has slipped to a meagre 15 percent in the last two years.

- Over the decades, the Indian Army has continued to expand, in manpower terms, in its quest to build up capability to deal with potential threats and challenges. The problem was compounded by some faulty human resources (HR) policies of the Army in recent years, which had incentivised holding of more manpower by linking it to calculation of senior rank positions in the Army. The total strength of the Army stands at more than 1.3 million, including the new raisings for the northern front. The ‘manpower problem’ has been exacerbated by lack of serious control over the ever expanding size of civilians under the Defence Ministry, who suck up a large percentage of the revenue budget of the Armed Forces, without proportionate returns in ‘capability’ terms. All this has adversely affected the Army’s efforts at optimisation and modernisation in an era of overwhelming budgetary constraints. In fact, matters have reached a serious pass, where, within the next two to three years, there may be no money left in the Army budget for new ‘capital’ purchases, after expending budget under the revenue head, combined with the committed liabilities of the capital budget.

- There is lack of expertise within the Army in the field of weapon designs and technology, resulting in lack of meaningful inputs for the indigenous defence industry. An Army Design Bureau (ADB) has been inaugurated recently to address this shortfall. As of now it is still too early to determine whether the ADB will be able to produce the desired results towards providing guidance to the indigenous defence industry for producing new weapons and equipment for the Army. The Army must continue to study the experiences of the Navy’s Design Bureau to draw lessons for developing the ADB on similar lines, or even better.

- There is lack of sustained effort within the Army to develop expertise on defence procurement and financial issues. The Army remains rooted to the outdated policies of employing ‘generalists’ rather than ‘specialists’ to man the weapon procurement functions at Army Headquarters. Unless serious efforts are made to create a cadre of specialists to man critical functions related to procurement of Army weapons and equipment, starting with the Apex level, the situation is not likely to improve. Formulation of General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQR) and conduct of trials are two specific areas of weakness within the Army, which need constant efforts at improvement.

- Inefficiency and apparent lack of accountability of various organs of the Defence Ministry responsible for indigenous design and manufacture of weapons, equipment and ammunition for the Army, namely the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs). It is obvious that the vibrant private industry of the country is yet not being provided a ‘level playing field’ to compete fairly with the public sector. Consequently, the indigenous defence industry, mostly based on the public sector, is unable to provide items of desired quality in a timely manner. Most procurement through this route isaffected by huge cost overruns.

As a consequence of the above problems, especially lack of capital budget, the Army’s modernisation plans are running far behind schedule.The only saving grace has been the continued acquisition of the relatively modern and robust T-90 tanks for the Armoured Corps and the continuing production of BMP-II infantry combat vehicles, which are the mainstay of the mechanised infantry, which taken together, continue to provide a combat edge on the Western front.

Concluding Observations and Road Map for the Future

India needs to progressively build capability of hard military power, soft power and demonstrated power in its quest to be recognised as a ‘regional power with global influence’, which can deter threats to its stability and integrity. The Army, as the largest component of the Indian military, has to be prepared to play its mandated role in the interests of defence and security of the country. However, budgetary constraints, combined with the disproportionate stress on ‘sub conventional warfare’ has had adverse effects on building capability for conventional deterrence and war fighting.

Some of the measures that need to be put in place are discussed below.

- The Indian military of the future,backed by nuclear capability, is essentially meant for conventional deterrence and war fighting, to the extent of even taking on the worst case scenario of a ‘two and a half front threat’ concurrently.The Indian Army’s deterrence posture must be based on flexible ‘capability based’ structures to deal with various forms and levels of conflict, overall,a technology pre-dominant capability for prosecuting ‘hybrid’ conventional and informational wars,under the nuclear shadow. We need to prepare for the same in the immediate (3 years), medium (7 years) and long term (15 years) perspective.We must develop appropriate ‘retaliatory’ counter-sub conventional threat capability within existing resources by raising the Special Forces Command.

- The Indian Army needs to undergo transformation and ‘right-sizing’ towards becoming an optimised modern force, with a more efficient ‘teeth to tail’ ratio. Whereas it provides ‘comfort’, from the military commanders’ point of view, to have an independent capability for each front, it would make more pragmatic and economic sense to have only a minimum essential capability on either front, while maintaining a suitably large ‘dual-front capable’ central reserve, possibly under the aegis of a Strategic Reserve Command, to reinforce the front where the actual threat develops. Our logistics need to be integrated and optimised on priority.

- Enhanced jointness with the Air Force and the Navy,appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and formation of ‘theatre commands’, would definitely contribute to optimisation of resources. However, for such a system to succeed, the structure of each ‘theatre command’ and the Service background of the commander must reflect operational necessity and not ‘political’ or ‘mathematical’ correctness. In the latter case, the repercussions would be disastrous.

