NEW DELHI — India’s tank fleet lacks ammunition, its air defenses are “97 percent obsolete” and its elite forces need essential weapons, the country’s army chief wrote in an explosive letter leaked on March 28.
The letter to the prime minister dated March 12 — widely reported by the Indian media — lists shortcomings of the armed forces in embarrassing detail in a serious blow to the government and the Asian giant’s military prestige.
Its publication also ups the stakes in a public battle between army chief General V.K. Singh and the government that began with a dispute over Singh’s retirement earlier this year.
“The state of the major (fighting) arms i.e. mechanized forces, artillery, air defense, infantry and special forces, as well as the engineers and signals, is indeed alarming,” Singh wrote in the letter, DNA newspaper reported.
The army’s entire tank fleet is “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks”, while the air defense system is “97 percent obsolete, and it doesn’t give the deemed confidence to protect ... from the air,” he wrote.
The infantry is crippled with “deficiencies” and lacks night-fighting equipment, while the elite special forces are “woefully short” of “essential weapons.”
Singh also told The Hindu newspaper this week that he had informed Defense Minister A.K Antony of a $2.8 million bribe offered to him in 2010, leading to questions as to why the government had not ordered an inquiry.
Antony has since scrambled to quell the controversy and has ordered a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation police force. He also attempted to shift the blame to Singh and said he had not made a written complaint.
Speaking amid an uproar in parliament over the leaked letter, Antony said that the government had made efforts to ensure transparency in India’s notoriously corrupt defense procurement processes.
“We have equally taken care to speed up the modernization of the armed forces. By doing that only we can assure national security and we can protect every inch of our motherland,” he told lawmakers.
India remains concerned over China’s military build-up along the countries’ disputed border — the trigger for a brief war between the Asian giants in 1962 — and faces arch-foe Pakistan to its west.
In the letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, V.K. Singh reportedly blames the slow procurement process and lack of urgency among bureaucrats for the “hollowness” of the 1.13-million-strong military, the fourth largest in the world.
Senior opposition leader Arun Jaitley from the Bharatiya Janata Party complained of the “alarming situation” in which “letters which are otherwise intended to be secret and meant to be kept secret find there way into the media.”
“The fact that they can be leaked and come into the public domain itself is a matter of serious concern,” he told parliament.
The letter is likely to lead to a further deterioration in relations between V.K. Singh and his civilian bosses.
The army chief, who faces mandatory retirement this May at the age of 62, was angered after losing a bid to stay in office an extra year by changing his birth date registered in army records. He claimed the birth date was wrongly recorded.
His complaints of poor equipment and operational difficulties also run contrary to government defense spending announcements and recent studies showing India as the world’s biggest military hardware importer.
The government this month announced a 17-percent rise in defense spending to $40 billion in its budget for 2012-2013 — following a 12-percent increase in the previous budget.
Between 2007 and 2011, India overtook China to be the biggest arms importer and accounted for 10 percent of the global arms market, according to recent data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
India’s military is also negotiating to acquire a slew of new equipment from combat aircraft to submarines and artillery.
It is currently finalizing a deal with France’s Dassault Aviation to buy 126 Rafale fighter jets in a contract worth an estimated $12 billion.