The sordid saga of defence acquisitions is visible in many hues—the routine surrender of capital allocated, denial of essentials to the troops, and the delay of modernisation

by Shankkar Aiyar

Rafale, of Spanish/Middle French etymology, denotes bursts of gunfire, gust of wind or a squall. Parliament this week was an amphitheatre of ricocheting accusations, venting of hot air and a squall of sordid politics. The indefensible state of delays that detain deterrence and defence strategy was buried underneath the Rafale of rhetoric. 

The sordid saga of defence acquisitions is visible in many hues—the routine surrender of capital allocated, denial of essentials to the troops, and the delay of modernisation. It has left a chasm between what’s needed and what is made available. Whether it is bulletproof vests for the Indian Army, or modern equipment for the Indian Navy or the Indian Air Force, the brave hearts must live with promises and risk lives due to inadequacy.

The delay in acquisition of Rafale jets represents systemic sloth. As early as in 1964-65, the First National Defence Plan determined that India needed to build up 45 squadrons for the Air Force to be effective. This estimation has apparently been described as less than optimal by two different committees, the Subrahmanyam Committee and the TATA Committee, which estimated that India needed 65 squadrons to deal with the twin threats. 

The aspiration of 65 squadrons is in “dream on” territory. Even the necessity of 45 squadrons awaits deliverance. The squadron strength required to deal with threats from China and Pakistan has been below par for decades. Reports of standing committees from the 13th to the 16th Lok Sabha reveal persistence of the gap between adequacy and availability.

Till date the best score has been “39.5 squadrons,” revealed in December 2000 to the Committee of Defence reviewing “Modernisation of Indian Air Force”. At the same time the IAF also warned that “the force faces serious depletion of aircraft in the coming ten to twelve years” as ageing aircraft of the 1960s and 70s were nearing the end of their life. 

Interestingly, the need for 45 squadrons was trimmed to a sanctioned strength of 42 by 2009. The trim didn’t matter. In April 2013, the Committee on Defence was told that the strength would be 31 squadrons by the end of the 12th Plan. In December 2014, the Committee on Defence was told by IAF officials: “The IAF requires at least 45 fighter squadrons to counter a two-front collusive threat. The IAF today has 25 active fighter squadrons as against government-authorised strength of 42 squadrons.” In March 2018, the reported strength was 31 squadrons. The angst was best expressed by Lok Sabha MP Harsh Vardhan in July 2010. He asked whether “the number of squadrons has ever reached the level of sanctioned strength”.

The saga of Air Force modernisation is by no means unique. The affliction of apathy is visible across the three arms of the armed forces. In its report in May 2016, the Standing Committee on Defence led by Maj. Gen. B C Khanduri observed that “the Army is operating with vintage equipment”, the modernisation programme of the Indian Navy is postponed year to year, and the shortfalls in Indian Air Force were “grave and unacceptable”. 

Defence preparedness is plagued by poor policy approach and inefficient implementation. Over 50 years ago, K Subrahmanyam authored a seminal paper, “Five Years of Indian Defence Effort in Perspective”, dissecting systemic issues. He observed that budgets stated how much had been spent on what, but did not inform outcomes in terms of preparedness—of divisions, squadrons and stockpiles. “Our decision-making process and management structure are such that even within the government there is no readily available information system on output”. That the observation made in June 1969 finds resonance in 2019 is a testimony to systemic lethargy.

Allegation politics aggravates policy procrastination. From the jeep scandal, defence purchases have triggered politics of suspicion. In his biography, former President R Venkataraman recounts a courtesy call by J R D Tata. India was in the throes of the Bofors scandal. Discussing the payoff, he told Venkataraman that industrialists mentioned that since 1980 they had not been approached for funds, and the “general feeling among them was that the party was financed by commissions on deals.” 

Suspicions, though, have not translated into conviction. India ordered four HDW submarines from Germany at Rs 465 crore, to be delivered by 1987—only two were delivered. Neither in HDW nor in Bofors or subsequent scams have the accused been caught. Political charge sheets exacerbate delays as the bureaucracy and political class stick to status quo and shun decisions.

When in power, every party preaches that national security is sacrosanct, but fails to follow the doctrine while in opposition. There is no disputing that decisions concerning national security cannot be influenced by cash and carry politics. Equally, the security of the nation and the safety of those who defend it cannot afford abandonment.

India needs an organising principle and a common sense of purpose across the political class on national security. There is an urgent need for political leaders to find a bipartisan approach towards transparency which enables decision-making. Democracy bestows rights and imposes obligations on those who practice politics.