Much has been said about India's defence preparedness, or the lack of it, in the last few years — most of it not too confidence inspiring. But when the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, joins the clamour, with his less-than-shocking declaration that almost 50 per cent of the Indian Air Force's equipment is 'obsolescent' (not 'obsolete', as he later clarified in a television interview) and needs to be replaced, it's time to acknowledge the sheer magnitude of the problem. The last few years have thrown up a curious struggle between the imperatives of moving toward a leaner, meaner force and the pitfalls of a slow-moving procurement process that continues to thwart all attempts to do so.
Even as the debate on whether India needs more or less money for defence continues, the fact is that procurement delays, failure to successfully step up the indigenisation of defence production, the imbalance between capital and revenue expenditure — where the former continues to lag unfavourably behind the latter — and the surrender of funds year after year is symptomatic of an apathy that India can ill-afford. With China and Pakistan ratcheting up their defence budgets faster than the rhetoric, and aggressively shopping for newer equipment and technology, India's foot dragging is at odds with the compulsions not just of external threats but of the Naxal siege within. A slew of multi-billion-dollar purchases may be 'in the pipeline', but not only do most of our ambitious acquisition plans continue to be thwarted by red tape, our equally ambitious designs on indigenising defence production have been sluggish at best.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation's penchant for reinventing the wheel has delayed the induction of crucial weapons and weapon-systems. Coupled with an inherent reluctance to open the door a little wider to the private sector, this has fed right back into the vicious cycle of procurement delays and cost escalations, allowing vendor-countries like Russia to dictate both terms and prices. Delays have also stretched the shelf life of existing equipment, as in the case of the MiG-21s, dubbed as 'flying coffins', putting lives at risk. So, even though it's true that the gaps in military technology, hardware and infrastructure have been creditably filled by the sheer grit of our armed forces, the idea that India can still defend itself with what its got can't be an excuse for the State's inability to provide for those who put their lives on the line for its defence.