Indian Army chief General VK Singh's letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, highlighting the "critical" operational gaps in the army's fighting capabilities, has forced the nation to feel that the political and bureaucratic leadership of the country has failed to plan our defence needs.
On April 2, defence minister AK Antony summoned a meeting of the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC) to clear the five and 15-year perspective plans, which have been hanging fire. The minister is in favour of the DAC giving more financial powers to the service headquarters, if that can lead to speedier acquisition of equipment, platforms and systems.
The army is grappling with severe problems: its tank regiments are devoid of critical ammunition, while existing air defence systems are 97% obsolete. By some accounts, India will require around Rs. 41,000 crore to make up for the deficiencies and the army will need over 15 years to achieve its optimum level of operational readiness.
While the army's flat-footedness in making its "statement of cases", drafting general staff qualitative requirements and holding field trials delay procurement, ministry of defence, too, cannot escape the blame because around 100 procurement projects are stuck in its offices.
It is not possible for any nation that imports 70% of its defence equipment to improve its battle worthiness. India has a poor track record of Five Year Defence Planning and its implementation. India's public sector dealings with defence is very inefficient and the private sector, despite its capabilities, is kept out of arms production.
Some glaring examples of delays in the procurement of equipment and armaments can provide a good background to the issues that are at hand.
The Nalanda Project: An Israeli company, now under the Central Bureau of Investigation scanner, doled out an advance of Rs. 174 crore in March 2009 for the Nalanda Ordnance Factory project in Bihar. Today, 19 years after the foundation was laid, only 27% of construction has been finished. The Public Accounts Committee has revealed that the delay in the project has cost the exchequer Rs. 628.87 core.
Howitzer: India's search for a 155-millimetre howitzer to replace the ageing FH-77B Bofors guns is also a case in the point. First, the army sought weapons with unrealistic characteristics: tenders were issued, withdrawn, and reissued after multiple rounds of tests. Then, in March, the government blacklisted leading contenders — Singapore Technologies Kinetics and Rheinmetall Air Defence — for their alleged role in a 2009 corruption scandal at the Ordnance Factory Board. This severely hampered the operations of the artillery wing.
Tanks Procurement: The army had planned to equip its 59 armoured regiments with 1,657 T-90S battle tanks of which 1,000 were to be India-made. But the project failed. The production of T-90S tanks met the same fate for delayed technology transfers. The 100-odd Arjun tanks delivered to the army, meanwhile, did not function as marketed. In the interim, efforts to plug the gap by upgrading India's T-72 tanks also ran into trouble. India-made 125mm smooth bore barrels also blew up during field use, forcing the army to seek emergency imports, which have still not materialised.
Helicopters: Efforts to replace the obsolete Chetak and Cheetah helicopters have run into similar problems.
One of the major problems is the long delay in procurement. Even equipment ordered under the ministry of defence (MoD) Fast Track programme, which envisages deliveries in a year, have often taken three years to materialise.
Factionalism within the army, legal manoeuvres by defence firms and dysfunction in the defence production system have contributed to this mess — along with outright corruption.
The MoD is unable to take quick calls on joint ventures and foreign direct investment, which would act as a stimulus to strengthen the technology and manufacturing base, giving, eventually the kind of confidence the army requires. China has done so with great success towards indigenisation. India should also follow suit.
PK Vasudeva is former senior professor, Icfai Business School, Chandigarh. The views expressed by the author are personal.