More than six decades after Independence and over fifty years of setting up Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), India remains the largest importer of defence equipment in the world. Seventy-five per cent of all defence equipment is imported and that includes such simple items as bullet-proof vests, winter clothing and even rifles.
In some other areas, equipment and weapons are imported with the transfer-of-technology clause added to the contract, though no further addition or advancement in the field of technology takes place. So the next set of advance equipment is bought with yet again transfer-of-technology clause added. This gets repeated ad nauseam. Even in the field of reverse engineering we have had no success.
Perhaps there are vested interests in importing defence equipment rather than making any serious attempt at indigenous effort. When the USSR broke up, top scientists from Central Asian Republics were seeking jobs in other countries for a pittance. India, more so the DRDO, and other scientific community sat smug in the false notion that they, on their own, are the best, while China took two thousand top scientists from these countries. China now produces most of its defence equipment indigenously.
Import of defence equipment for a military of Indian's size places a heavy burden on the country's economy and foreign exchange reserves, whereas if India were to meet the requirement of weapons and equipment indigenously, then the defence production would have positive impact on the country's economy.
Corruption in purchase of defence equipment has existed from the earliest days of independence (remember, the jeep scandal!) but it was the Bofors that became synonymous with corruption among the higher echelons of the country.
Though much noise and posturing was done in this corruption case, nothing came of it. The PM was charge-sheeted but died before law could take it own course and the defence secretary was sent as governor, thus placing him beyond the long arm of the law, while some others walked away with most of the cash. Since then there have been a number of scandals of gigantic proportions, in and outside defence purchases, but little has been done to bring the culprits to book. Corruption as such has come to be a safe enterprise in India. So nothing much may come out of the ongoing scandal of Augusta-Westland choppers purchase.
In this scandal of helicopters for VVIPs for Rs. 3,600 crore, there exists much fog, and blame game and efforts are afoot to give it a political tinge. Undoubtedly much money has found its way into Indian pockets, which the CBI can be trusted not to unravel.
In the purchase of defence equipment, there are tricks that can be brought into play at the time of drawing up qualitative requirement (QR). In this case, the performance parameters of 18,000-feet ceiling (though not an inescapable requirement) had only three other contenders but these three could not meet some of the remaining QR. Now if this 1,8000-feet ceiling was lowered to 16,000 feet, then Augusta Westland could be brought in. But some features of Augusta Westland, such as, on-board jamming systems, traffic collusion avoidance systemic, enhanced ground proximity warning system, Medevac system, three-engine requirement and anti-missile system (some of these inducted at the price negotiation stage) were not available with the first contender. This brought us back to single-vendor situation.
Surprisingly, though some of these QR were injected by the IAF while some others were by SPG and PMO. SPG recommendation for a third engine was brought in after the visit by its members to the Augusta Westland facilities. It can be argued that most of these QR have little relevance to the Indian situation and safety of VVIPs. Yet another question remains as to why a dozen choppers and not a lesser number are needed.
We must be living in extremely dangerous times and in a country of lawlessness of proportions worse than even Pakistan, that a chopper carrying the so-called VVIP and flying within Indian air space, could be the target of an anti-aircraft missile attack and requires such a wide array of protection features. The ring of gunmen with fingers on the trigger of their automatic weapons who surround these VIPs leaves one with the impression that all of it is more an ego issue than countering any real threat.
For no one is going to physically rush at these VIPs while a well-placed sniper, if at all, could be a far more likely option. Kennedy fell to one such sniper. But the Indian police thrive in making fools of our politicians, boost their egos, make them appear as the most endangered species and retain own importance.
Earlier, some transport planes for VVIPs were bought at an exorbitant price. Indian Air Force has sufficient range of choppers, which, with some practical and simple modifications can meet the requirements of these VVIPs and their safety. Augusta Westland choppers cost the earth. Spending public money so recklessly is vulgar and an affront to the poor of this country: as vulgar and shocking as spending Rs. 36 lakh on each toilet for the Planning Commission.
(The writer is a well-known commentator on defence and security matters. Views expressed are his personal)