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Why we need to upgrade our defences to face China

Last updated on: March 28, 2012 08:32 IST

Why we need to upgrade our defences to face China

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Colonel (retd) Anil Athale

An open letter to Defence Minister A K Antony on the threat from China and the need for upgradation of our defence research and production by Colonel (retd) Anil Athale.

Honourable A K Antony,

As one of the most honest political leaders in India, we the citizens have high hopes and great faith in you. It is due to this that as a citizen of India, I wish to bring to your notice the developments in our neighbourhood and our shortcomings in the area of defence research and domestic production of arms/equipment.

Some alarming news in recent past has forced me to go public with my concerns. Recently Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has reported that India has become the world's largest arms importer. Along with the largest number of persons under the poverty line or children suffering from malnutrition, this is a dubious distinction that we could do without.

Side by side with this report was also the news that the Indian Air Force is planning to import even the basic trainers at the cost of Rs 3,000 crore from Switzerland. What a fall for a country that in the 1960s had designed its own HF-24 Marut fighter bomber and has been making basic trainers since 1940s! To paraphrase Shakespeare, "There is something rotten in the state of DRDO".

As if this was not enough; comes the defence budget that has remained stagnant in 'real' terms! The Union finance minister's assurance that 'if needed this would be enhanced' offers only cold comfort. As any soldier worth his salt knows that you have to have the weapons and other wherewithal before the threat arises and not when conflict is about to break out. In Marathi it is called starting to dig a well when you are thirsty!

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Photographs: Reuters

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'In 2012 our forces are equipped with weapons at least 30 years old'

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Have we forgotten the lesson of 1962 when brand new weapons (7.62 SLR rifles) were airdropped at DirangZong! When the Chinese returned our prisoners, they also humiliatingly returned these brand new weapons still in their crates! Soldiers are not robots and need time and training to familiarise with new weapons before these can be used on the battlefield. Our infantry and artillery is still equipped with weapons that are 40 years old while our hostile neighbours have an edge in every technology of war.

As some one who was involved and closely observed the insurgency in Kashmir in the decade of 1990s, I can vouch for the fact that our soldiers had weapons that were inferior to those of the insurgents! We managed to prevail only due to the larger numbers and at a great human cost. But in an open clash with regular forces this will not work. Our infantry and artillery must be equipped with the best possible weapons at the earliest. Have we forgotten that close to half of 2,500 injured and dead in the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict were caused not by enemy action but by the weather! In Ladakh our soldiers had to operate 303 Lee-Enfield rifles (of First World War vintage) with bare hands in temperatures of minus 30 degrees! The result of large numbers lost their fingers and hands to cold injuries. In 2012 again our forces are similarly equipped with weapons that are at least 30 years old!

As some one who has been active in research in the field of defence, the painful fact is that the Delhi-centric research output is tailored to suit the prevailing political wind. The prevailing mindset is (as in 1962) that our northern neighbor will not create mischief. The facts and indications are otherwise. I summarise them below,

As the end game begins in Afghanistan, China would be tempted to help its proxy Pakistan gain an upper hand. In order to prevent India from playing a role, diversionary and limited conflict on Indo-Tibetan border suits its purpose.

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Photographs: Hitesh Harisinghani
Tags: , SLR , Kashmir , China , Ladakh

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'Time to build up our infantry and artillery is now'

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China is in throes of a major leadership change. My own experience and reading of Chinese is that 'nationalism' is a very strong impulse there. Whichever faction wishes to come on top may well use border tension with India for its purpose. The future Chinese leader by skipping India in his world tour has sent the appropriate message.

A limited border conflict will also help Chinese leadership deal with internal challenges that are emerging due to economic slowdown, unemployment, the anti-Communist Party mood due to corruption and restive western provinces that have been left out of economic development compared to the coastal areas.

Teaching India a lesson will also nip in bud the American efforts to stitch together an alliance of South-East Asian countries.

The continued build up on Tibetan border as well as pinpricks are all part of the well choreographed act to build up tension just as Afghan and/or Iran tensions blow up into a full-blown crises. Unlike in 1962, when the Americans pressured Pakistan to desist from acting against India, this time round we may well face a two pronged thrust in Ladakh. The presence of the Chinese troops in Gilgit-Hunza area is not news anymore.

The Chinese threat is of a limited conflict (both in time and space) and will be fought with the existing arms and equipment. Time to build up our infantry and artillery is now; tomorrow may be too late. As a person of impeccable reputation you must act quickly and not bother for the niceties of bureaucratic procedures and ill informed auditors.

Simultaneously with emergency buildup of our capability, equally urgently, a total revamp of our defence research and production institutions is necessary. It is time that we dovetail defence planning into national planning. Defence expenditure and arms production need to be harnessed as engines of industrial growth.

Currently due to the 'import dependent' defence procurement, the Indian tax payer is creating jobs in advanced countries and bailing out their industry. You as an honest person are our only hope to break this nexus between arms imports and kickbacks. Much of the mega corruption in the defence deals is due to this major weakness of domestic defence production. It is entirely possible that the DRDO has been kept inefficient so that huge arms imports (and large kickbacks) must continue unabated.

Both the urgent modernisation through imports and total revamp of defence production/research centres by introducing competition and transparency and breaking up monopoly is necessary. Indian defence planning awaits its '1991' like reform moment.

My plea is that this should happen before we suffer a military set back and not after as we did 50 years ago in 1962. Who knows, if we are well prepared the Chinese may have second thoughts. I, along with many other defence analysts, would be the happiest person if proved wrong!

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale is former head of war studies division, ministry of defence and co-author of the official history of 1962 Sino-Indian conflict.


Image: A multi-barrel rocket launcher seen at the Topchi Exrecise
Photographs: Reuben NV/Rediff.com

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