DEFENCE PREPAREDNESS – Learning from the past

published on April 1, 2012
Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere

Leaked letter

The media is full of Army Chief Gen V.K.Singh writing to the PM that India’s army is unprepared for war in terms of weapons, ammunition and equipment. This is undoubtedly extremely serious. That the communication was leaked is even more serious. It is vital to find out who leaked that communication. It is unrealistic to interpret this leak as “retaliation” by a man frustrated at having lost his year-of-birth case in the Supreme Court. Let us not imagine that the General is naive to be unaware of the enormous personal, professional and national risks and repercussions of the Army Chief himself violating national secrets. It must also be noted that just before his letter to the PM became known, Gen Singh had brought out the corruption (over a period of time including more than one of his predecessors) regarding the quality and cost of the Tatra vehicles which are a vital part of the army’s transportation system. The matter is burdened with many questions, so it is necessary to ask questions that may generate democratic light instead of the present political heat.

While the country’s spooks are trying to find who caused the leak, it is necessary to look at what was contained in the letter to the PM, and why he chose to go to him over the head of the Defence Minister. What was revealed in his letter is that corruption is a serious factor within the defence procurement system, and that at present there are serious inadequacies and shortages of military hardware which make the army essentially unfit for war. It takes considerable moral courage to bring such an issue before the country’s chief executive. Regarding Gen Singh communicating directly with the PM, there will be few in the country who would deny that extreme urgency coupled with extreme importance would justify the step, especially if the agencies in the normal channel have not been acting or reacting to the situation. Hence the real question is whether there was and is some urgency in this matter. Perhaps stepping back in time may help in learning from past mistakes.

Military urgency

China’s show of military muscle on India’s northern borders in recent times should be causing concern in government offices, but it apparently has not. If it had, government would not be so casual in dealing with defence matters especially with the matter of weapons and equipment that impact on battle efficiency, and so dismissive with pension issues of military veterans that impact on the morale of serving soldiers. Could it be because of the present government’s complacency following assurance of political and military support as USA’s strategic junior-partner? One may recall that the hindi-chini-bhai-bhai and panchsheel principles were cause for a certain complacency leading up to India’s political and military humiliation by China precisely half a century ago this October. The Chinese have a undeniable sense of history, and it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility if China has planned a repeat to keep a competing regional economic and military power, especially one that has aligned with USA, “in its place”.

When Indian troops went into action in 1962, they were logistically entirely unprepared. The Indian soldier, sent into battle with inadequate or inferior weapons, ammunition, equipment and clothing, was let down by the top military leadership of the day. Barring a few competent army officers, the top military leadership lacked the moral courage to stand up to the political-bureaucratic establishment. It was the military failure on-the-ground that has always been highlighted, the political failure underplayed, the bureaucratic role hidden. It is moot to question why the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report on the 1962 war with China still remains classified despite calls for its release, when the usual period for such documents is 30 years.

It is understood that the Report comments on the causes and suggests remedies for the failures in the political-bureaucratic-military system that caused the unpreparedness which ended in a national embarrassment. Understanding the causes for system failures can avoid future fiascos. It is a truism that little is learned from successes but there is a lot to be learned from failures; national lessons from a huge national failure. The reluctance to declassify the Report appears to be centred within the bureaucracy since political parties of various ideological persuasions (including some with none) have formed the union government over the decades, and could not all have decided to withhold this vital document. This reluctance seems to indicate the propensity of an entrenched and increasingly inwardly-turned and self-seeking bureaucracy to defend itself. Shades of the BBC serial “Yes, Minister”.

Could it be that our military planners have assessed probability of an attack from the north this year, putting a sense of urgency to getting our military hardware into shape? Or, if that is not possible in the limited time because of on-going corruption and/or stalling by bureaucracy or bureaucracy-misled politicians, to tell the PM that responsibility for any possible 1962-type military reverse this time around would fall squarely on government? When the balloon goes up, who will be holding the explosive parcel of military weapon-equipment-ammunition inadequacies that has been passed around the past several years?

Dismiss the General?

Politicians of various hues have joined chorus to demand the dismissal of Gen V.K.Singh for revealing national secrets. This presumes guilt of Gen V.K.Singh even before investigation of the leak and is unbecoming of responsible people’s representatives. Who would benefit from the leak of Gen Singh’s letter to the PM? Certainly not Gen Singh himself; in fact, he stands to lose heavily by the leak, as is becoming increasingly apparent. Is it possible that Gen Singh’s letter provides names or points directly or indirectly at entrenched interests in the defence procurement system? Would his letter be unconnected with the shady Tatra deals (among others) that have been going on through the tenures of more than one of his predecessors? Would it be possible that a hidden political or bureaucratic hand leaked his communication to the PM so that the uncomfortable, possibly incriminating, details in the communication would be obfuscated by the fact of its being leaked? Yes, if Gen V.K.Singh was indeed responsible for the leak, he deserves dismissal, though not before it is proved transparently and beyond doubt. On the other hand, if certain military officers, bureaucrats or politicians are found to be responsible for the leak, similar strong action should be ensured against them. This is neither the time nor the situation for a fast-track court and summary dismissals; due process is vital and essential in a responsible democratic republic. We must “hurry up slowly”.

But even more importantly, the 1962-type material inadequacies of the military pointed out by Gen Singh, due to corruption and politico-bureaucratic delay over years, must be very urgently addressed if history is not to repeat itself by India being humbled again. And in this connection, immediately bringing the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report into the light of day is a must. To stretch the point a bit, perhaps Gen V.K.Singh has done the nation good by exposing the military inadequacies albeit at considerable personal and professional risk and cost.

(S.G.Vombatkere retired as major general after 35 years in the Indian military, from the post of Additional DG in charge of Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ

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