As skeletons begin to tumble out of the closet of the Indian Army, the world’s second largest standing army, and the defence establishment now face the gravest crisis in their history — a crisis of credibility, and of national security preparedness. Will this shadowy war of leaks and allegations finally help unravel one of New Delhi’s most powerful cliques — that of shady arms dealers and agents? Or, will UPA’s Mr Clean A.K. Antony end up as the fall guy?
When the Army Chief writes to the Prime Minister that he has no ammunition for his tanks, that the country’s air defence network is nearly totally degraded and calls for urgent action to take correctives, it’s a grave national security situation indeed.
Yet, the debate that has taken hold is not about that grave situation, but whether the Army Chief violated protocol by writing to the PM, that he should be sacked for leaking – without evidence that he did – that letter to the media, and the like.
By itself, such a debate explains why, over the past two decades, we have come to such a pass. A matter that affects the war-potential of the army has been trifled with by an unseemly blame-game about its leakage.
A service chief is duty-bound to keep the political leadership informed of the state of preparedness of his force at all times. Writing a letter to the Prime Minister under intimation to the defence minister does not breach protocol in any way, and it has been done by service chiefs in the past.
The Indian Army’s problem, in a nutshell, is this: All militaries in the world seek the best equipment they can afford. But even the richest countries cannot afford to have an inventory full of the latest and best. Rather, militaries seek to maintain a well-balanced equipment profile at all times. Perhaps, a mix of 30 per cent modern, 40 per cent matured and 30 per cent obsolescent equipment.
Disconcertingly, in our case, as much as 85 per cent of the equipment with the Indian military today is decades-old and need to be replaced/upgraded. Yet, due to a number of impediments — including corruption in military procurement and attempts to curb it by blacklisting arms manufacturers — the pace of modernisation has been lagging by more than 10 years.
The primary cause is the bureaucracy’s stifling control over the entire procurement process and its reluctance to delegate authority to the Services.
Old bureaucratic mindsets and penchant for status-quoism promote inertia. As their approach continues to be entrenched in procedural quagmire, the process suffers from indifference, apathy, inefficiency and lassitude.
The current procurement procedure, for instance, is so time-consuming and complex that it takes a minimum of 36 months even for a routine purchase to materialise. Every proposal is subjected to repeated reviews and approvals. Every approval means months of delays.
The case of the Tactical Communication System (TCS) is symptomatic of the malaise. A proposal to acquire TCS to handle communication requirements (voice, data and video) of a field force in the Tactical Battle Area was initiated in 1996. Initially, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) ordered that it be considered as an upgrade of the existing system.
In 2001, after wasting five years in processing it as such, MoD ordered that it should be considered a new procurement. Then, MoD approved import of the first two systems, with the rest to be produced in India with imported technology. The case was still under process when MoD changed its stand yet again in 2007 and decided that TCS would be developed indigenously.
Result: The whole process had to be started afresh. Nearly 16 years have elapsed, the MoD is yet to finalise who should be asked to develop and supply the TCS.
The DPSU Stranglehold
The Army Chief’s allegation that he was offered a Rs 14-crore bribe to sign off on an order for Tatra trucks – heavy-duty vehicles that have been supplied to the Army for over 25 years — has opened a Pandora’s box, throwing a harsh light on defence PSUs, most of which are nothing more than the official importers and traders of foreign equipment, despite being mandated to obtain technology from the vendors and indigenize production.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the Chief’s even more serious complaint that the Army does not have ammunition for tanks and artillery. There are 39 ordnance factories and nine defence public sector undertakings under the MoD. With the armed forces as their captive customer, they are assured of continuous flow of orders. They thrive on assembly of imported sub-assemblies and thereafter selling them to the helpless services at a huge premium.
Additionally, they indulge in pure trading activities wherein they import equipment, carry out minimal value addition and pass it on to the services at unethically high profits. Neither the country gains technologically nor the services get equipment at economic rates. Yet, the services are given only one option: “take whatever the public sector offers or do without it”.
In all import deals where transfer of technology is negotiated, the nominated recipient is always a public sector unit. Unfortunately, the received technology is never used as a springboard to develop indigenous competence. No one should be surprised that the armed forces are saddled with mediocre and outdated equipment.
It’s glossy brochures notwithstanding, the record of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been one of tall promises, false claims, unexplained delays and sub-optimal products. In over 50 years, DRDO has not developed single major equipment in the promised time-frame and conforming to the required parameters.
