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INS Sindhuranta and beyond

The casual attitude towards India’s defense preparedness at all levels is worrying.

An incident on board Indian Navy submarine INS Sindhuratna resulted in the unfortunate deaths of two officers and injuries to several other sailors.  Navy chief Adm DK Joshi has resigned, “taking moral responsibility” for the incident.  There have been as many as four major incidents pertaining to Indian Navy submarines in as many years. In August last year, a fire onboard INS Sindhurakshak resulted in explosions causing its sinking and the deaths of 18 sailors onboard.

There are similarities between the two ill-fated submarines.  INS Sindhurakshak and Sindhuratna are diesel-powered, Sindhughosh-class submarines first introduced in 1986.  INS Sindhuratna was commissioned in 1988, while Sindhurakshak was commissioned in 1997.  Both submarines were retrofitted at the same ship yard in Russia.  In 2010, a faulty battery value on board INS Sindhurakshak is alleged to have leaked hydrogen, resulting in fire and explosion that killed one sailor and injured two others.  Reports, although preliminary, now indicate that a battery leak could have also caused yesterday’s explosion on board INS Sindhuratna.

The reasons for Wednesday’s incident could be many, including failure of the crew to follow standard operating procedures, poor maintenance, technical malfunctioning or failure due to obsolescence.  Indeed, a 2008 CAG report highlighted delays in induction and refitting of submarines and projected, at the time, that 63 percent of India’s submarines would have completed their prescribed life by 2012.  However as of 2014, continued delays in India’s Scorpene-class submarine project are further straining the Navy’s submarine force levels and the serviceability of its aging fleet.

To be clear, incidents are bound to occur in even the most sophisticated, well-maintained and well-equipped of navies.  However, what should be concern for India is the casual approach to investigation and remedial action when incidents do occur.  The Navy announced the constitution of a Board of Inquiry to investigate the August 14, 2013 incident involving INS Sindhurakshak.  It was later determined that a full inquiry could not be conducted until the submarine was salvaged.

Going by news reports, it has taken 6 months for the Navy just to identify a company to salvage the vessel.  It is expected that it will take another 4 months after a contract is signed and work commences, to retrieve the sunken submarine.  An official inquiry will commence only then.  It is unlikely, then, that we will understand what happened to INS Sindhurakshak any time before 2015.  Where, other than in India, can these delays appear to be reasonable?  And what is the Navy and the political leadership supposed to do with its other Sindhughosh-class submarines in the interim?  Ground them pending inquiry, thereby reducing the number of operational Indian submarines to a grand total of 4, or continue to operate them and risk further accidents?

It is unfortunate that, with the exception of a few media houses, these questions are not being put to the people entrusted with India’s national security.  Mainstream media coverage of Adm DK Joshi’s resignation and his apparently acrimonious relationship with Minister of Defense AK Antony has overwhelmed questions on the root causes of these incidents and the general apathy at both political and military levels with which they have been dealt.

Some former servicemen have, perhaps rightly, rallied around Adm DK Joshi on TV news channels.  No doubt, there is a chasm, deep and wide in civil-military relations in India.  These are issues that the mainstream media must follow-up on.  However, to allow subplots pertaining to personality conflicts – the honorable and upright Navy officer vs. a much-pilloried Defense Minister — to dominate issues relating to the state of defense preparedness just because the former makes good viewing is to do disservice to the country.

General elections in 2014 could, by design, address the issue of the lack of political stewardship in defense.  A mere change in political leadership, however, cannot guarantee that we will be any closer to identifying or resolving the issues plaguing our submarine fleet.  What happens when these issues resurface, then? Lather, rinse, repeat?

 

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The Indian army’s new strike corps

Five key questions that the country’s leadership must answer.

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) gave its approval last week to the raising of a mountain strike corps along the border with China.  The Indian army’s only “China-centric” strike corps — first mooted in 2009 — will reportedly cost Rs. 62,000 crores (about $10 billion) and will raise over 45,000 soldiers.  Reaction to the announcement has been mixed; some commentators were encouraged by the government’s move, while others have taken the view that the reaction is latent and cannot mask the very real structural challenges that India’s armed forces face today.  China’s own reaction to the announcement was muted.