- The Indian Army must fully operationalise the concept of the Reorganised Army’s Multi-role Quick Reaction Force (RAMFOR), by creating a highly mobile, assault division as a strategic reserve, consisting of modular brigades capable of being transported swiftly by air, land or sea. This must be done within its existing resources.

- The Army must review its ‘big ticket’ needs and prioritise them periodically, as has been done since the last three years and ensure sustained push with the Government and bureaucracy to ensure timely procurement of items listed as ‘most critical’. Modernisation of equipment must involve not only replacement of vintage equipment but also upgradation of selected quantities of old serviceable equipment in a phased manner. Maximum priority must be accorded to acquisition of 155 mm towed artillery guns, air defence weapons for mechanised formations, assault rifles and ATGMs for the infantry, and replacement helicopters for the Army Aviation, as well as for technological upgradation of T-72 tanks and ICVs. Fresh review of quantities of each ‘big ticket’ item must becarried out, keeping in view the enhanced effectiveness of newly procured systems.

- The government must closely monitor capability building of the Services, especially the Army, and vigorously support plans to address ‘hollowness’ of weapons, equipment and ammunition. Where necessary, the government must not hesitate to sanction ‘one time import’ of ammunition against critical deficiencies.

- The government must increase allocation for defence (less pensions) to 2.5% of GDP initially, and further raise it gradually to 3%, till modernisation of the Armed Forces is completed. Concurrently, the government must introduce a system of ‘roll-on’ budget, whereby, funds once allotted to defence cannot be re-appropriated for any other purpose. It should even consider re-allotting previously withdrawn or surrendered budget to the Armed Forces, to help catch up with their modernisation needs.Further, the proposed defence expenditure must be aligned to the NITI Ayog’s three, seven and 15 year vision and budget allocation perspective.

- The Indian Army must cap its overall numbers at the current level of 1.3 million, while making fresh efforts at making up the shortfall of officers. New structures for expanding the Army Aviation, enhancing informational warfare capability and for raising Headquarters for the proposed Special Operations, Cyber and Space Commands must be provided manpower from within the existing establishment.

- The government must stop protecting the defence public sector and must create a genuine ‘level playing field’ for entry of the private sector into indigenous defence manufacturing. The private industry must be provided all possible incentives and encouragement to not only manufacture components or sub-systems for the Defence PSUs and Ordnance Factories, or just take over their assembly lines, but to manufacture full systems independently.

- The Army Design Bureau must be fully operationalised on priority, under guidance and support from the Ministry of Defence. It must be empowered to contribute effectively towards creation of futuristic designs of all types of weapons and equipment for the Army. A separate cadre of officers must be deputed to this organisation and specialisation, once created among them, must be retained. Care must be taken, however, to protect their promotional prospects and career interests.

- All functions within the procurement set-up at Army headquarters must be manned by specialists rather than by generalists, thus making drastic improvements in the existing system. Specialists can be created by focussed selection, followed by extended and repeated tenures in the Army Design Bureau and ‘procurement’ related postings at army headquarters.

- The Indian Army must introduce measures to restructure as well as cut down ‘revenue’ expenditurewith a view to generate more funds for ‘capital’ procurement. The first step would be to integrate and, where possible, outsource its logistic functions. A good beginning was made on this account in 2011-12 as part of initial implementation of the Army’s Transformation Study ordered at that time, but the process was stalled and reversed due to vested interests and lack of sustained resolve. Further, concurrent to induction of new big ticket items and automated processes as part of the Army’s modernisation, the Army must restructure its units and cut down manpower, where warranted. Plans for the same must be approved well in advance.However, efforts to reduce manpower must follow (and not precede) the equipment modernisation process.

- And last but not the least, the government must provide guidance to the military through issue of national security strategy, defence policy and military strategy so that the three Services, including the Army, can align their respective policies and doctrines to these formulations in a coordinated manner.

There can be no doubt that the Indian Army needs to be modernised on priority. To achieve this objective, the Government and the Army will have to take a look at the entire issue afresh and come up with innovative solutions to address the various obstacles standing in the way. Unless the identified challenges are addressed imaginatively, the modernisation plan will continue to flounder, as has been the experience over the past few years. Nonetheless, if the government of the day is seriously interested in modernising its Army, it must start off by allocating additional budget and starting a system of ‘roll on’ budget so that money once allotted for modernisation cannot be re-appropriated for any other purpose whatsoever.

first published:January 30, 2017, 13:02 IST