With 51 laboratories, 5,000 scientists and over 25,000 support personnel, the only success DRDO has to its credit relates to replication of some imported products (commonly called “reverse engineering” and “indigenisation”).
Even if the DRDO is able to make some progress in a few cases, it is always done with major compromises on qualitative requirements. The services are forced to accept sub-optimal equipment.
No equipment can be imported unless DRDO gives the go-ahead by accepting its inability to develop the product in the necessary timeframe.
On numerous occasions, the services have been denied urgently required equipment because of DRDO’s exaggerated claims. In 1997, for instance, India was on the verge of importing Weapon Locating Radars (WLR) when DRDO intervened to scuttle the deal with claims that it would develop and produce them in two years. The Indian Army went into the Kargil conflict without WLR and suffered many casualties because it could not locate and neutralise Pakistani artillery effectively.
Unsurprisingly, DRDO has not been able to produce WLR to date. There are numerous such cases.
Equipped by the Ill-equipped
Any procedure is only as good as the people who operate it. Defence procurements in India are handled by officials drawn from the services and the bureaucracy. They are not selected for any special educational qualification or demonstrated capability or displayed flair. They are posted to acquisition appointments in routine turn over.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) had commented adversely on the system of acquisitions being handled by unspecialised personnel who are posted for short tenures. CAG emphasised that defence acquisition is a cross-disciplinary activity requiring expertise in technology, military, finance, quality assurance, market research, contract management, project management, administration and policy making.
Unfortunately, the current setup possesses none of those competencies. Defence procurements worth billions of dollars are being carried out by people ill-equipped for the task.
The Way Forward
As an emerging economic and military power, India must possess armed forces that can guarantee security of its interests in a dynamic geo-political environment. For this, it must be ensured that the military is well-equipped at all times through regular induction of newer weapon systems.
But, can we call ourselves a Superpower on the strength of imported weapon systems? Self-reliance in defence production is vital.
But that’s a goal that’s as distant as ever. In the early 1990s, MoD declared that it would buy 70 per cent of defence equipment from indigenous sources within 10 years. Then, the deadline was extended to 2010. All the initiatives have failed utterly. We continue to import 70 per cent of defence goods.
India is set to spend at least $120 billion over the next 10-15 years on defence buys.
It is estimated that an efficient acquisition system can save it up to 15 per cent — or $18 billion – in initial purchase price and associated life-cycle costs while getting modern equipment on time. What we need is a thorough overhaul of the system.
The Blacklisting Syndrome
Every time a corruption charge is made, the Indian government resorts to a familiar routine: blacklist foreign arms vendors without considering how it could hurt our own military preparedness.
When the Bofors gun scandal broke out in 1986, the then Swedish gun-maker still got to sell us the 410 gun systems we paid for, but the government’s ban on the company when allegations of kickbacks were made only deprived India of the transfer of technology which, too, had been contracted for. Result: India still cannot produce 155-mm guns, and we are again looking for a big foreign buy today – with the same drama of kickbacks and blacklisting playing out all over again.
Discussions were in final stages with Denel of South Africa for 155-mm howitzers when it emerged that Denel had employed unacceptable means to win another contract for the supply of NTW-20 Anti-Material Rifles. MoD blacklisted Denel in 2005 and cancelled all orders.
The case of HDW makes for instructive reading. A contract was signed with the German firm in 1981. HDW delivered two submarines in 1987 and two more were assembled in India in due course. As allegations of kickbacks became public, the government blacklisted HDW, only to deprive ourselves of maintenance support, upgrades and development of indigenous skills.
To this day, the government has learnt no lesson. It recently debarred six more companies, including Israel Military Industries (IMI) and Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK), for a period of 10 years.
By banning Bofors, Denel and now STK, India has virtually eliminated most of the major manufacturers of 155-mm guns in the world, thereby making procurement of these guns in the foreseeable future improbable. Similarly, India’s quest for indigenous production of heavy-calibre ammunition for 155-mm howitzers has suffered a serious setback.
By cancelling contracts signed with Denel and IMI for technology transfer, hundreds of crores of rupees spent in setting up the factory have gone down the drain, and dependence on imports continues.
Mrinal Suman retired as a Major-General from the Indian Army
First published http://www.deccanchronicle.com/360-degree/hollow-army-483
Editor – we are told that MoD has blacklisted suppliers because of kickbacks. If the MoD knows that kickbacks were paid it would also know the names of those who received these kickbacks. The moot point is whether those responsible for giving bribes have been prosecuted?