Indeed, opinion was also divided among friends and INI colleagues.  However, after vigorous debate via email, the following questions were arrived at that the powers-that-be ought to be answering with regard to the new strike corps:

1.  Given the timing of the approval by the CCS, it is conceivable that the motivation is related to the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), put forward by China but received with limited enthusiasm in India.  Should India continue to negotiate the BDCA with China, additional muscle deployed along the border with China can effectively convey red lines in negotiations and compromises.  But what good is a border defense cooperation agreement anyway, when India and China have different perceptions on what actually constitutes the “border” between the two countries?

2.  Important questions need to be asked on just how India expects to build capacity for a new strike corps numbering 45,000 soldiers.  Will the divisions and brigades under the corps constitute new raising?  If the answer is a partial yes, then what component of the new corps will absorb existing formations and units?  There appears to be very little clarity on the subject currently publicly available.

Assuming there will be an element of new raising, to what extent will the accretion be on a “save and raise” basis vs. only net spend?  This is important because it carries with it long-term financial implications at a time when there is additional pressure on defense spending as a result of the country’s slowing economy.  Questions of how additional capacity will be built also need to be answered.  The Indian army already suffers from a shortage of 10,000 officers and over 30,000 soldiers in other ranks.  If additional capacity has to be raised, what will its source be?

3.  Next, how effective can we expect the new strike corps to be without a mechanized component?  What utility can mountain divisions really provide as a strike force, given the terrain?  What is the airborne component to lift and shift forces, if there is no mechanized component?  How effective can the new formation be when the infrastructure needed for the rapid mobility of men and material along the border with China continues to be woeful?

4.  Will the new strike corps be a dual-tasked formation (i.e., will it play a role on the Pakistan border, if the situation arises) or will it be a formation solely focused on the Tibetan plateau, as some media reports suggest?  Given what we know about its constituent units, how effective can the formation be in areas like Ladakh, or in plain or desert terrain along the border with Pakistan?

5.  The final point gets to the crux of the issue where India is concerned: our collective thinking continues to miss the forest for the trees on defense-related issues.  We have been unable to break away from an army and land border-centric mindset that dominated our strategic thinking 65 years ago (back then, probably with good reason).If we really are serious about developing capabilities to raise the costs of a Chinese misadventure, would the resources not be better spent on the Indian Navy instead?

India continues to complain about being strategically outflanked by China, but has not done enough to address threats in the Indian Ocean.  The Indian Navy is stretched for resources and strategic projects meant to augment its capabilities have been waylaid.    Instead, we are about to create a new corps and raise as many people as the entire Indian Navy has today without adequate consideration of deterrence already at play where China is concerned. Indeed, what is the point of India’s nuclear weapons and missiles if it continues to obsess over and dedicate asymmetric sums of money and resources towards offensive formations that can achieve, at best, limited tactical gains if a border conflict with China were to break out?

Ultimately, bolstering capabilities along the border with China will always be welcome, but the effectiveness of such an endeavor will be limited if we don’t develop the necessary infrastructure along the border,  don’t address shortages in troops and equipment and continue to ignore the growing asymmetries between the Indian and Chinese navies.

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Sam, the wise and brave

When Manekshaw delivered the KM Kariappa Memorial Lecture.

June 27 marks the 5th anniversary of the passing of one of India’s greatest post-independence military leaders, SHFJ Manekshaw.  In honor of Field Marshal Manekshaw, the COAS Gen. Bikram Singh delivered a commemorative lecture at the Manekshaw Centre in New Delhi.  The Government of India’s Press Information Bureau tells us that the talk was “stimulating,” although we have no way of knowing this, since it was a closed-door affair.

(Comment: And so we continue to perpetuate this absurd practice in our country of largely insulating the armed forces and any discussion about the armed forces from civil society.  Modern nations succeed and thrive through the integration — rather than the isolation — of their armed forces and societies.  Yet we in India hold on to outdated beliefs and misplaced anxieties 65 years after independence.)

