By Austin Fernando –
An American scholar has said that India has a long way to go before it becomes the security provider that Washington and rest of Asia hope India will become. He stressed that it requires “much more than a large defense acquisition budget and occasional military presence to develop a credible and capable defense force”. However, as an observer I note that there is a planned movement towards military cooperation, orchestrated with recurring dialogues at highest advisory levels between US and India.
The quoted study added that India has key lacunas in defense modernization, before it becomes a world class military force that can become “a provider of security.” I am perturbed. I thought India is world class and I believe I am correct!
He maintained that “the recent weapons procurements, combined with episodic displays of Indian military presence through counter-piracy patrols, disaster response, high profile naval exercises, and port visits, have led many observers to opine that India will play a pivotal role in promoting security and stability throughout the Indo-Pacific region.” The researcher has discounted military commanders’ visits like that of General Bikram Singh to Colombo right now and Admiral DK Joshi some time back!
It is of interest that India’s defense modernization challenges are discussed under four dimensions which will be educative and comparative to Sri Lanka. The researcher called these the “Four P’s” and will be discussed with relevance to Sri Lanka.
Public apathy emanates from political angles. The research says that Indian elections are not won or lost on politicians’ knowledge (or lack thereof) about defense and foreign policy. The electorate demands are personalized and focused on immediate needs like access to basic needs and not on the promotion of the nation’s defense. Therefore, their interests are less on Indian defense strategy and modernization. Even among the wealthier strata the focus is usually on facilitating greater business and trade opportunities, rather than a muscular defense policy.
The notable exception to this is when defense acquisitions become tainted with corruption. Indian politicians are extremely sensitive to any hint of corruption in defense scandals. It is said that Defense Minister MK Antony, a Gandhi family loyalist, is always on guard against any hint of corruption that might taint the Congress Party and its future and this has made defense deals slow to materialize. Though India’s global influence required an ardent public debate about India’s defense role in the world, other than relatively minimal strategic-minded thinkers, the Indian government has not engaged its public in a meaningful way about this.
Contrary to India the first P is notably observed in case of Sri Lanka which has no global or regional power intentions. India of course has regional “Big Brother” intentions. Sri Lanka concentrates in becoming the “Wonder of Asia” to become powerful through location and strategic development measures.
Due to the publicity generated and the lengthy period of waiting to erase terrorism the Sri Lankan politicians and even the common man were knowledgeable of the defense end result, but not the really intricate policies. The government focusing some attention also on immediate needs (e.g. roads, jobs) kept the masses happy during the conflict. Modernization and military strategy were known to a handful, especially by those in the defense establishment and the top hierarchy of the military, and hence was similar to India.
Due to this limited participation allegations of corruption were aimed at these few. This did not deter critics even to be nasty on new institutional arrangements introduced after 2005. The economic doom and peace making mood did not provide for large procurements from 2002-2005. Hence, the defense authorities were fortunate to be spared from vituperative criticism.
Additionally, since ‘supplements’ on corruption were mostly in English, the dialogue was limited like in India! The Indians had vociferous media establishments and a powerful judiciary and hence the defense authorities had to be extremely cautious than here.
It is the second dimension. The researcher says “India is still unsure of the type of power it wants to become” and blames this uncertainty for “the lack of an effective and coordinated defense strategy that guides defense procurement, force structure, military deployments, and developing relationships.” He says that “Aside from its doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’ that allows India the luxury of ‘omni-engagement’ while resisting excessively close partnerships or entangling alliances, India has yet to officially articulate its core interests through a publicly available national security strategy or defense strategy.”
This lacuna is explained as due to the reluctance to promulgate strategy partly due to the potential political controversy requiring India to make strategic choices and prioritize its interests and partnerships which may put New Delhiat odds with certain foreign capitals like Beijing, but also domestically with India’s leftists opposing closer U.S.-India ties.
In case of Sri Lanka there had been blowing hot and cold by Delhi. Delhi had been influenced by Tamilnadu politicians. However, due to personal familial reasons (e.g. Sonia factor) and past experiences (e.g. withdrawal of Indian Forces),India had to limit cooperation (e.g. selling non-lethal military material, intelligence sharing, maritime surveillance). But this pushed Sri Lanka to explore other sources like Chinaand Pakistan. The latter would have been happy to offer immediate support. This would have pressured New Delhi, but pushed Sri Lanka to be grateful to the “helping hands.”
