On 3 May Indian armed forces will be displaying solidarity and gratitude to all the Indian Covid-19 warriors. The Indian Air Force (IAF) will do fighter aircraft fly past across the length and breadth of the country from Srinagar to Thiruvananthapuram, and Dibrugarh to Naliya in Kutch, Gujarat. Helicopters will shower petals over Covidrelated hospitals, naval ships will be lit and will be visible in harbours and on the coastline, and military bands will play all across India. Military personnel will also lay wreaths at police memorials. This will be the way for armed forces to say, we are on and we are with the nation always. Meanwhile Covid-19 has hit every facet of human life and its impact on national security is no less significant. The country can be under lockdown but the borders have still to be guarded, the air space secured, and sea lanes monitored.
The armed forces are always the first responders in all disasters and are the most active and disciplined in providing relief, while still discharging the primary task of national security. It is important to assess the impact of this pandemic on security and ways to address those challenges. Securing Defence Personnel Defence personnel are involved in many national tasks that involve their coming in close contact with virus-infected people. This could be evacuation flights or supply medical and food missions by IAF aircraft, naval ships being used for logistics and to bring back Indians stranded abroad, setting up special hospitals and quarantine facilities for Indians returning from abroad, supporting local populations in J&K, and other border areas for rations and medical aid. Being forced to remain in close proximity in operational areas near border or during encounters. In all this it is important to keep the personnel safe from a possible infection so that they can remain the calamity and security responders. Securing Borders Irrespective of the scale of global calamity, the borders have to be kept secure.
From the significant increase in number of ceasefire violations on India-Pakistan border it is clear that as the snow melts attempts are being made to infiltrate terrorists under cover of fire. The Pakistan Army has been resorting to heavy fire including artillery shelling. The Indian Army is deployed and fully active along all borders. The IAF has to keep its aircraft armed and on standby at Operational Readiness Platforms (ORP). Similarly, the Navy has to patrol the coastal areas and deep oceans taking precautions of social distancing. All radars, underground operations rooms, air defence missile units have to remain live despite Covid risks. Anti-Terror Operations Despite Covid, Pakistan-based sponsors of terror has shown no let-up in their activities. Pakistan continues to support cross-border terrorism and has not closed any of the camps. The period from 1 January 2020 to 30 April 2020 saw repeat terror incidents in the Valley, albeit most were foiled and nearly 50 terrorists eliminated, by effective counter-terrorism operations. With the mountain passes opening as snow melts, the number of terrorist encounters will go up further. The lockdown in sensitive regions plays its own dynamics in terms of intelligence inputs and hideouts. Pakistan is also using the lockdown to increase presence and run an information warfare campaign by activating many social media fake handles to create communal discord, including between India and the Arab countries. Fake account of the Omani Princess HH Dr Mona Fahad Mahmoud Al Said had to be denied by her in person.
Decision Making With the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and service headquarters operating with thinned down staff, many so-called less important meetings postponed and important ones being done online, and the physical file movement of files getting reduced or restricted, decision making would get slowed. It could adversely affect or delay some of the important procurements. The major cases like Request for Proposal (RFP) for 114 MMRCA fighters would get pushed back by a few months. Defence Production and Hardware Supplies Nearly all India’s foreign defence hardware suppliers are in the US and Europe, and these countries have been badly affected by Covid. The flying and technical training of the IAF’s Rafale team has slowed down for obvious reasons. With global civil aviation being grounded, the movement of weapons and stores from abroad have come to a halt. Before the Rafale aircraft can come to India, a large amount of ground equipment and test benches must arrive and be set up at the airbase. All this is still stuck at the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) factories as the warehouses at the French airports are already full and all cargo movement held up in the absence of off-take.
Indian DPSUs and other defence manufacturers also require kits and components from abroad or local factories, all of which are closed. The Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) target of increasing LCA production this year to 16 cannot be met at this rate. Also, other indigenous system supplies will be pushed back. Training and Exercises All international and domestic military exercises have been cancelled or put on hold. Only very limited routine training is being done with many restrictions in place. Most training courses are on hold. Flying at airbases is also curtailed for obvious reasons. Funds Crunch With significant out of budget spending by the government to mitigate medical and economic impact of Covid, the country is already facing economic meltdown and fund crunch. There are proposals to cut revenue budgets for every ministry including armed forces which effectively would affect peace-time training. Many revenue procurements directly affect the maintainability and serviceability of the weapon platforms. Thee will have their own dynamics for preparedness and in turn security. Just because the adversaries are also badly hit by Covid cannot be a panacea, because China has recovered from the virus impact and while its economy has taken a hit, it is expected to have a strong rebound to 9.2 per cent in 2021 and has already accelerated spending.
With the current year’s economic growth projections for India being pegged at a mere 1.9%, things could remain tough for a few more coming years. The coming times could be volatile. Way Ahead Despite the originator of Covid-19, China continues muscle-flexing moves in South China Sea through coercive acts designed to put pressure on Taiwan. It is also trying to reap dividend by supplying, often sub-standard, medical kit and expertise to nations in dire need. The Afghan government’s appeal to Pakistan-backed Taliban to lay down arms for Ramzan has been rejected by them. Externally funded and supported, attempts continue to be made to weaken India’s synergetic fabric even during Covid by creating divide through fake news. These actions have implications. China can also extend further support to debt-ridden Pakistan and renegotiate some debt. Pakistan’s dependence on China will likely increase. It is clear that post-Covid strategic competition between China and the US will intensify. India will have to find a place in this new Cold war. It must also be remembered that military capability takes years to build and all actions need to be taken to prevent weakening.