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Defence ministry report ignores Ladakh stand-off

By Ajai Shukla
January 14, 2022 17:22 IST
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The ministry's year-end review is silent on the continued occupation by Chinese troops of territory that India has always claimed and patrolled, reports Ajai Shukla.

IMAGE: Indian Army soldiers patrol the border wih China in Sikkim. Photograph: ANI Photo.
 

On December 31, the ministry of defence released its traditional year-end review. Unsurprisingly, it focuses almost exclusively on the military's successes and achievements during the year gone by, while soft-peddling its shortcomings.

An example of the report's lack of balance is its silence on the continued occupation by troops from China's People's Liberation Army of territory that India has always claimed and patrolled.

In a clumsy attempt at papering over this blunder, the government finds itself fighting from Beijing's corner.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself incorrectly stated that the PLA had not entered Indian territory, by implication backing China's claim that the territory the PLA grabbed in 2020 around Pangong Tso Lake, Kailash Range, Hot Spring-Gogra, Galwan and Depsang is a part of China.

That left the government's national security apparatus trying to square a rhetorical circle: Accusing the PLA of occupying Indian territory on the one hand, while simultaneously denying the loss of Indian territory on the other.

Defence management reform

The defence ministry report calls the appointment of a tri-service chief of defence staff and the creation of a department of military affairs 'the most significant and transformative defence reform undertaken by any government since Independence.'

Before the unfortunate death of the first CDS, General Bipin Rawat, in a helicopter crash, he set forth a comprehensive agenda for the 'optimum utilisation of scarce national resources, enhancing synergy and jointness between the three services.'

Towards revamping the logistics structure, three Joint Services Study Groups are developing common logistics policies. A pilot project has kicked off, based on establishing Joint Logistics Nodes -- at Mumbai, Guwahati and Port Blair.

Three 'joint doctrines' were formulated in 2021, while four new joint doctrines -- namely capstone, space, cyber and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- are at an advanced stage.

To enhance combat capability and balance defence expenditure, more than 270 logistic installations of the Indian Army have been closed or scaled down, resulting in substantial savings to the exchequer, besides increasing the 'teeth to tail' ratio.

Training methodologies are underway to modernise, integrate and rationalise training and to ensure optimal utilisation of infrastructure and resources. Ten subjects have been identified for joint training among the three services.

Aatmanirbhar Bharat

A major element of the report is the Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) slogan, which talks about boosting indigenous equipment development. It cites induction of the Tejas light combat aircraft into the Indian Air Force, and the development of several indigenous helicopters by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

However, important questions are left unanswered, such as: Given that HAL had proposed developing a Mark 1A version of the Tejas fighter as far back as 2015, why did it take till January 2021 for the Union Cabinet to clear the procurement of 83 Tejas Mark 1A fighters for Rs 45,696 crore (Rs 456.96 billion)?

The answer is relevant since, during this period, the government did not hesitate to pay out close to Rs 7.8 billion (Rs 65,000 crore) for 36 Rafale fighters.

Similarly, the report underscores the erratic decision-making around the Arjun tank project.

On February 14, 2021, the PM handed over an indigenous Arjun Mark-1A main battle tank to the Indian Army. The defence ministry followed that with an order for 118 Arun MBTs placed on Heavy Vehicles Factory, Avadi, Chennai on September 23, 2021.

Having earlier inducted 124 Arjun MBTs into the army, the fresh order would take up Arjun numbers to 242 MBTs. Given that the army operates about 4,000 tanks, the Arjun will account for just 6 per cent of its MBT fleet. It is hard to sell this as 'Aatmanirbhar Bharat'.

The army's resistance to the Arjun continues, even after the tank proved itself a match to the Russian T-90 in a comparative trial conducted in the Rajasthan desert in March 2010.

Top generals who witnessed the trial admitted the Arjun performed superbly. Whether driving cross-country over rugged sand dunes; or accurately hitting targets with its powerful main gun; the Arjun established it was a tank to reckon with.

Yet, the army refused to order more Arjun tanks, beyond the 124 it had already inducted into service.

Many army insiders blamed an ingrained prejudice against indigenous tanks, but it was officially stated that the 62.5-tonne Arjun was too heavy for roads and bridges along the Pakistan border, and too wide to be transported by train.

At a meeting of the defence ministry-led Arjun Steering Committee in 2010, the army demanded an improved, Mark 2 version of the Arjun. This was to have 83 capability enhancements, including 15 major and 68 minor changes.

Incredibly, given the army&'s complaint that the Arjun Mark 1 was too heavy, the Mark 1A now on order is 6 tonnes heavier.

Strengthening border infrastructure

Since the Chinese intrusions into Ladakh in April-May 2020, the defence ministry has focused on developing border roads and transport infrastructure. This strengthens defence preparedness while also supporting local economic development in the border regions.

Last June, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated 75 roads and bridges constructed by the Border Roads Organisation. This included a road over Umling La Pass in Eastern Ladakh, which, at 19,024 feet above sea level is now the world's highest motorable road.

To provide autonomy, enhance efficiency, and unleash new growth potential in Ordnance Factories, the Ordnance Factory Board has been converted into seven new Defence Public Sector Undertakings while safeguarding the interest of all stakeholders. The new defence PSUs have become operational from October 1, 2021.

Theatre commands

A key responsibility the CDS has been given is to establish 'joint theatre commands', in which elements of all three services function in synergy. Study group reports have been analysed and an implementation road map is being discussed.

A 'Tri-services Joint working Group' has also been established to work out the nuances of integrating communications networks between the services.

Besides, a review is being carried out to right size/reshape army units.

Indian Air Force

During the face-off with the Chinese in Eastern Ladakh, the IAF moved its sensors, aerial platforms and associate equipment to the region to deal with any contingency.

The Tejas fighter, Arudhra and Aslesha radars, Astra air-to-air missiles, Akash surface-to-air missile system, Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter and Light Combat Helicopter were added to IAF's inventory.

The total number of Rafale aircraft went up to 30.

The first Medium Range Surface-to-Air Missile was inducted on September 9 at Jaisalmer; while 19 Low Level Transportable Radars were supplied to IAF.

A contract was signed to pave the way for induction of 56 C-295 transport aircraft to replace the IAF's ageing Avro fleet.

Indian Navy

The first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, successfully accomplished its maiden sea voyage in August 2021. Commissioning is being targeted by August 15, 2022.

The first destroyer of Project 15B, INS Visakhapatnam, was commissioned on November 21, 2021, by the defence minister.

Two Scorpene submarines, INS Karanj and INS Vela, were commissioned, with over 75 per cent indigenous content.

Meanwhile, five naval vessels were decommissioned, including the destroyer INS Rajput, a survey vessel, INS Sandhayak, and a missile corvette, INS Khukri.

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Ajai Shukla in New Delhi
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