The row over General V.K. Singh's age has created fissures between the Army and the Ministry of Defence. The main victim is the modernisation of the Army.

Irrespective of the outcome of the Mexican stand-off between General V.K. Singh and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over his disputed date of birth, both the Army and the Defence Ministry are eventually bound to be the losers in equal measure.

Sadly, Gen. Singh's tenure, whenever he retires will be known principally for his age dispute, attendant subterfuges by his predecessors to allegedly ensure their favoured candidates' succession to the Army's top job and the MoD's disingenuous role in what was seemingly an avoidable hullabaloo.

The battle over “reconciling” the commander-in-chief's birth date will also go down, without prejudice to either of the two disputants, as possibly the most bizarre challenge ever faced by any modern military, leave alone the world's third largest army.

But closure in the matter, in a largely graceless and unforgiving system, will almost certainly engender grief and bitterness in varying measure for the feuding parties where such eventual outcomes are rarely, if at all, handled with either goodwill or magnanimity.

Consider the Hobbesian options:

If Gen. Singh's honour is vindicated by the Supreme Court, backroom negotiations or both, the Army despite avowals to the contrary, would consider it a long overdue slap to the overbearing MoD.

Conceding 1951 to be Gen Singh's birth year would also unquestioningly reinforce the chief's right to serve an additional 10 months in office till March 2013 in order to complete the legitimate tenure to which the solider, much lauded in recent weeks by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) administration, was appointed in March 2010. This would also make him eligible for all “attendant benefits” including pay and emoluments as Gen. Singh has demanded in his Supreme Court petition.

However, retiring Gen. Singh in May 2010 following a “deal” or a “compromise” on vindicating his honour though well within the government's purview, would effectively make Service rules infractuous, rendering even critical military tenures negotiable entities by vested political interests.

This recalls the equally significant, but highly questionable appointment of Sanjeev Tripathi as the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief on December 30, 2010 — the day he was superannuating having attained the age of 60 — after the incumbent K.C. Verma “voluntarily” advanced his retirement date by one month, enabling his junior to succeed him and secure an additional two years in office.

Mr. Verma was reportedly “advised” by the UPA that “offering” to step down as RAW chief 30 days earlier, thereby facilitating Mr. Tripathi's ascension, would make him eligible to head the signals intelligence gathering agency, the National Technical Research Organisation. Thirteen months later, Mr. Verma is still awaiting that appointment.

Conversely, if the MoD prevails over the Army chief, its bureaucrats will chalk it up as yet another, albeit belaboured, victory in their endless rounds of put-me-downs of the uniforms which, in the larger sense really epitomises the Singh-MoD controversy.

Has led to split

The dispute has also created avoidable fault lines within the Services, with many officers supporting the Chief and others believing him to be driven by personal ambition.

Either way, the losing side — whether that's the Army or the MoD, irrespective of the ongoing frenetic negotiations seeking an equitable resolution — will sulk and opportunity presenting, is sure to strike back. In short, widening fissures between Army headquarters and the MoD, simmering for decades and now having reached boiling point, will take long to be salved irrespective of the placatory noises from both sides.

Issue of modernisation

Consequently, Gen. Singh's successor will, doubtless, be more preoccupied with mending these ruptures rather than getting on with the urgent brief of modernising the Army's matériel that desperately needs rejuvenating to enable it operate in a turbulent, militarily sophisticated and increasingly nuclearised neighbourhood.

The age controversy, which has been rumbling ever since Gen. Singh took over and reached a critical stage in May 2011, has already stymied the Army's long-delayed modernisation with little or nothing having being achieved in this field over the past two years, compared with the frantic activity in the two other Services.

A mid-2011 report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and global financial consultants KPMG, for instance revealed that since 2007, India had confirmed over $25 billion worth of military purchases of which the Indian Air Force's share was $17.46 billion, the Indian Navy's $6.16 billion, the Indian Coast Guard's $616 million and the Indian Army's a mere $420 million.

It remains an open secret that the equipment profile of the army's combat arms — infantry and armour — remains woefully inadequate whilst that of support arms like artillery, air defence and the Army Aviation Corps (AAC) to name a few, is equally deficient and obsolete.

By the Army's own admittance, a large proportion of its Main Battle Tank T72M1 “Ajeya” fleet is night blind as is the AAC, both of which constitute a crucial ingredient of the controversial “cold start” doctrine of launching a pre-emptive offensive against Pakistan in a limited war scenario to achieve negotiable military gains in a nuclear weapons environment.

The scandalous artillery deficiency is plagued by an endless cycle of tenders issued, withdrawn and re-issued and several rounds of inconclusive trials conducted, all further complicated by the MoD totally or conditionally blacklisting several top howitzer vendors without providing clarity on their respective status.

More worryingly, some 359 infantry battalions trained ironically for nuclear warfare await the import of a basic weapon system: the 5.56mm assault rifle (AR) to replace the inefficient, locally designed but costly, Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) AR which the army has tentatively employed since the mid-1990's and now abandoned after massive investments.

A tender for 66,000 ARs was issued to 43 overseas vendors last November. Given the Army's and the MoD's cumbersome field trials, evaluation and price negotiation procedures, a winner is not likely to emerge for at least two years if not longer.

Alongside, the army's Fast Track Procurement route to acquire equipment for operational readiness with a 12-14 month timeline rarely ever meets that target, taking twice if not three times as long to execute.

And while Gen. Singh could not have even partially made good these deferred matériel shortcomings during his tenure, the institutional antagonism his birth date has generated is undeniably a reason that the Army's overdue modernisation drive has had to be postponed, something that will eventually have an impact on the country's defence posture. Is setting the record straight on his age the price worth paying?

(Rahul Bedi is India correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly and is based in New Delhi.)

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