But I digress.  Sam Bahadur was not only a great solider but also a brilliant orator.  Excerpts of his Field Marshal KM Kariappa Memorial Lecture from January 1995 follow:

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is a very thin line between becoming a Field Marshal and being dismissed. A very angry Prime Minister read out messages from Chief Ministers of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. All of them saying that hundreds of thousands of refugees had poured into their states and they did not know what to do. So the Prime Minister turned round to me and said: “I want you to do something”.

I said, “What do you want me to do?”

She said, “I want you to enter East Pakistan”.

I said, “Do you know that that means War?”

She said, “I do not mind if it is war”.

I, in my usual stupid way said, “Prime Minister, have you read the Bible?”And the Foreign Minister, Sardar Swaran Singh (a Punjabi Sikh), in his Punjabi accent said, “What has Bible got to do with this?”, and I said, “the first book, the first chapter, the first paragraph, the first sentence, God said, ‘let there be light’’ and there was light. You turn this round and say ‘let there be war’ and there will be war. What do you think? Are you ready for a war? Let me tell you –“it’s 28th April, the Himalayan passes are opening now, and if the Chinese gave us an ultimatum, I will have to fight on two fronts”.

Again Sardar Swaran Singh turned round and in his Punjabi English said, “Will China give ultimatum?”

I said, “You are the Foreign Minister. You tell me”.

Then I turned to the Prime Minister and said, “Prime Minister, last year you wanted elections in West Bengal and you did not want the communists to win, so you asked me to deploy my soldiers in penny pockets in every village, in every little township in West Bengal. I have two divisions thus deployed in sections and platoons without their heavy weapons. It will take me at least a month to get them back to their units and to their formations. Further, I have a division in the Assam area, another division in Andhra Pradesh and the Armoured Division in the Jhansi-Babina area. It will take me at least a month to get them back and put them in their correct positions. I will require every road, every railway train, every truck, every wagon to move them. We are harvesting in the Punjab, and we are harvesting in Haryana; we are also harvesting in Uttar Pradesh. And you will not be able to move your harvest.

I turned to the Agriculture Minister, Mr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, “If there is a famine in the country afterwards, it will be you to blame, not me.” Then I said, “My Armoured Division has only got thirteen tanks which are functioning.”

The Finance Minister, Mr. Chawan, a friend of mine, said, “Sam, why only thirteen?”

“Because you are the Finance Minister. I have been asking for money for the last year and a half, and you keep saying there is no money. That is why.” Then I turned to the Prime Minister and said, “Prime Minister, it is the end of April. By the time I am ready to operate, the monsoon will have broken in that East Pakistan area. When it rains, it does not just rain, it pours. Rivers become like oceans. If you stand on one bank, you cannot see the other and the whole countryside is flooded. My movement will be confined to roads, the Air Force will not be able to support me, and, if you wish me to enter East Pakistan, I guarantee you a hundred percent defeat.”

“You are the Government”, I said turning to the Prime Minister, “Now will you give me your orders?”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have seldom seen a woman so angry, and I am including my wife in that. She was red in the face and I said, “Let us see what happens”. She turned round and said, “The cabinet will meet four o’clock in the evening”.

Everyone walked out. I being the junior most man was the last to leave. As I was leaving, she said, “Chief, please will you stay behind?” I looked at her. I said, “Prime Minister, before you open your mouth, would you like me to send in my resignation on grounds of health, mental or physical?”

“No, sit down, Sam. Was everything you told me the truth?”

“Yes, it is my job to tell you the truth. It is my job to fight and win, not to lose.”

She smiled at me and said, “All right, Sam. You know what I want. When will you be ready?”

“I cannot tell you now, Prime Minister”, I said, but let me guarantee you this that if you leave me alone, allow me to plan, make my arrangements, and fix a date, I guarantee you a hundred percent victory”. [Field Marshal KM Kariappa Memorial Lectures, 1995-2000]

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Death by idealism

India cannot ingratiate itself with China through placation.

