In a nation where instances of admission of individual responsibility are depressingly rare, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral D.K. Joshi’s resignation following the tragic accident on INS Sindhuratna is welcome evidence that some officials, at least, still hold themselves to the highest standards. Behind his resignation, though, lies a terrifying story: India’s military is, literally, on the verge of breakdown. In recent years, each military chief has told Defence Minister A.K. Antony of the growing danger that India might prove unable to fight future wars. Even as the Army has been instructed to be prepared to fight a war on two fronts, acquisitions of desperately needed armour and artillery systems have been endlessly delayed. The Air Force is warning that its combat fleet will start shrinking from 2017; squadrons are rationing flying time to prolong the life of aircraft for as long as possible. The Navy is well below strength, and its increasingly obsolescent platforms are dangerous. Last year’s explosion on board INS Sindhurakshak, one of 10 significant accidents involving the Navy in the last seven months, caused more damage than the Navy ever suffered at war. Perhaps most dangerous, all three services face large-scale deficits of officers, because the armed forces’ pay scales and service conditions are too poor to attract the skilled young people modern militaries need. There are more than a few in the armed forces who are asking whether the civilian leadership is not just as responsible for the deaths on board the Sindhuratna as Admiral Joshi, whose resignation the Union government was so quick to accept.
Though Mr. Antony’s years in office have seen him maintain his stellar reputation for personal probity — which is no mean achievement in itself — he has done little to address the looming crisis in Indian defence. Equipment purchases have stalled at the whiff of scandal, often forcing the forces to restart the acquisition process, that can last years. In fairness to Mr. Antony, the problem is not all of his making. The depreciation of the rupee against the dollar, and India’s slowing growth, have stripped him of resources badly needed for modernisation. Yet, there is no glossing over the fact that too little has been done on defence reform and capacity-building. India can only hope it is not too late. The last Indian military chief to hand in his resignation was General K.S. Thimayya, who did so in 1959 to protest Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon’s refusal to consider his plans to prepare the Army for a war with China. Prime Minister Nehru persuaded the legendary General to take back his resignation, but chose not to persuade his Defence Minister to take the threat of war seriously. The consequences still haunt India.