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Signalling a Hit Sequel

Issue: 05-2009By Air Marshal (Retd) V.K. Bhatia, with inputs from Sangeeta SaxenaIllustration(s): By internal-securty.jpg

Clearly, the UPA appreciates the pressing need to rejuvenate the armed forces. Hence, one could reasonably expect substantial funds over the next five years for defence procurement and security enhancement.

Will the continuity factor work to the advantage of the Dr Manmohan Singh-led UPA government to address internal security and defence issues with the required urgency? If initial reports and feedbacks are to be believed, it appears that at least a beginning has been made to strengthen internal security. Even before taking charge for a second term, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had his staff prepare a roadmap to overhaul and modernise internal security mechanisms. The document, titled 100-Day Internal Security Plan, proposes creation of a National Network Security Architecture to address a gamut of shortcomings.

Lack of coordinated response in countering the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack was among the foremost laxities that drew scathing criticism. On the issue of prevention, the inability to collate, sift, analyse and grade intelligence was cited as a crucial flaw, considering that there were specific alerts on the Mumbai strikes. 26/11 is one of the greatest tragedies we faced. The government is making a constant effort to strengthen our forces. Coastal command is already functional, which is a combination of the Home Ministry (MHA), navy, shipping industry, coast guards and state governments... national security and securing human lives are our top priorities, A.K. Antony declared soon after assuming office for a second inning as India’s Defence Minister.

Two key recommendations in the internal security report pertain to the creation of a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), besides establishing joint commands with Central and state representatives for Naxal-affected areas. The MHA is working out the details for implementation before presenting it to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).

If integral to the Prime Minister’s first-100-days-in-office achievement plan, the clock has already started ticking for the NCTC to become fully operational by Septemberend—a Herculean task, notwithstanding the recent statements of the reappointed Home Minister P. Chidambaram. It is highly unlikely that such a vast and intricately networked organisation can be instituted in so short a time. However, to trigger the process without further delay, CCS approval must be obtained as soon as the new government starts functioning. But that is not all. The government will have to move on a war-footing to acquire intelligence gathering and dissemination/sharing systems for the organisation to work. Also, if the plan requires the NCTC to carry out counter-terrorism operations with the help of both Central and state forces, necessary provisions would have to be made available.

In the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attacks, the Centre had decided to set up four additional National Security Guard hubs to cover major metros in the country. Designating the Indian Navy as the central authority responsible for the country’s overall maritime security, the government had approved an Rs 7,000-plus crore ($1.5 billion) plan for the acquisition of assorted equipment, such as coastal radars including aerostats, high-speed interceptor boats, additional ships, multi-role maritime aircraft and coastal surveillance aircraft and helicopters for the navy and coast guard. Further, for overall operational capability, all wings of the armed forces would have to be networked with the NCTC to create a seamless environment for quick and appropriate decision making, and prompt responses.

Delivering his last address as the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major observed: Perhaps the biggest inadequacy of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack was the lack of decision making at practically all levels. Discussing the future course of action, including centralstate mechanisms, he favoured creation of an all-service expeditionary force which could be deployed almost immediately to any part of the country/area of interest and equipped well enough to be able to tackle any contingency. But all this will need a focused approach and sincere application by the concerned governmental agencies, including time bound acquisitions of equipment/systems and manpower resources. Will tackling these daunting challenges be made easier with the same government coming to power again?

That question also comes to mind when considering the uphill task of bolstering the modernisation plans of all the wings of the armed forces. As a wake up call in response to the Mumbai terror attack, the government had announced a Rs 1,41,703-crore ($30 billion) defence budget for 2009-10—a whopping 34 per cent increase over the previous year—to plug gaping holes in the country’s defence preparedness. However, with the general elections just round the corner, it was only an interim budget that came with a big question mark on it being honoured by the new government. Now, with the UPA back in power, at least the earlier apprehension can be put to rest and it would not be unreasonable to hope that the defence budget will be passed suo motu in Parliament.

While it is common knowledge that a major chunk of the budget would go towards the new salaries and pensions of the armed forces personnel, the good news is that the capital component of the budget used primarily for new acquisitions also stands at a healthy Rs 54,824 crore ($11 billion). With Dr Singh’s government having appreciated the enormity of the task of rejuvenating the armed forces, it would be reasonable to expect that if the UPA government completes its five-year term, as much as Rs 2,82,325 crore to Rs 3,29,490 crore ($60-70 billion) could be made available to the armed forces during the period to fund acquisition and modernisation plans. The wish lists of the services are already overflowing to the extent that even $100 billion (Rs 4,70,790 crore) would be insufficient for their collective requirements. While the Indian Army is clamouring for all types of artillery guns, including Air Defence Artillery, the Indian Navy has an exhaustive list of surface ships, including aircraft carriers with carrier borne aircraft and submarines. The capital intensive Indian Air Force (IAF), in its much depleted state vis-à-vis combat squadrons, is working on a mega deal to acquire Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft which alone is worth more than Rs 47,070 crore ($10 billion). All three services are also starved of air defence surface-to-air systems of medium and long range which need to be acquired expeditiously to fill the existing deficiencies.

The continuity factor, owing to the same government coming back to power—further strengthened by A.K. Antony yet again heading the Ministry of Defence (MoD)—should under normal circumstances greatly help in accelerating the modernisation process of the three services. At least, it would help in clearing those cases which had already moved up the acquisition ladder and were awaiting the CCS nod at the time of the general elections. It is estimated that cases worth more than Rs 4,000 crore ($800 million) are pending for CCS approval for the IAF alone, including additional Aerostat and Low-Level Transportable Radar systems and VIP helicopters. In addition, the latest Rs 4,700 crore ($1 billion) Multi-Role Transport Tanker deal is also likely to come up for CCS approval soon.