Shortsightedness, misguided idealism and a false sense of stature in the world contributed to the debacle 50 years ago against China, the wounds of which are yet to completely heal.  When realization hit home and the sandcastles in the sky finally crumbled, it was too late.  One has only to remind oneself of the two desperate “Eyes Only” letters that Jawaharlal Nehru dispatched to JFK on November 19 to realize the enormity of India’s miscalculations.

However, while steps were taken to correct India’s military posture after the 1962 war,  the sense of idealism and misguided assessments of India’s place and stature in the world continued to dominate years after.  We had learned little in the years immediately succeeding a catastrophic defeat.  Inder Malhotra’s op-ed on nuclear debates in the Lal Bahadur Shastri era following China’s “596” nuclear test in 1964 reveal as much (emphasis added):

WELL before the All India Congress Committee (AICC) could meet to pronounce its verdict on the raging controversy over whether or not to make the atom bomb to meet the Chinese nuclear threat, Lal Bahadur Shastri had made up his mind not to go for nuclear weapons. Instead, he had resolved to rely on international nuclear security guarantees, particularly from the United States and the Soviet Union. How this was to be achieved was far from clear; indeed, the whole idea seemed tentative and half-baked.

Faced with [an] onslaught [to build an atomic bomb], Shastri decided to counterattack, which succeeded because other top party leaders, principally Morarji Desai and Krishna Menon — an odd couple, considering their intense mutual dislike — rallied to the PM’s support. They fully endorsed his moral and economic arguments for sticking to “the Mahatma’s teachings and Nehru’s legacy” and using atomic energy for peaceful purposes only. The high cost of nuclear weapons (Shastri questioned Homi Bhabha’s estimates and the AEC chairman later agreed that he had understated them) also helped the PM’s argument. Desai buttressed it by adding that the Rs 1,000 crore defence budget was already causing great hardship to the people. The huge additional cost of nuclear weapons would be “crushing”.

Eventually, the AICC passed the official resolution to the effect that India “would continue to utilise nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and that India would not enter into a nuclear arms race”. For his part, Shastri made a last-minute concession to his critics by declaring: “We cannot at present think in terms of making atomic bombs in India. We must try to eliminate the atomic bombs in the world”. (Emphasis added). The press called this outcome Shastri’s “triumph”, the Hindustan Times going so far as to hail it as “nothing short of a miracle”. [Indian Express]

The slow and meandering course that this political idealism took in our national security discourse (particularly as it relates to nuclear weapons) was somewhat corrected — first through action in 1974, and later intellectually in the 1980s.  For this, India stands in gratitude to the political backing provided to the evolution of realism in our collective strategic thinking, perhaps best articulated by Rajiv Gandhi’s speech at the UN General Assembly in June 1988.

However, to employ a phrase that Mr. Nehru would appreciate — we have “promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.”  Nuclear weapons may deter direct Chinese aggression against India, but cannot assist us in the ever-expanding projection of Chinese power in East Asia, the subcontinent, and the Indian Ocean.  Our political leaders will need to learn that India cannot ingratiate itself with China through placation.  Dialog with China has its place, of course, but cannot be a substitute for India’s own development of capacity.

We must be more ambitious (not to say, unapologetic and focused) in developing capacities beyond our own shores.  Our delivery systems must continue to mature, rapidly. And our border infrastructure needs to be urgently developed to counter developments on the other side of the border.  But none of these can be effectively achieved without a concerted effort to correct the negative trajectory of the Indian economy.

Being able to balance China requires both the development of military capabilities and sustained economic growth.  While many articles and op-eds reflecting on the 1962 debacle argue (and quite rightly) for need to focus on military growth and better regional engagement to balance Chinese influence, these efforts will be impaired if India is unable to sustain its economic growth.  We have been witness to a faltering economy, caused largely due to political inaction.  A continuation such inaction will impact not only the lives of our citizens, but also jeopardize our influence in the region.  And the Chinese will tell us as much.  India cannot lose sight of the ball in Asia.  There is simply too much at stake.

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