Merely acquiring modern weapons without changing the national defence management system, creates a false sense military power

“Armed Forces are only as good as their weapons,” is a well-known adage. That was true when kinetic energy in the form of guns, tanks, ships and aircraft formed the essential power of armed forces. Merely collecting ever more of such hardware, or, having a million men under arms, is however no insurance against defeat in a war today. Saddam Hussein and others through history learnt it at great price to themselves and to their nations. Modern war is conducted on land, sea and in the skies, but as much and more in the electronic spectrum; and through space-based surveillance and control of the battlefield. Above everything else, the structures which bring together the armed forces, political and bureaucratic machinery to work in synergy form the essential components of modernisation. Every developed and developing country is conscious of this overarching need and is continuously finding ways to optimise the nation’s organisational, technical, defence production and R&D mix .

In India, military modernisation is still largely viewed as the acquisition of weapon systems. This skewed view leads to a ‘bean counting’ approach which compares how much India has in comparison with China, Pakistan or other likely adversaries. The book under review covers a range of military modernisation subjects in terms of army, navy, air force, R&D, missiles etc and their inventories. The authors of this edited book do a fine job of the efforts and processes employed by the Indian governments in improving the battle fighting inventories of the armed forces. As wars of recent decades have shown, from Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya, Gaza and Lebanon and now in Syria, mere military inventories and kinetic power do not win wars. Victory in such wars is not just a question of defeating the opposing militaries but of obtaining a peaceful outcome.

India’s economic growth and its military strength in a complex security environment has made it a major military power in Asia. It is currently one of the world’s largest weapon systems importers. Its overwhelming import dependence for military hardware has turned it into possibly the largest military markets for weapons producing nations. Developed countries whose armament industries are finding it difficult to sell their produce after the Cold War, see India as military purchase bulwark. The competition to sell major armament systems to India is therefore so great that even large cutbacks and bribes come in play. The system of ever increasing defence budgets, need for ever modern weapon systems which can only be imported, and a stagnant Indian defence production capacity, has led to a self-sustaining negative security spiral from which India needs to come out. Military modernisation is, therefore, in need of going beyond numbers of weapons and systems, to improving national defence as an eco-system, involving all organs of the government and the political, economic and technological sinews of the nation.

The critical issue which affects the optimal performance of India’ defence system is the higher management of national defence. Since the war against China in 1962 till as late as the turn of the century when the Kargil experience came about, there has been a real need for a responsive and accountable structure for national defence. The Subrahmanyam Committee Report, the GOM Report and the recent Naresh Chandra Committee Report have made unambiguous recommendations to change the system to improve matters. The heart of military modernisation lies in changing the political mindset which finds comfort in the structures of the past, even after they have been found to be unresponsive, and unaccountable. A quote from the Subrahmanyam Committee sums up the need: “India is perhaps the only major democracy where the Armed Forces Headquarters are outside the apex government structure ... what we need is a National Defence Headquarters ... The status quo is often mistakenly defended as embodying civilian ascendancy over the armed forces, which is not the real issue. In fact, locating the service headquarters in the government will further enhance civilian supremacy.”

The Indian system is need of a major change and it will not come about without a political leadership committed to such change. It is futile to modernise the military in India with an antiquated system manned by inflexible mindsets. Merely acquiring modern weapons systems, without changing the national defence management system creates a false sense military power.

In times of crises in national defence, modern weapons systems alone will be of little use. Wars may be infrequent but preparation and readiness for them is a continuous endeavour. The structures which ensure the nation’s defence readiness must be predicated on modern lines. The Indian structures continue to adhere to colonial models which developed nations have long discarded. The prevailing system neither facilitates a cohesive joint effort by the three services, nor does it integrate them with the Ministry of Defence. This aspect of modernisation is an area which the book should have addressed in much greater detail.

Seminar-based publications — and the current book is no exception — do a good job of listing the mechanics and processes by which Indian military modernisation is being attempted. The chapters “Indian Defence Industries: Struggling with Change”, “Indo-US Defence Relationship: Prospects and Limitations”, “Indo-Russian Defence Ties: An Overdependence Dilemma”, “Internal Security Challenges and Role of Central Armed Police Forces”, cover known ground, albeit with carefully researched footnotes and quotes. This makes the book a compendium of known facts brought into one volume. The book serves the useful role of a source material, even as it contributes little to understanding India’s real challenge in military modernisation.

India's Military Modernisation - Challenges and Prospects: Edited by Rajesh Basrur, Ajaya Kumar Das, Mannjeet S. Pardesi; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 950.

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