So dreadful is the prospect of a military defeat, and so horrifying its consequences, that nations are willing to go to any length to avoid such an outcome. It is for this reason that national security has been historically deemed, worldwide — by economists and not soldiers — as “the first charge on the treasury.”
Independent India, unfortunately, saw defence expenditure being relegated to the “non-plan” category, within the ambit of a Soviet-inspired, central economy. In another anomaly, the pension bill of veteran soldiers — a separate charge on the exchequer — was linked to the defence budget and its (inevitable) growth trotted out as an excuse for the dwindling funds available for force-enhancement and hardware replacement/modernisation.
Thus, for years, governments dragged their feet, for “want of resources”, over the army’s demand for a mountain strike corps. But, ironically, the 2020 Chinese incursions in Ladakh resulted in the deployment of 50,000-60,000 troops — over a corps strength — and the outflow of a huge unplanned expenditure to support this indefinite deployment.
The most disheartening aspect of this situation has been the fact that the finance ministry, instead of finding ways and means of raising essential, additional funds for national defence, has passed the buck to the armed forces, and demanded that they evolve measures for reducing the pension bill. One presumes that the Agnipath scheme, launched with much fanfare, is an outcome of this demand.
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But rather than engage in a critique of this controversial project, which has already seen much debate, controversy and public disturbances, let me focus on two larger issues, which lie at the root of much that is wrong in our approach to national security.
Every nation faces the eternal “guns vs butter” dilemma, and has to find its own way to resolve, what the US military terms the “ends-ways-means” conundrum. All major powers undertake a periodic (every 4-5 years) review of their evolving national security objectives, the options available, and the economic/military means available for achieving them. Such reviews automatically generate assessments of existing/potential adversary threats to national interests, as well as the state of own military’s material/operational readiness.
From here, it is a short step to the estimation of the military capabilities required, and the funding support that the nation will need to generate. Apart from providing fiscal guidance, this process also facilitates the evolution of a national security strategy. Our neighbourhood adversary, China, has, since 2002, been issuing, with unfailing regularity, a biennial “Defence White Paper”, which encapsulates all of the foregoing, and is available on the Internet; for the information of foes and friends, alike.
The government of India, on the other hand, has neglected to undertake any such exercise, in the past 75 years. It has, thereby deprived itself, and the taxpayer, of a holistic, national security picture of: (a) Where we stand; (b) where do we want to go; and (c) how do we intend to get there? Unsurprisingly, India is amongst the few major powers which has failed to issue a National Security Strategy or Doctrine, and is consequently seen offering fumbling responses, to emergent threats as well as to financial stringency in the security domain.
A second fact that we need to face is that our armed forces have remained in a Second World War time-warp, as far as their organisation and doctrines are concerned. Half-hearted attempts at organisational reform have come to naught due to lack of political will as well as internal resistance from the services; with the constitution of a Chief of Defence Staff and creation of a Department of Military Affairs providing the latest examples.
However, the most troubling lacuna is that our 1.4 million strong army has neither benefitted fully from the “revolution in military affairs” of the 1980-2000 era, nor learnt all the lessons of the ongoing “hybrid warfare,” and remains fixated on the “boots-on-the-ground” syndrome. Given the transformed nature of warfare, down-sizing of the Indian army, by substituting manpower with smart technology and innovative tactics, has become an imperative need. Against this backdrop, a scheme on the lines of Agnipath, appropriately constituted, and focused on enhancing “combat effectiveness” rather than “effecting savings” or “generating employment,” could have triggered a reformative process. But a number of caveats need to be borne in mind in this context.
Firstly, given the parlous security situation, on the country’s northern and western borders as well as the ongoing domestic turbulence, this is not the best time to cast the armed forces — already short of manpower — into turmoil, with a radical and untried new recruitment system.
Secondly, such a scheme, in its present form, is suitable only for the army, whose large infantry component is not excessively burdened with technology. In case of the navy and air force, it must be recognised that at least 5-6 years are required before a new entrant can acquire enough hands-on experience to be entrusted with the operation or maintenance of lethal weapon systems and complex machinery and electronics.
Thirdly, no matter how extensively the issue was discussed in meetings or on files, a radical change of this nature should have been subjected to a trial before service-wide implementation. Ideally, a few units of the regular or Territorial Army could have been earmarked as a testing ground, and feed-back obtained.
Lastly, bitter experience of the past has shown that the home ministry has resisted induction of ex-servicemen into the armed-police and para-military forces, on the grounds that it would spoil the career path of their own cadres. Similarly, state governments and other agencies have blatantly ignored the reservations mandated for ESM. Therefore, if the Agnipath scheme has to offer a meaningful promise of post-demobilisation employment or education, this must be mandated by an Act of Parliament, on the lines of the “GI Bill” enacted by the US Congress.
In conclusion, seeing the detritus of burnt trains, wrecked buses and social turmoil, often seen in the wake of many recent pronouncements, one is left wondering whether dissenting opinions are tolerated and contrarian advice accepted or given any weightage in our high-level decision-making forums?
The writer is a retired chief of naval staff.