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July 22, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

'The Indian Army is a force with first rate men, second rate officers and third rate equipment'

Surely, when God was distributing patriotism, Indians, especially our cricketers and movie stars, must have been in the front row. Along with that quality, He must have ladled out large dollops of jingoism, hype, rhetoric and hypocrisy.

It is equally obvious that when it came to the serving of restraint, common sense and the art of introspection, Indians missed the bus. How else can one explain our perennial recourse of obfuscation and prevarication when it comes to analysing any event with the aim of learning lessons?

The Kargil episode had many positive fallouts. The indisputable courage of our jawans, the leadership displayed by the officer corps, the innovative use of the air force, the exemplary tri-service cooperation, the deft handing of the issue abroad and finally the admirable restraint shown by the political leadership, despite the provocation and pressures within the country, have all been highlighted sufficiently in the media during the past few weeks. It is equally necessary not to get so carried away by the euphoria which can result in glossing over all the deficiencies in our defence set-up and organisation.

While the review ordered by the government will no doubt bring out the numerous lessons which can be learnt from the conflict, this article concentrates on three obvious and important deficiencies which have come to light.

Kargil has underlined the glaring lack of modern equipment in the Indian army. Many years ago, John Masters, the novelist and author, who had served in India, was commissioned to write an appraisal of the Indian army. Masters's verdict: 'The Indian army is a force with first rate men, second rate officers and third rate equipment.' Much of Masters's assessment about the equipment remains true to this day. We saw no less a person than the army chief going on television in the middle of the campaign and bemoaning the lack of modern equipment for his troops. He decided to fight with what we have.

Jawans have reportedly had to fight their way up the steep slopes of Kargil without proper clothing, snow shoes, light bullet proof vests and modern rifles. Add to this the lack of proper surveillance equipment, armed helicopters and artillery and you have the full picture of the odds under which the army was required to evict the well-dug in intruders.

As usual, fingers were pointed at the insensitive bureaucrat and the callous politicians for their sorry state of affairs. This indicates our shallow approach to problem solving. The truth lies much deeper and even the most helpful defence minister or a generous finance minister cannot help India's army to modernise under the present circumstances.

Nearly forty years ago, at the time of our clash with China, the Indian army's strength was barely 250,000. The steady increase in the army's strength since then has seen it cross the one million mark. Add to this our half a million strong paramilitary forces.

Our answer to any conflict or crisis is invariably to add more to this manpower. The army can either have quality or quantity. We seem to prefer the latter. Indeed, even before the guns at Kargil had been silenced, the government had already announced the raising of another 20 battalions of the Assam Rifles and 12 of the Rashtriya Rifles adding some 30,000 men to the paramilitary forces.

Today the Indian army spends fully 85 per cent of its annual budget on paying and maintaining its all paid, all found existing force, leaving precious little for modernisation. With hardly Rs 4,000 crore available for new equipment each year, there is little hope that our enormous army will see any perceptible modernisation in the near future.

There are just three ways by which the government can make available enough funds for modernisation. First, reduce the overall manpower of the army, thus reducing its overwhelming revenue expenditure. Second, reduce the revenue expenditure by resorting to partial conscription. Finally, increase the defence allocation to the army and hence ultimately the defence budget. The first two are not acceptable to the army while the third is a no-no to our financial managers, not to speak of the IMF and the World Bank. From time to time, successive chiefs have talked about a lean and mean force. But sadly, the fat and the flab remain.

It therefore appears that we are condemned to making noises about the army's lack of modernisation, without doing anything about the root cause. It is futile to blame the bureaucrats and the politicians, while the service bloats and balloons, unerringly marching towards swallowing its entire budget allocation on pay and allowances!

Kargil has also brought out the utter failure of the National Security Council to tackle national emergencies. It is obvious that the NSC did not play any major role in either forecasting the incursion or preparing the government for the conflict. The demands for the setting up of the NSC have been made for the past three decades. On one excuse or other, India's powerful bureaucrats, sensing that the NSC was bound to clip their influence on the political leadership, had prevented its formation, until the present government redeemed its election promise and finally formed the Council, with much fanfare about an year ago.

Even here bureaucratic one-upmanship was evident. By giving it a most unwieldy set-up, it has been ensured that the NSC, like so many other organisations in the country, it totally ineffective. The so-called National Security Advisory Board looks more like an employment opportunity for a whole brigade of retired service officers, foreign and civil service officials, intelligence have-beens and friends of the government hanging around in Delhi. How can such a huge and disparate body be ever expected to produce anything worthwhile?

Eventually, the National Security Advisor, who also just happens to be the PM's secretary, ended up doing what he had been doing before the formation of the NSC; advise the Cabinet and the PM without really consulting the Council. The NSC utterly failed its purpose in the first crisis which occurred after its setting up. The obvious lesson: the government would do well to read up on Parkinson. The NSC will only work if it is a small compact body of six or seven people. Flabby organisations produce no results.

Finally, the Kargil conflict has once and for all bared the utter failure of our policy of self reliance. For years we have been crowing about the major strides we had made in achieving self sufficiently in many areas of defence equipment. The public relations department of our research organisations continuously fill up valuable newspaper space with the achievements of our defence scientists and research laboratories.

Yet, at the first sign of a small border conflict, we had to import every form of equipment, from high altitude clothing to snow shoes, from light bullet proof vests to artillery spare parts. Have we got our priorities wrong? Have we been so busy producing prestige products like the Arjun tank and the LCA that we have bypassed more important and vital defence equipment? Perhaps there is no glory in producing snow shoes and bullet proof vests. A little soul-searching may be good for the DRDO.

Thanks to the Indian army, India has won a famous victory in Kargil, albeit at a heavy price. More than 500 officers and jawans have reportedly lost their lives. Kargil gives us a heaven-sent opportunity to learn from our mistakes and set our defence house in order. Will we grab it or wallow in the euphoria of victory and the oncoming election? If we refuse to learn its lessons, the next Kargil will surely lead to disaster.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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