Sunday, 25 August 2013

Under-defended India

The disastrous explosion in Mumbai that sunk INS Sindhurakshak, one of India’s 14 conventional submarines, and damaged another is a body blow to India’s depleted underwater force. A third submarine lies in Visakhapatnam, crippled by a decade-old attempt to overhaul it. At any given time, the navy can only muster 7-8 submarines. The 30-Year Submarine Construction Plan, sanctioned in 1999, planned to quickly build 24 submarines, but not one of those has entered service.

Meanwhile, the navy’s plan to field three aircraft carriers remains a pipedream. When INS Vikramaditya gets here from Russia, it will be more than five years late. The vintage INS Viraat is to be decommissioned by 2018-19, when Cochin Shipyard delivers the INS Vikrant. The navy continues to dither over the specifications of the Vikrant’s successor. The defence ministry silently watches.

Also languishing are Project 15A and 15B for building six destroyers in Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) and Project 17A for seven frigates. They are delayed by the navy’s decision to do “concurrent engineering”, that is developing advanced Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LR-SAM) alongside the construction of the warship. But with the LR-SAM delayed, the warships are delayed too. This isn’t global best practice by any means; proven systems should be used on new platforms.

Indian Air Force (IAF) planning is even more lamentable, with just 36 fighter squadrons today, against an authorised requirement of 39.5 squadrons. Worse, in 2015, when 8 squadrons of MiG-21s and MiG-27s are due to retire, to be replaced by only four squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKI and a single squadron of Tejas LCAs. In 2017, another 6 squadrons of MiG-21s will retire, creating a fresh crisis. None of this is a surprise; these dates have been known for a decade. The Tejas LCA, now on the cusp of completion, would be a cheap and capable replacement; instead, the IAF has lobbied relentlessly for expensive foreign aircraft.

Consider: The cost of 126 Rafales is some $18 billion; 250 Indo-Russian fifth-generation fighters will cost $30-35 billion; and 100-odd Sukhoi-30MKI will cost $10 billion. Add another $10 billion for C-17 Globemaster III, C-130J Super Hercules and replacing the Avro; $3-4 billion for trainers; and $10-15 billion for the light, utility and combat helicopters currently being procured. That takes the IAF’s aircraft purchases to $81-92 billion over the next 10-15 years. If the IAF condescends to buy a few squadrons of Tejas LCA, its shopping list will kiss $100 billion.

This wish list is an unaffordable fantasy given the IAF’s modernisation budget is $5.7 billion this year. And, given that an aircraft’s purchase price is just 20-25% of its life-cycle cost, the MoD should have warned the IAF off costly foreign procurement and towards indigenous design, development and manufacture. Instead, there are pro forma statements, like “whatever our brave soldiers need for defending the country will be made available.”

Tokenism also suffuses the unnecessary announcement about strengthening the China border by raising a new strike corps and several tank brigades. Instead of tackling the key weakness on the border --- poor roads that prevent the army from moving --- the government has thrown Rs 70,000 crore at the problem. But a strike corps is useful only if it can deploy rapidly.

India’s defence crisis runs far deeper than a shortage of warships, aircraft or divisions. In the absence of a strategically aware opposition, academia, media and public, the government and the military are not called to account for their titanic misspending of lakhs of crores. During peacetime, pro forma statements can paper over the voids. But when the rubber hits the road, as it did in 1962, capability alone will matter.

(Slightly abridged version in Business Standard today)

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