The dockyard accident of the frigate INS Betwa is another blow to an Indian Navy struggling with an ageing fleet, a tight budget and an ever-increasing number of duties. While an assessment of the frigate’s fate is still awaited, the possibility that the navy has lost another one of its capital ships cannot be ruled out. If so, it will be another blow to a Navy that has already lost a submarine to internal explosions three years ago.
But the incident is a reminder that defence capacity is not only about piling up weapons and acquiring technology. It is also about soft capabilities like maintenance, supply management and training. These have not necessarily been the Indian military’s strongest card. Yet they are crucial. Ships that topple over, aircraft that fall out of the sky and guns that jam in battle are a sign that the tail of the military beast is failing its teeth.
The MiG 21 saga, the flying coffin of the Indian Air Force, remains the most tragic example of the toll such short-sightedness can take.
It took decades for the defence ministry to get around to buying the proper set of training aircraft to put an end to the crashes. So long, in fact, that the MiG 21s may be phased out of the air force even before the full complement of trainers will be bought.
The military can rightly complain about the budgetary restrictions and bureaucratic interference that have plagued them for decades. The days when ammunition depots were little more than tarpaulin tents and sophisticated fighters had no hangars are almost a thing of the past.
However, ageing rusty platforms struggling to handle 21st century weapons system is still too common a sight. Training is also a hole that has yet to be filled.
Foreign militaries that interact with their Indian counterparts, however, often note the huge gap between the officers and their lower ranks in training and knowledge. It is a sign of how slowly things change that the three military academies this year officially recognised the need for a bachelor’s in applied electronics stream for their cadets, a belated recognition of how technology dominates the modern battlefield.
The point is that such processes need to be perpetually renewed and reformed. The nature of modern defence keeps changing as the enemy changes its tactics and technology disrupts what is traditional and tested. The defence ministry is particularly prone to fossilised thinking and rigid procedures.
Other defence ministries have realised that their procedures are a matter of constant procedures. The Indian body seems to take pride in learning as little as possible from its mistakes, past and present.