Indian Armed Forces or Oliver Twists of India?

By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)


May I Have Some More?   That was Oliver Twist’s classic question for which he got caned at the orphanage for asking for some extra gruel. 1.5 % of the GDP allocated for defence evokes hunger of the Oliver Twist variety in the Armed Forces who have been asking for more for from the Government for a long time now.  This has been analysed and commented upon by many experts. All of them unanimously recommend that the allocation should go up to 2% at least. The Government has given the same answer repeatedly. No caning but an emphatic but silent NO. (Caning guaranteed only if you are on Jantar Mantar!) The logic of the Government appears to be that 1.5% of the GDP may seem static however it is of a GDP set to double from 2.5 Tn to 5 Tn USD. So, will the defence budget not be doubled? In addition, it must cater for many more Oliver Twists’ in the Indian social welfare landscape- Ayushman Bharat, Swach Bharat, Farmer Distress, National Water Mission etc. The Government might also be thinking – there is ASAT capability and nuclear and missile strength besides conventional forces which have been heavily funded. Also has it not given 36 Rafales, S 400 and a slew of Warships and 155 mm Guns to the Forces? So, what is the problem? In any case even if additional allocation was made, the Armed Forces and the MOD do not have the capability to spend it. If a starving person is given extra food, he will be afflicted with indigestion.

Realpolitik. It is very clear that the Government’s strategic assessment could be running on lines like Pakistan is bankrupt. Post Balakot it cannot do anything funny. Nuclear dynamics limit space for extensive battles. If it attempts anything it can be given a fitting riposte within the diminishing window of conventional warfare. All the Shisha Bar stories, and businesses of the Pakistani Army could tumble out in the next round. The lesson learnt by Sarfaraz and his teammates will be fresh in the mind. 7-0 in cricket and 4-0 in war. Pakistan as a major threat is in recession. Just have defensive capability with a limited punitive edge. Such punitive edge is inherent in capability development against China. QED. In Doklam, despite grave provocation and big talk, the Chinese blinked. After that, Chinese economy has cooled, it is in a debilitating trade war with USA, BRI is not going well and Made in China 2025 plan is facing severe problems as seen in the Huawei episode. China has problems whose solutions lie partly in India. War is not an option for both countries. That is clear from the body language of leadership of both countries. In fact, there is a decadal window before war clouds could appear again on the horizon!  In addition, there is the factor of Indo US Strategic Partnership, QUAD in the making and other strategic initiatives. Lastly, political capital has been made and necessity of the Armed Forces is five years away till the next election. So? Business as usual does not include priority for the Armed forces. While veterans and other professionals are crying hoarse that India cannot wish the wolf away, the Armed Forces are very clearly wishing their wolves away at a different level!  Time to stop bleating and get down to real business. Harsh? No. Realpolitik.

Turnaround Factors. The way to turn things around and make the defence budget allocations work better is the order of the day. It must be underpinned by three factors. One. A hard and realistic threat assessment to affect a sensible reduction of manpower. Two. Reorganisation of public defence industry to make it cost effective. Three. Investment in indigenous defence technology. Revisiting these issues with purpose can contribute to the Armed Forces in making do with the allotted budgets. Utopian? No. Realistically we have no other choice. No? We can continue to bleat. What then is to be done?

Threat Reassessment and Downsizing. The overall threat needs a joint reassessment instead of individual service perceptions. Ideally, we will need a CDS to do that. However, given the reality of India, he is a mythical unicorn and best forgotten for the present.  It is incumbent upon the Service Chiefs to sit together with the CISC and relevant MOD officials and come out with a cogent threat pattern for the next decade or so. It can be sanctified by the apex council formulated for defence affairs under the NSA. This will give a realistic indication of the capability and requirements to ward off these threats. For example, if Pakistan is a receding threat, some capability development programs to cater for a Pak based threat can be put on the back burner. Reorganisation can focus on the China front. Maybe it will be better to reorganise our three existing strike reserves poised against Pakistan to be mountain capable and be poised against China rather than raising a new Mountain Strike Corps. It will also enable downsizing. These are only some thoughts. Many more realistic options exist. Such realism is not alien to our thinking. In the late nineties we made peace with China and shifted forces West to sort out the Pakistani threat. Unless we factor in a realistic threat and reorganize ourselves to cater for it, we will not be able to do realistic downsizing.   A major part of our budget woes gets addressed if manpower is reduced.