Certainly, this has affected and may affect us in the future, not only militarily but even economically. This may force Indians also to look at other options in retaliation for closer ties (may be with theUS) or indirectly twist the arms of Sri Lanka, as done at the UNHRC last March, which can be repeated again.India’s “”strategic autonomy” and “omni-engagement” may be exhibited in this manner!
The researcher pinpoints that as India modernizes its defense forces, it realizes the need to reform its procurement processes and adds that India’s defense acquisition stymies the ability to timely obtain the needed hardware, which prevents spending the total budget provision. This inability to quickly procure defense equipment can be attributed to several factors including excessively bureaucratic procedures, insufficient bureaucratic capacity, and concerns about the perception of corruption that can scuttle defense deals, if there are charges of irregularities, the research said.
Due to India’s inability to produce all its own defense equipment, it has been forced to rely on foreign acquisitions. India has attempted to streamline its procurement process and increase transparency through its Defense Procurement Procedure, which is regularly updated reflecting acquisition procedures reforms.
One major problem with India’s procurement system according to the study is the gearing towards established criteria, rather than obtaining equipment that provides best value. Until an expeditious, fully transparent system undergirded by a philosophy of procuring best value systems is established India will continue to face challenges in procuring needed equipment, the research said. India has commenced this but has a long way to go.
Sri Lanka has developed other systems that were required to keep secrecy, need evaluation, procurement conditions etc but has faced wild criticisms. But when the final outcome of wiping terrorism is considered the defense authorities must be satisfied with the end result. In developing countries there had been complaints of corruption and even India is not devoid of them, e.g. Bofours deals during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure and even later.
Any military will require modernization and technically competent manpower. It is a responsibility of a country’s education system. Competition from the other economic sectors for educated technically qualified personnel complicates Indian military’s recruiting challenge. The study says that this competition for talent has manifested itself through significant shortfalls in the numbers of officers for all Services.
In addition to salary, the erosion of high status for the military officers due to India’s growing wealth has brought alternative opportunities for wealth and status generation. The report highlights that the Indian Army being plagued by corruption scandals recently at the general officer level, reported instances of enlisted (other ranks) personnel mutinying etc that has made the General Bikram Singh to emphasize on restoring good order and discipline, integrity and morale in the Army.
Some of these challenges are common to Sri Lanka too, though for instance military personnel have been found to be receiving new assignments hitherto unheard. However, there is demand for demilitarization and demobilization made several sources. At a time where ‘deserters’ have intruded in to criminal activities, it will be problematic to let loose military personnel without a plan. The researchers who have shown evidence of post conflict trauma incidents hint the need for methodical actions.
The researcher has concluded that India has the ability to meet these challenges and that “this ability is not just an issue for curious policy study, but, instead, has high stakes for Asia’s bet that India will become a democratic force for stability and security in Asia’s coming century”.
I do not think that in this movement India has a “strategic autonomy” or “omni-engagement” walk-over due to other influences that have been developing over time. One may question whether the strategy development had been highly bureaucratized as against politically strategized. Another issue may be whether Chinese engagements would bar Indians weakening in becoming a democratic force for stability in Asia. The emerging Indo-US military and economic cooperation if properly managed may be a way out.
In that background countries like Sri Lanka who do not possess such large economic and military power may have to balance and play another strategic game rather than being unnecessarily committing itself, as it is not only the military strength that matters to us, but economic and international influences which could mar also the country’s development and political stability.
This approach is not only due to the quoted Four Ps. One must be mindful of the growing concerns in India having crossed China recently on its presence in South China Sea and more so due to the emerging thinking orchestrated as recently as December 18th 2012 in which another researcher has stated “ New Delhi, which so often likes to sit on the margins and avoid taking sides, must assume it can no longer afford the luxury of inaction if it wants to preserve credibility as a significant actor in both East and Southeast Asia.” Whether this message is heard clearly is yet to be seen and it is best we hear it sooner than later.
*Austin Fernando- Former Secretary Defence