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What hampers India’s arms procurement process?

We continue to remain the only major country that lacks a regular national security doctrine

editorials Updated: Feb 28, 2018 15:52 IST
Indian army,arms procurement,Bureaucracy
Tthe country’s defence policy should ultimately be about security. Instead, defence has become a place to posture politically (PTI)

It is easier for a tank to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for India’s defence ministry to buy or manufacture a weapon. Indeed, to describe the speed with which the ministry does this as glacial would be hyperbole. This is evident from a number of recent analyses of its functioning. They also show that despite many aggressive statements of intent, the Narendra Modi government has been as unsuccessful as its predecessor in making a dent in the ministry’s thicket of red tape and brown files.

The first problem is administrative. An internal ministry study reportedly describes a procurement process that is so slow that, in the past three years, less than 10% of proposed arms deals have met their timelines. Just the initial tendering stage takes an average six times longer than it should. The report describes a labyrinth of layers of bureaucracy, duplicated procedures and minimal accountability.

The second problem is financial. An Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis report has shown the inevitable fallout of measures like one rank, one pension and a military bureaucracy overflowing with clerks. Payroll and pension costs have risen dramatically. By 2018-19 they will constitute 56% of defence expenditure, 12 percentage points higher than seven years ago. Inevitably, this has come at the cost of weapons. Expenditure on defence modernisation will fall from 26% to 18% over the time span.

The third problem is flawed indigenisation. Every government has touted its intention to reduce India’s dependence on arms imports. All have failed. There has been an unwillingness to drastically reform the state-owned defence firms which largely assemble imported kits or make substandard weapons. Absurd goals are set by the ministry, for example, the endless schemes to build jet engines — a technology that even China has not mastered — when making an assault rifle remains a bridge too far.

At the heart of all this has been a tendency to impose ideological goals on the country’s defence policy, which ultimately should be about security. Instead, defence has become a place to posture politically about corruption, a laboratory for economic nationalism and affected by short-sighted wooing of foreign governments. A carefully worked out, long-term plan for indigenisation that encourages the participation of the private sector and which recognises India must learn to walk before it can run would be the realistic path for the government to take. India continues to remains the only major country lacking a regular national security doctrine. Unsurprisingly, major arms buys have become sudden, government to government deals driven by desperation rather than any real thought.

First Published: Feb 28, 2018 12:44 IST