Reorganization of Public Defence Industry. Currently the DDP and its constituents are working on principles of monopolistic insider trading. The DGQA which is meant to assure quality stands compromised under the DDP.  As a result, India is paying double time for lack of efficiency and quality endlessly. For example, poor quality of ammunition which is the norm, results in premature ageing or accidents which implies setting aside/ destroying huge quantities of ammunition. It is a double whammy to replace defective ammunition prematurely since it is an unplanned cost and an operational hole not to mention of loss of confidence. Why should the nation pay for this endless cycle of a serpent eating its tail? The Department of Indigenisation needs focus and given tangible indigenisation goals by cost and time or axed.  Our revenue procurement must focus on many small items which we continue to import merrily at great cost and effort but can be indigenised. There has been talk of moving the DPSUs out of the MOD. In my opinion, the entire DDP with the OFB and DPSUs should be moved out of MOD and made a bespoke organization. UK has such a model. In fact, in the UK this bespoke organization takes pride in delivery on time and at better rates. Stop monopoly and preferential treatment to DDP entities. OFB and DPSUs cannot be middlemen or alternate channels of import. Make them competitive and realistic. I have never understood as to how cost escalation is over 100% for an equipment over a time period when procured through OFB or DPSUs and it is only 20% for a similar time period when imported (I can quote specific cases if challenged). Someone must be in line for a Nobel prize for milking us  bnmvkdry through this organized self-loot. If the Armed Forces can put their foot down and cauterize this internal bleeding, they will do themselves a lot of good. India is central to international conflict and disaster zones. We need to make this count.  If someone in the government can think right, there is a huge scope for exports, which is not being exploited now.

Hi Tech Investment. Many countries make hi-tech defence exports pay for their R&D and defence requirements. These are the countries from whom we mostly import defence equipment. USA, Israel and Russia to name a few. Why can’t we copy their model? In case we must export defence equipment we have to invest in technology. That is alien to our system at present. Recently I spoke to the future leadership of the Armed Forces as to how to ingest technology into the Armed Forces. The sense I got from the questions posed to me was that most of us in uniform expect others to develop cutting edge systems without putting in the hard yards to convert technology into warfighting capability. The Armed Forces are addicted to the lazy comfort of imported equipment. The simple truth is that Mohammed must go to the mountain. But our Mohammed questions as to why the mountain is not coming to him. The only Mountain which comes to our Mohammad is good old DRDO since he has nowhere else to go. Let me give you a current ongoing example. A student from IIT comes up with a terrific idea based on disruptive technologies. He displays it in various Armed Forces conferences. Everyone appreciates it and says “Oh yes. This is what we need… Great equipment… Great idea… But we cannot fund it immediately… We have to go through our laid down procedure… (which will take 5-10 years!)”. Along comes Microsoft. Sees this product in a competition and awards a sum of 5 lakhs and takes the student to Seattle to present the idea. Later Lockheed Martin also picks up this idea to be funded as a start-up and writes a cheque out for 10 lakhs. All within three months. The way this story is evolving, this classroom idea is going to go abroad, get incubated, converted into a fine piece of equipment and will be sold to us at 50 times the price ten years later when our procedures are in place. Let me elucidate further. I was explaining some ideas to a Vice Chief. His response was – well these ideas are great in classrooms and labs, but we need deployable equipment. Well, all ideas emanate from classrooms and labs, get incubated and then get developed into defence equipment. What is the sense you get? The Armed Forces are out of the technology loop. It does not matter if the PM exhorts IITs to contribute to indigenise defence technologies. At this rate and with this attitude, we will never have budgets to whet our appetite. Que Sabe? Armed Forces must develop the habit of investing in defence technology and should be fundamental to covert ideas from classrooms to defence equipment by going through the ingestion loop of identification, incubation, development and production. In desi terms if you want a ladoo which you cannot afford, you must learn to make it. Then you can even sell it! Start thinking anew.

Good Generalship. Everyone knows that India faces grave security challenges. However, we must accept that in India we have reached a stage where Defence budgets will remain static in percentage terms. With our present outlook and procedures, we will continue to be Oliver Twists and keep asking for more. We must change and put our foot forth with resolve. We must start thinking out of the box to see how to make things work within the existing budgets. It is possible if we have Good Generalship in the Armed Forces. If the Armed Forces have good leadership and the will to develop technologies for themselves, it will happen. Otherwise Fagin will continue to twist Oliver’s Tail.