Ever since the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 26/11, there’s been that ever-familiar refrain: how we are under-equipped not just for another war, but also to deter future terror strikes. From the armed forces to Defence Minister A K Anthony, there have been murmurs about our ‘lack of preparedness’. The point is: how did we get here, and what’s preventing us from getting to where we want to be?
With Pranab Mukherjee citing that post-26/11 a “threshold has been crossed”, the interim budget for 2009-10 earlier this week saw an increase in defence allocation by 34 per cent to Rs 1.417 trillion — a year after it fell to less than 2 per cent of the GDP for the first time since the 60s. Our Defence Minister said recently that allocation of money isn’t the problem. So what is it then?
For years now, the procedures for defence procurement in India have bordered on xenophobia — keeping the private sector and foreign vendors at an arm’s length, while indigenous capability continues to languish. “The three biggest problems with indigenous defence production in India as it stands today are a closed institutional mechanism, a yawning production-requirement mismatch and the failure of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to live up to its role as a technology innovator,” says Deba Mohanty, Senior Fellow in Security Studies at the Observer Research Foundation.
Given the over-ambition and under-achievement of India’s defence R&D and prohibitive policies that keep scaring off foreign players, there are inevitable chinks in our armour. Quite predictably, the process of acquisition is long, complex and tedious in itself, with red tape waiting to ambush progress at each stage. From the Acquisition Wing of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to the DRDO and the armed forces, there is no way for one hand to fathom what the other hand is doing. Each acquisition process has to go through the wringer before it can take wing.
The consequent dependence on imports and attached restrictions on technology transfers have spawned a vicious cycle, putting the brakes on technological value-adds back home, further leading to less than 30 per cent of our defence equipment being indigenously manufactured. Revisions in the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) have hinted at greater public-private partnership, following the new offset policy of 2006, which mandates at least 30 per cent ‘offsets’ in all defence deals with foreign companies as an obligatory re-investment in the country’s defence sector. Given that India is expected to spend anywhere between $30-45 billion for acquisition of military hardware and software over the next five years, it remains to be seen whether it will be feasible for domestic players to absorb this amount. The predictable fallout: cautious investors and more delays.
It might be easy to presume that being one of the largest arms importers in the world, with a long shopping list, India would combine maturity, momentum and incentives to negotiate a few terms of its own to private players salivating at the prospect of filling in the blanks. For example, easing restrictions could be used as a bargaining counter to insist on a ‘joint’ component, whether it is in the field of technology, manufacturing, development or trials, given our over-dependence on foreign suppliers for upgrades, after-sales service and components.
Long waits in upgradation and modernisation, have meant over-extending the life span of vessels and aircraft, further upping the security risk and putting lives at stake. The aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, which was to replace the half century-old INS Viraat, is still floating out of reach with the Russians almost doubling the cost estimates. Gorshkov might not sail in before 2012.
The ghost of Bofors seems to have put paid to any plans of acquiring artillery guns. Israel is waiting to become our top defence supplier, dethroning the Russians, but corruption scandals have played spoilsport. The Indian Air Force is still waiting for the government to make up its mind on those multi-role combat fighters. Controversies aside, the response to corruption can’t be ‘No deals for no scandals’.
Why, also, does the Defence Ministry keep relinquishing funds year after year? In the past three years alone, over Rs 13,000 crore remained unspent. But the repeated surrendering of funds might be symptomatic of a larger problem — a mismatch between budget estimates and a pragmatic spending plan, taking existing realities into account. It’s difficult to make plans, for example, when 25 years after it was first sanctioned, the light combat aircraft is nowhere on the horizon, and Arjun, the main battle tank, has yet to roll into the army’s ranks 35 years after it was first authorised.
In 1999, the then Indian Army chief, General V P Malik, vowed to fight the Kargil War with “whatever we have”. Ten years on, it’s time to focus on what we don’t have, and how we’re going to fill that gap.