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India’s army unfit to fight a war, army chief says

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NEW DELHI — India’s tanks do not have enough shells to fire, its air defenses are obsolete and its ill-equipped infantry can’t fight at night, the country’s army chief told the prime minister in a letter this month, an Indian newpaper reported Wednesday.

Excerpts from the letter from army chief V.K. Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were published in the Mumbai-based newspaper Daily News & Analysis. The revelations prompted condemnation of both the government and the army among lawmakers, who demanded the army chief’s immediate dismissal over the letter’s publication and other incidents and accused the government of neglecting national security.

An embarrassed A.K. Antony, India’s defense minister, confirmed to Parliament on Wednesday that V.K. Singh had sent the letter and pledged to “protect every inch of our motherland” by speeding up steps to modernize the country’s million-man army.

Amid tensions with neighboring China and Pakistan, India has shopped aggressively for weapons in recent years in an effort to transform what has long been a corrupt and bureaucratic force into a lean, lethal army fit for 21st-century warfare. A Swedish research group said this month that between 2007 and 2011, the country had emerged as the world’s largest weapons importer.

In his letter, however, Singh said the army’s major combat weapons are in an “alarming” state, alleging that its tank fleet is “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks” and that India’s air defenses are “97 percent obsolete.”

There was no immediate response from the prime minister’s office.

In October, the weekly magazine India Today ran a story titled “Not Ready for War,” which argued that years of neglect had rendered the army unfit to fight a war.

Antony’s criticism was not directed at Singh for sending the letter but focused instead on its publication. “By the very nature of these issues, they cannot be a matter of public debate,” he said, adding, “I have made serious note of the observations.”

Retired Gen. Ved Prakash Malik, who headed the Indian army in a limited border war with Pakistan in 1999, concurred with that view Wednesday. “Every army in the world faces shortages,” he said, “but how did a classified letter of this kind come into the public domain?”

Malik also declined to take issue with the letter’s allegations. “There is no doubt that our weapons procurement procedures in the civil and military bureaucracy are very, very slow, and it does affect decision-making,” he said. “Corrective steps must be taken immediately, especially because of the kind of environment India lives in today.”

Earlier this year, V.K. Singh claimed that he had one more year of tenure and urged the Supreme Court to change his recorded date of birth. The court warned that it could rule against him, and Singh withdrew his case. On Monday, Singh told the Hindu newspaper in an interview that he had been offered a bribe of almost $3 million a year ago by a retired army officer to approve the purchase of trucks from a particular company. Singh said he refused the bribe and reported the incident to the defense minister.

Laloo Prasad Yadav, a lawmaker, told reporters that Singh was “depressed” and “frustrated” and that his actions had hurt the army and the country.

The army chief is scheduled to retire in May.

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