Will S-400 deal with Russia close India's Inventory Gaps?

Published on Oct 8 2018

The visit of President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi (October 5) has drawn global attention to the nature  of the bilateral relationship that India has with Russia going back to the Cold War decades when the former Soviet Union was a valuable and trusted partner. This element has been inherited by contemporary Russia but there has been a visible aloofness in recent years in the Delhi-Moscow relationship and the Putin visit it about hitting the reset button.   

Currently, the focus is on the Russian built S 400 air defense system and it is understood that this US $5 billion deal will be one of the major acquisitions announced by India during the current summit.  While there has been considerable speculation about the impact this acquisition will have on the India-US relationship, a more fundamental question needs to be raised. Is the S 400 the higher priority for India at this point or is it the gaps in the Indian military inventory? 

More recently the nation-wide celebration of the second anniversary of the September 28, 2016 "surgical strikes" was envisaged as a major event to recall the valour of the Indian Army personnel who had carried out daring covert operations against terror launch pads across the LoC (Line of Control).  This event was launched with appropriate fanfare in Jodhpur by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also addressed the annual Combined Commanders Conference in the desert town on September 28.  The sub-text between the visibility accorded to the valor of the soldier through the recall of the "surgical strikes" and the glaring gaps in the inventory credibility (and hence capability) of the Indian military merits objective review that goes beyond the prevailing electoral compulsions. 

While there has been no formal press statement about what the Prime Minister had said to the country’s top military brass in Jodhpur – it is understood that Modi stressed on the need for "jointness" among the three services and the need for the armed forces to "work together".

This is a familiar exhortation by the Indian PM and Modi had made this observation regarding the need for jointness four years ago in October 2014 – his first address to the combined commanders. At the time the PM had assured the military of his commitment to provide adequate resources for the modernization of the armed forces. This was reassuring and Modi also promised to meet the service chiefs once a month – an unprecedented initiative that was enthusiastically welcomed at the time. 

The focus on urging the Indian armed forces to strive towards a joint doctrine is not new and as far back as 2004, then PM Manmohan Singh, in his first address to the combined commanders, noted:  “Reforms within the Armed Forces also involve recognition of the fact that our Navy, Air Force and Army can no longer function in compartments with exclusive chains of command and single service operational plans.” 

To go back further in recent Indian history, after the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee had also made a similar exhortation and this was done in a more rigorous manner through the recommendations of the Group of Ministers  at the time.

However, almost 20 years later, the Indian military  has not  arrived at any consensus among the three services and the received wisdom is that the Indian Air Force is against the idea of jointness leading to theatre commands with pooled resources. The men in blue maintain that, for  India,  with its distinctive geography and probable security exigencies,  air power must be retained with one service and brought to bear in whichever theatre that it is required. Consequently, the appointment of a CDS (Chief of  Defence Staff) has remained in limbo for well over two  decades and in the last year of its tenure the Modi government faces the same challenge, namely that the much sought after military jointness remains elusive. 

However, the more  serious challenge to the Indian military is the fact that its platform and  equipment  inventory has glaring gaps of quality and quantity. Across the board, each service is grappling with serious deficiencies. For example, the army is still waiting for a  replacement to its Bofors artillery gun; the navy for its submarines and minesweepers; and for the air force, the lack of fighter planes is now symbolized in the unsavory Rafale controversy. 

While the nation is being encouraged to salute the sacrifice that the soldier makes – which is indeed welcome  – it merits note that the more abiding challenge for India  is the lack of adequate fiscal  resources for ensuring the operational credibility of the military. In March this year,  parliament was  presented  the  41st report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence by its chairman,  Major General B C Khanduri (retd.), a widely respected soldier and cabinet  minister in the Vajpayee government.

Dwelling on the critical role of  of  adequate resources for the military, the report  pointed out that the current allocation is  “not supportive to the inevitable needs of the Army” with its  “huge deficiencies and obsolescence of weapons, stores and ammunition existing in Indian Army.” 

In the most scathing observation, the Khanduri report pointed out that the Indian Army is holding e 68 percent of vintage category inventory, just about 24 percent of current category and only eight per cent of state-of-the-art category. The situation for the other two services, the navy and air force, is no different.  As a thumb-rule, the vintage category ought to be below the 25 percent level for any military to ensure operational credibility.

Thus the inference that follows is that while the military success of the "surgical  strikes"  is being recalled for its electoral potential  (which incidentally is a recurring practice in democracies), the gaps in the Indian military infrastructure have been left unaddressed by the current government. And the one major acquisition that had been mooted – the Rafale fighter plane - is now mired in political controversy.

It has not helped Modi that the Defence Ministry has not had political continuity at the helm and  the current incumbent is the fourth  in the chair. Given the kind of  higher defence challenges that India faces, of which inventory gaps is only the most visible, this is a serious leadership constraint to the kind of re-wiring and structural changes that the Indian ecosystem which sustains the military needs. 

Modi hit the right notes during his 2014 election campaign when he pointed to the many deficiencies that  the Indian soldier and the military had to contend with in the discharge of their  duties and it was hoped that this issue would receive the sustained and empathetic attention it deserved. It would be instructive to know if the Khanduri report was discussed at all in the Jodhpur commanders' conference and if so what  is the way ahead to ensure that the  current ‘vintage’ index of the Indian military does not increase further?  Perhaps it is to review the S 400 in its entirety, and  the priority being accorded to its induction,  and using the funds so allocated to acquire more modern weaponry.

Source: South Asia Monitor, 5 October 2018, https://southasiamonitor.org/news/will-s-400-deal-with-russia-close-india-s-military-inventory-gaps-/defence/28211