Bravehearts Soldier On Even As Politicos Undermine National Security - The New Indian Express

Bravehearts Soldier On Even As Politicos Undermine National Security

Published: 02nd March 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 02nd March 2014 12:43 AM

Conventional wisdom tells us that history repeats itself—first as tragedy and then as farce. In India, alas, history repeats itself mostly as tragedy.

Consider these facts:

• February 26, 2010: A blast occurs in the battery pits of the Indian Navy submarine INS Sindhurakshak, when the vessel was alongside Visakhapatnam harbour, killing one naval officer. A board of inquiry is constituted.

• February 25, 2014: Four years later, another blast in the battery pit, in another submarine of the Indian Navy. This time it is INS Sindhuratna. Two young officers lose their lives but save their colleagues.

History simply repeated itself, as tragedy. Given the state of submarines and lack of upgrades, the death of the two young warriors aboard INS Sindhuratna is a tragedy that was foretold. India is losing its bravehearts to the systemic collapse—not war. This begs the question: What were the findings of the inquiry post the blast of February 2010 and following the sinking of INS Sindhurakshak in August 2013? Were any steps taken? Quite obviously not!

So why are India’s warriors forced to risk their lives? Why are they manning 30-year-old tubs passing off as submarines or asked to train on aircraft which should be in museums? The answers are embedded in the economics of politics and the politics of economics.

Look at the economics of defence preparedness. Defence expenditure, which was 15.24 per cent of Central government expenditure in 2004-05, dipped to 12.23 per cent in 2013-14. As a percentage of GDP, defence expenditure slid from 2.34 per cent in 2004-05 to 1.79 per cent in 2013-14. Yes, there are resource constraints. There is also the constraint of strategic imagination. China ramped up its defence budget from $15 billion in 2000 to over $110 billion now by making economic growth a fundamental aspect of national security. This was not a mantra within the UPA.  It was influenced by electoral economics.

The focus on entitlements for electoral dividends stalled growth and the burgeoning bill for sops left little in the kitty for defence upgradation. There is also the inefficiency factor. Even the depleting resources made available couldn’t be deployed. Look at the capital spend of just one year: In 2012-13, the Army was projected to get `28,234 crore (BE), allocated `15,749 crore of which only `11,341 crore was spent. The Navy was projected to get `36,950 crore, allocated `18,266 crore of which only `15,599 crore was spent. Critical acquisitions are either perpetually in process or were benched for fear of scams.

It is a well-known secret that India’s defence preparedness is stranded between bureaucratic sloth and political corruption. To appreciate this, one must visit the issue of bullet-proof jackets. Technically, the Army needs 353,765 bullet-proof jackets. In 2009, the Army was short of 186,138 jackets—which means over 1.8 lakh soldiers were at risk. On October 19, 2009, the Defence Acquisition Council authorised the defence ministry to purchase 186,168 bullet-proof jackets. This was an urgent issue, but the request for proposals (RFP) was issued only in March 2011, commercial offers received from vendors in July 2011. The RFPs were retracted in December 2011 following many political representations on technical issues that set off rumours. Last year, the Standing Committee on Defence in Parliament was “astonished” to find that the jackets were not yet bought. Does it take Government of India 50-plus months for choosing a `50,000 jacket?

Indecision and delays are endemic in the defence ministry. Consider this nugget. The lighting system at the IAF air field at Car Nicobar got washed away during the tsunami of 2004. In 2014, the airfield—certified for fighter jet operations, which presumably was set up for strategic reasons—continues to await deliverance. And Car Nicobar is one of 10 such airforce airfields handicapped without adequate infrastructure.

Every major programme is behind schedule. The Light Combat Aircraft, Phase-II programme was to take off in December 2008. It is now expected to do so in December 2015. The Naval Light Combat Aircraft, Phase-I was expected in March 2010  but will be available in December 2014. The Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile targeted for May 2011 will only be active in December 2015. The Air-to-Air Missile Astra expected in August 2012 will now be operational in December 2016.

In 1999, the country had planned a 30-year programme for 24 modern submarines. The first submarines were to arrive in 2012. It transpires that the first ones will arrive only in 2015. Every major indigenous warship programme is delayed and costs are bloating. The ministry informed Parliament that its programmes for new destroyers (Project-15A), frigates (Project-17) and corvettes (Project-28) will cost 225 per cent, 260 per cent and 157 per cent more due to delays.

Much of this is the consequence of systemic rot. The granular process of governance has been reduced to a tragic farce. The blood of the young warriors is on the hands of the political class. Under the watch of the UPA—and the presumed oversight of the Opposition —bravehearts in uniform face unprecedented risks and the objective of national security has been undermined.

Can India afford the consequences of such wilful neglect? India needs a non-partisan platform to ensure decisions on acquisitions, programmes… for defence preparedness. The political class owes it to the bravehearts who soldier on and defend India’s sovereignty.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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