The army’s surgical strikes against militants at launchpads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir demonstrated India’s hardened military resolve to the world.
The targeted operations behind enemy lines were carried out by India’s toughest fighting men — commandos from the elite special forces — and the daring move has already won accolades from political leaders and civil society alike.
But dig a little deeper and things aren’t as rosy for the world’s second largest army. The country may be surrounded by hostile Pakistan and China but its army is crippled by a lack of basic necessities, shortage of critical weapons and ammunition and bureaucratic tangle holding up purchases.
Forget the big stuff, even the small details are amiss. Sample this: For years, generals have complained that the orange stock and butt of the 5.56mm INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) rifle compromises the camouflage of soldiers. But several attempts to get the rifle’s colour changed have failed.
“The rifle’s orange colour puts soldiers at risk,” says lieutenant general BS Jaswal (retd), a former northern army commander.
He recalls several failed attempts to get the rifle in a combat colour during his stints as director general (infantry) and northern army commander from 2007-10.
That’s not all. In a private conversation, a senior army officer recalls how an infantry unit deployed in the Northeast a few years ago bought sandbags from its own funds to protect soldiers housed in tents.
The men, he says, were vulnerable to night strikes, similar to the one that left 18 soldiers dead in Uri last week: Fourteen of them were burnt alive after incendiary ammunition used by militants set their tents ablaze.
The sandbags and tents reflect critical shortcomings in the army spanning pivotal areas such as assault rifles, ammunition, body armour, night-vision equipment, artillery guns and air defence systems.
“From rifles to artillery guns, the shortcomings have dented the army’s capabilities. On the modernisation front, I reckon we are running 15 years behind,” says Jaswal.
Uncertainty surrounds two ongoing tenders for 44,600 carbines and 4,097 light machine guns as in both cases, only a lone vendor has met the army’s requirements. The tenders may be withdrawn, delaying the projects by at least six years.
“Arms-buying procedures are the biggest villain. It’s shocking that things that should have received highest importance have received least, irrespective of which government has been in power,” says lieutenant general Rajender Singh, a former director general of infantry.
The army is also battling shortage of officers and men. As of 2015, it was short of over 9,100 officers and nearly 31,000 men.
Training of soldiers is a bigger concern than equipment shortage, points out former northern army commander lieutenant general HS Panag (retired).
“The army has 3,500 snipers but only a handful of them can pass the standard test of taking a head-shot at 600 metres and a body-shot at 1,000 metres in the first shot. The equipment issue is overplayed… the army’s training is flawed,” says Panag.
But the army says its training standards are among the best globally. “That’s why armies queue up to hold joint drills with us,” a senior army officer insists.
A fruitless 10-year hunt for new assault rifles to replace the flaw-ridden INSAS rifle has returned to the drawing board, with the army on Monday seeking details from prospective vendors. The army plans to buy 65,000 larger calibre 7.62 mm rifles that are more lethal, with another 120,000 to be made in India.
The defence ministry’s acquisition council has given the green light to several projects including 145 ultra-light howitzers (M777) for Rs 4,600 crore, 420 air defence guns for Rs 16,900 crore, 814 artillery guns for Rs 15,750 crore and 118 Arjun Mk-II tanks for Rs 6,600 crore.
The clearance is the first step in a long weapons-buying process and some projects could take at least a decade to materialise.
The army has not inducted a single new artillery gun since the Bofors scandal in 1987.
The homemade Arjun Mk-II tank suffered a major setback two years ago, with a critical Israeli anti-tank missile to be fitted on it failing to meet the army’s needs. The DRDO is still looking for a missile to be fired from the tank’s main gun.
However, the senior officer says the force is “totally prepared” for any kind of military mission. “Most of the modernisation schemes are part of a long-term capability building plan to be implemented by 2027,” he adds.
Officers say the army is running low on ammunition too. Its reserves would barely last 20 days of “intense fighting” against an optimal 40, an audit report revealed last year.
Shortage of ammunition has been addressed to some extent over the last one year, army sources say.
The force requires more than 350,000 new bullet-proof jackets but only 50,000 are on order. The army sought the jackets almost eight years ago.
A cash crunch has forced the government to cut the size and cost of a new mountain strike corps to counter China in the Northeast.
The UPA government kicked off the raising of 17 Corps in January 2014 without any separate allocation in the defence budget.
“The strike corps is absolutely necessary to upgrade India’s strategy against China from dissuasion to genuine deterrence. The government must make no compromise with the planned strength and funds required,” says strategic affairs expert Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retired).
The army needs to speed up armour modernisation too. “About 1,000 older T-72 tanks and an equal number of infantry combat vehicles have to be upgraded immediately,” says former army vicechief lieutenant general Philip Campose (retired), who authored a report on review of security of military installations following the Pathankot strike.
Cam pose says upgrading air defence systems, modernising artillery and improving night-fighting capabilities should also top the army’s priorities.