The publication of a report that India’s Army has barely enough ammunition to last through 20 days of intense fighting is yet another indication of just how deficient the country’s defense procurement systems are, not just for shells but in widespread shortages for other systems as well.
The scathing report on ammunition was produced by the country’s public accounts watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and it indicates that worse, India can't expect to have a full stock of ammunition until 2019.
The CAG's report, tabled last week in Parliament, has created a public furor intensifying fears over India's strategic vulnerability to hostile neighbors China and Pakistan. The document further adds that the Indian army's overall holding had been continuously depleting over the five years the audit was conducted. The auditor has chided the defense establishment for glaring mismanagement of ammunition, expressing shock that it has disregarded the principle to hold ammunition for at least 40 days of "intense" fighting as specified under the war reserves policy.
The shortfall adversely impacts the operational readiness of the 1.18-million-member army, raising serious security concerns at a time when geopolitical insecurities have heightened across the continent.
"The startling revelation underscores India's susceptibility to aggressive external forces like China or Pakistan," said Suraj Parikshit of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based think tank. "China's fast-expanding strategic footprint in India's immediate neighborhood is a source of worry. India’s growing border tensions with Pakistan and the approaching drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan this year complicate this dynamic further."
New Delhi's dispute with Beijing over the 4,000-km Indo-Chinese border following a bloody Himalayan war the two fought in 1962 continues to cause considerable rancor on both sides. Chinese troops have made repeated incursions into Indian territory on the border, a source of perpetual headache for South Block, India’s cabinet secretariat.
The news of an ill-equipped Indian army, the world's second largest, is also at odds with the country's reputation as the world's largest importer of arms. Asia's third largest economy now imports three times more weapons than its neighbors China and Pakistan as well as cash-lush Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India accounted for 15 percent of global arms imports from 2010 to 2014. "Between 2005-2009 and 2010-2014, India's arms imports increased by 140 percent,” Sipri said. “In 2005-2009, India's imports were 23 percent below China's and just over double those of Pakistan."
Defense analysts blame India's inability to build a strong industrial base for the current crisis. Unlike China, which has not only built a stronger defense industrial base, but has also emerged as the third largest arms exporter, India spends whopping amounts on buying foreign arms. The country has spent US$16.72 billion in direct payments to foreign armament companies in the last five years, while exporting arms worth a paltry US$426 million in the same period. India is further expected to spend another US$120 billion in the coming decade on arming itself.
India's battle worthiness has been further undermined by its outdated artillery. Even the indigenously-produced fighter, Tejas, is riddled with 53 “significant shortfalls” that could compromise its survivability in combat, according to a 63-page report by the comptroller last year. The document highlighted glaring deficiencies in the warplane’s electronic warfare capabilities which could compromise its chances of survival in a hostile environment it said.
Further, nearly 75 percent of the 124 Arjun tanks are grounded due to more than 90 technical issues like faulty transmission systems, targeting and thermal sights. India’s Defense and Research Organization has failed to produce ammunition for its fleet of Russian-built T-90 battle tanks. Consequently, the Indian military had to purchase around 66,000 anti-tank shells from Russia in early 2014, say insiders.
According to defense analyst Manoj Joshi, the biggest bottlenecks hampering the Army's efficacy are supply-side ones. "The below-par production of India's ordnance factories has contributed significantly to the current shortfall. These ordnance factories, the primary source of supply of ammunition to Army, have been struggling to meet annual targets and lag woefully behind in their production program for ammunition, weapons and vehicles, materials and components."
Joshi adds that the Army's skewed investments are also to blame. India's military, which has 1.33 million members, with another 1.15 million reserves, means that it is difficult to keep up stocks, even when the country both imports and produces its own ammunition.
"Certain types of expensive ammunition come with a strict use-by date after which they become redundant,” Joshi said. “So, in a bid to be cost-effective, the army has been under-ordering such equipment to use those funds for more urgent purposes. This has obviously been an imprudent move."
Excessive politicking has only worsened the situation. "For years, India's policy making has remained mired in bureaucratic tangles which chokes funding to the military," said a retired army official formerly in-charge of military procurement. "A policy paralysis from 2008-2013 and a number of scams related to arms imports resulted in only 20 percent of the intended ammunition to be imported."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's keenness to whittle down India's arms imports, and instead turn a major exporter and producer of its own weapons and ammunition, has further hobbled the procurement process. “We dream of making India strong enough to export defense equipment to the world,” Modi said last August after christening India’s largest home-built warship.
Modi is targeting lifting the share of defense procurement from domestic sources to 70 percent to stem the outflow of foreign exchange and create thousands of skilled jobs in manufacturing. If the defense and aerospace industries grow in the next 10 years on expected lines, about 200,000 skilled jobs would be created, say experts.
The Modi government surprised many last August when it abruptly scrapped the request for global bids to buy helicopters for the Army in favor of manufacturing them in India instead. It further reversed two more proposals for transport aircraft and submarines in a bid to craft them at home. It was undermined last month when was forced to cancel a potential contact to manufacture 126 Rafale fighter jets in India and instead ordered 36 to be made in France because of the inability of India’s manufacturing base to produce them.
Where does the solution lie? Some analysts feel enhancing private participation in the defense sector – as is slowly happening now – would not only reduce the cost of much equipment presently being imported but also make India self-reliant in the area. Indian business groups including Tata, Reliance Industries, Mahindra, L&T and Reliance ADAG are keen to enter the fray or amp up production as well as enter into tie-up with foreign companies for better technology and investment. The government should encourage the development of this ecosystem.
Joshi recommends an annual inventory audit by the Army to keep things from spiraling out of control. "There is also a need for a roadmap to remove current deficiencies of ammunition. Systemic problems that affect the production targets of the ordnance factories need to be addressed pronto. To augment the capacity of the ordnance factories, the private sector should be made an equal stakeholder."
India’s military modernization doesn't come cheap, say critics, but it helps bolster the nation’s strategic role in the region – especially at a time when New Delhi is jockeying for more geopolitical heft under the new nationalist government.
After the public hue and cry over the report, a new 'roadmap' to having a full war reserve stock has apparently been put into action by the government. But only time will tell whether its targets will be achieved or not. In the meantime, the country remains on tenterhooks about its war readiness.
New Delhi-based senior journalist Neeta Lal was a nominee for the SOPA Awards & World Media Summit Awards 2014