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The unfinished business of Kargil

By Nitin Pai
July 29, 2013 10:48 IST
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The failure to restructure our armed forces in line with contemporary needs 14 years after the Kargil war will impose strategic costs beyond just delays and scandals, says Nitin Pai

Last week we marked the 14th anniversary of the Kargil war. Fourteen years is long enough to turn raw memories into pro forma observances: military parades conducted, wreaths laid, candles lit, heroes remembered and lip service paid. Fourteen years is long enough for the political leadership, defence establishment and the public discourse to forget that the Kargil war left us with some unfinished business.

The Kargil Review Committee -- which broke with tradition and published its report in December 1999 -- identified the scope and the urgency of that unfinished business. There is one paragraph that captures the essence of the detailed 277-page report: ‘The committee is of the view that the present obsolete system, bequeathed to India by Lord Ismay [Lord Mountbatten’s chief of staff], merits re-examination... An objective assessment of the last 52 years will show that the country is lucky to have escaped through various national security threats without too much damage, except in 1962. The country can no longer afford such ad-hoc functioning. The committee therefore recommends that the entire gamut of national security management and apex decision making and the structure and the interface between the ministry of defence and the armed forces headquarters be comprehensively studied and reorganised.’

After an initial flurry of action under the Vajpayee government, the task of reorganising India’s national security apparatus is not even marking time. It has ground to a halt. The National Democratic Alliance government set up a group of ministers to act on the KRC’s report. Its task force on defence -- headed by Arun Singh -- suggested an incremental approach towards integrating the army, navy and air force into a joint defence force. The eventual goal was to restructure the armed forces into geographical tri-service theatre commands, with a chief of defence staff acting as the interface between the military establishment and the political leadership.

Yet, while the NDA government established the integrated defence staff headquarters, the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command and Strategic Forces Command, the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, demurred when it came to appointing a chief of defence staff, given resistance in parts of military and civilian establishments. The United Progressive Alliance government demonstrated little enthusiasm for most of its two terms, except for appointing a committee in 2011 -- under the chairmanship of Naresh Chandra -- to review the KRC’s recommendations. The workings, the report and the implementation (if any) of this committee are invisible to the public.

While the crucial task of reforming India’s British Raj-era military command structure has fallen off everyone’s radar screens, the public discourse on defence is dominated by pay scales, stalled purchases and procurement scandals.

It may appear that the country has been lucky to have escaped without too much damage for another 14 years. But the failure to restructure our armed forces in line with contemporary needs will impose strategic costs beyond just delays and scandals. The current structure, divided as it is between the army, navy and air force (and within their constituent arms), is unable to holistically conceptualise India’s strategic environment.

Take, for instance, the Cabinet’s approval for a new mountain strike corps to handle the Chinese threat along the unresolved boundary. It involves an army formation of 45,000 soldiers and a cost of Rs 62,000 crore over 2012-17, tasked with mounting an offensive in Tibet in the event of a Chinese attack. This move was widely hailed as a robust Indian response to China’s aggressive actions along the boundary and its steadfast refusal to move towards a settlement. Few asked where the money and the soldiers are going to come from. As my colleague Rohan Joshi notes, the army is already short of 10,000 officers and 30,000 soldiers. With slower economic growth, higher social expenditure and looming deficits, how does the government plan to finance this expansion?

The bigger question, though, is not the financial cost but the opportunity cost. Is an army strike corps India’s best response to the strategic threat from China?

It is possible to argue that by choosing an army strike corps, New Delhi has played right into China’s hands. Beijing has, by inexpensively raising tensions along the Himalayan boundary, managed to induce New Delhi to invest in an expensive military asset that is unlikely to be used. Nuclear deterrence makes a direct military conflict between the two countries unlikely; and a large-scale conflict necessitating the use of corps-level formations is even more unlikely.

Meanwhile, the geostrategic contest of our times is being played out in the oceans. The only regional force that can challenge the Chinese navy’s quest to dominate the Indo-Pacific waters is the Indian navy. And guess what? India has Rs 62,000 crore less to spend on the naval expansion of the kind that would have countered China’s maritime power.

Perhaps the decision to invest in a strike corps is the better one, though this columnist disagrees. Yet, absent the long-pending restructuring of the armed forces, we can never say that the big trade-offs were adequately weighed.

Fourteen years after Kargil, the country certainly cannot afford such ad hoc functioning.

Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think-tank

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