From an arms race in the Indian Ocean and the challenges of raising a mountain strike corps to the hurdles in scaling up border infrastructure and how the UPA regime ignored the military's needs, defence minister Manohar Parrikar opens up to HT in an exclusive interview.
Q. Was the Indian Air Force on board when the government took the decision to buy 36 Rafale fighters under the government-to-government (G2G) route from France?
A. I consulted the Air Force to the extent it was required. They have no role in decision-making as ultimately it’s the Prime Minister’s call. I did discuss possibilities with the prime minister and he took a very bold decision which was required. If we had missed this opportunity, the entire matter would have gone into a spin and we might have had to re-start the whole procedure this year. And in another five years our requirements might have changed. Rafale induction could begin in about 18 months.
Q. You said the fighter acquisition process will be G2G now. Will India buy more Rafales or could it source fighters from other countries too?
A. I will say both options are open to us depending on reassessment of our requirements (after scrapping the tender for 126 aircraft). I will not spell out MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) role but it will be very effective in certain areas. Two people travel on a scooter, 4 in a car and 20 in a bus. But 2 people can also travel in a bus but that would be wasting resources. So, we will not deploy this aircraft where it is not required. I can tell you our light combat aircraft (LCA) is also a very capable aircraft and can replace MiG-21s more than adequately. It cannot be compared with the Rafale as the latter is a heavier fighter with two engines.
Q. So India will buy more Rafales after re-assessing requirements? Where does the LCA fit in the picture?
A. I feel that some more Rafale jets may be required but need to figure out how we can acquire them. But more importantly, we need large number of aircraft to replace MiG variants over the next 8-10 years, which is their extended life. So either we go in for large-scale manufacturing of the LCA or combine some other requirements and go for a medium-weight fighter under the Make in India plan.
Some of it can be replaced by even proper stockpiling of missiles. Nowadays, one can attack some targets by proper use of missiles.
Q. Will the remaining Rafales come under Make in India programme and will Dassault Aviation set up a unit here?
A. That decision will be taken after both India and France hold talks. It will also depend on what our financial outlay is. We operate various MiG variants, Mirage 2000s, Jaguars, Sukhoi-30s and we have the LCA now. All these warplanes have different capabilities and cannot be compared. Ultimately, we may also require certain number of Rafales but how many will hinge on the cost factor. Why just 126? I would want the IAF to have 500 planes, but the question is how much I can afford. We will have to do an analysis of minimum requirement and then take a decision.
Q. The 10 years of UPA is often referred to as the lost decade for the military with several key projects getting delayed or derailed. How do you intend to reverse the damage and speed up acquisitions?
A. My focus is on projects that are stuck at different stages. I have managed to speed up these projects by 25%. There are 339 such cases that need to be dealt with. The ministry has managed to bring 58 of these to final stages of completion. Nearly 100 projects may not be required now due to long delays or changed requirements and we are looking at dropping them or putting them on the back burner. The thrust is on accelerating critical projects.
Q. What stopped the previous regime from taking quick decisions: bureaucratic inertia or lack of leadership?
A. I always say bureaucracy is colourless like water. It takes the colour of the government so you cannot totally blame them (bureaucrats). Part of the blame surely lies with them. But, it is the duty of the government or the minister to ensure proper follow-up action to crucial projects. I do not know what the previous government was doing but as far as I am concerned, review meetings are held in South Block on a daily basis.
Q. Pakistan is on course to buy 8 diesel-electric submarines from China in what would be one of Beijing's biggest exports. How do you think it will change the dynamics in the Indian Ocean region?
A. Of course, a submarine in itself is a very powerful platform in the ocean. It may, however, not directly pose a threat to India. But it does become a weakness in your armour of controlling the ocean. We will have to match it. I do not see it as a big problem because we will have enough submarines by the time Pakistan gets these 8. By the time they get the deliveries, we can manufacture 15-20 submarines.
Q. You have said the UPA regime cleared the mountain strike corps project in the eastern sector without factoring in availability of funds? What outlay are you planning to set aside for it?
A. The previous government had estimated it will cost Rs 88,000 crore and will have 70,000 soldiers. I have frozen the cost at Rs 38,000 crore over next eight years. It will consist of 35,000 men. The CCS had cleared the original proposal, but where is the money? Rs 88,000 crore is the army's revenue budget. The CCS kept clearing projects worth Rs 50,000 crore to Rs 1,00,000 crore but where is the actual money? So you have to be selective. I have cleared a Rs 48,000-crore project for seven stealth frigates (P-17A), but I have factored in when the money will be required and at what stage.
Q. Are you satisfied with infrastructure in forward areas and the role of the Border Roads Organisation?
A. Much more needs to be done. Environmental clearances have come in 64 cases. But I will be able to take the issue head on only when we are in a position to deliver in terms of roads. BRO is now in the process of outsourcing. Government machinery, the BRO in particular, has never developed the technique of outsourcing. They are very poor outsourcers. They do not have conceptual clarity on outsourcing. We are in touch with the Confederation of Indian Industry and may appoint consultants to push it.
Q. Can you elaborate on proposed changes in the new defence procurement policy?
A. Different issues are being tackled separately and we are close to coming close to a conclusion. I think 8 or 9 main issues (including blacklisting and allowing agents) have been discussed extensively and decision-making is in an advanced stage. I am forming a committee that will go through all this material and do a final round of interaction (with stakeholders). It will then write a Defence Procurement Procedure which will be published after the ministry vets it.
Q. The Prime Minister has talked about skills as part of defence offsets but your ministry says skills cannot be a part of offsets.
A. It can be. They are going by what is written there. But if we change that, the same people will say it is possible. Currently, there is a ban on services in offsets as someone used services to give kickbacks. I intend to take it up at the next meeting of the defence acquisition council and lift the ban on services.
Q. What are your expectations from your visit to South Korea (April 15-19)?
A. The Prime Minister will be visiting Korea in May. The idea is to discuss some issues so that some agreements can be finalised and signed during the Prime Minister's visit. The Koreans excel in areas such as shipbuilding, electronics and metallurgy. They have also shown interest in the Make in India programme.
Q. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been without a chief for more than 2 months? What about appointing chief of defence staff?
A. The selection process for the new DRDO chief is on and will happen soon. DRDO will play a key role in boosting the Make in India programme. We will encourage it to tie up with the local industry in the development phase. As for creation of the post of chief of defence staff or permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, I will take up that issue after two months as I already have my hands full with other issues. We do intend to create that post but if I take up everything together I will not be able to do anything.
Q. Coming back to the Rafale deal, you said your predecessor had himself put a question mark on it.
A. The previous defence minister had written that after the price negotiation is done, L1 should be verified again. But it did not come to that stage as it got stuck up because of interpretation of whether to take French man-hours into consideration for building the plane or Indian man-hours, which is 2.7 times the French number. I have not gone into too much detail on that, but my officers have expressed reservations about this 2.7-hour formula for local manufacturing.