Defence acquisition is a mission for committed professionals and not for administrative generalists or indeed for uniformed specialists working on rotating assignments, burdened with other chores and pressures. In the US and elsewhere, it is a profession where people train, specialise and work full-time. The US even has a Defence Acquisition University

by Air Marshal BD Jayal (Retd)

A recent panel discussion on ‘Make in India and the nation’s security’ featured General VP Malik, who was the Army Chief during the Kargil war. Few will forget his promise to the nation, when faced with a herculean challenge, of ‘we will fight with what we have’, also discreetly conveying the message to the civil leadership that the defence management, procurement and production systems had failed to deliver, leaving the Army to fend for itself. Not surprisingly, during the panel discussion, he again cautioned the people that unless India becomes self-reliant in defence, its security forces would continue to be vulnerable.

Another panellist, who had been a senior member in the defence acquisition system, suggested a dedicated and overarching organisation to deliver on defence needs and the panel moderator reflected on the irony that the country has launched ballistic missiles but is unable to make the INSAS rifle. If these are the sentiments of those who have been practitioners, then clearly the self-reliance in defence production, that has been an avowed objective of governments since independence, continues to evade us.

It is worth revisiting recent history to fathom why indigenising defence production is proving to be so challenging to successive defence ministers, all of whom mean well, and of late, appear to have taken positive steps towards this end. In 2015, the government appointed the Kelkar Committee to study the public-private partnership concept and make recommendations. This was followed by the Dhirendra Singh Committee which looked at the Make in India concept in the field of defence manufacturing and recommended a strategic partnership model wherein the government would select Indian private enterprises to exclusively make designated military platforms.

Consequently, the ninth version of the Defence Procurement Procedure or DPP-2016 devoted a chapter to strategic partnership, which followed soon after. Whilst the idea evokes optimism amongst most stakeholders because of the dynamism that the private sector will bring, as subsequent events including the drawing of the Rafale controversy into the political arena showed, any attempt to involve the private sector in the defence procurement and production domain will continue to be a challenge.

This is borne out by a recent media report highlighting how in six years, no major Make in India defence project has taken off because of bureaucratic bottlenecks, commercial and technical wrangling and a lack of requisite political push. These shortcomings have a historical reason, some going back decades and unless we attempt to understand and address these, our Make in India vision will continue to stagnate. That the Defence Minister has formed yet another committee to review the DPP-2016, indicates that formulating newer and more complex procedures appears to have become an end in itself rather than merely a means to an end.

The first challenge is to understand that defence manufacturing is in a special category and needs to be treated as such. This is best exemplified by what Jacques S Gansler, who steered such consolidation in the US, had to say in their context: “In order to understand the economic operations of the US defence industry, it is first absolutely essential to recognise that there is no free market at work in this area and that there cannot be one because of the dominant role played by the federal government. The combination of a single buyer, a few large firms in each segment of the industry, and a small number of extremely expensive weapon programmes, constitutes a unique structure for doing business.” Drawing from this experience and applying our own conditions both in the public and private sector, we first need to arrive at our own ‘unique structure’ of doing business in the field of defence production which must have unanimity across the political system for it to succeed.

The second challenge dates back to the Bofors scandal of 1987 and the attendant political controversy that resulted in a defence procurement Eco-system where procrastination has become the mantra. The Services have termed this as the Bofors syndrome, a mindset where few in the decision-making chain would venture to take decisions for fear of falling prey to the shenanigans of others in the complex chain of decision-making.

The unique feature of this syndrome is that it works smoothly where government-to-government procurement contracts are concerned, but goes into deep freeze when faced with an open tender purchase. But with the recent political controversy surrounding the government-to-government agreement for the purchase of Rafale aircraft, this avenue may also become a victim to the Bofors Syndrome.

The next challenge is to recognise that defence acquisition is a complex process involving multiple stakeholders and involves diverse resources and decision-making systems and should aim to provide on-performance, on-time and on-cost capabilities to the armed forces. This is a mission for committed professionals and not for administrative generalists or, indeed, for uniformed specialists working on rotating assignments, burdened with other chores and pressures. In the US and elsewhere, defence acquisition is considered a full-time profession where people train, specialise and work full-time. The US even has a Defence Acquisition University committed to creating acquisition professionals.

In the foreword to the DPP-2016, Manohar Parrikar said, “The DPP is not merely a procurement procedure, it is also an opportunity to improve the efficiency of the procurement process, usher in change in the mindset of the stakeholders and promote growth of the domestic defence industry.’ The biggest challenge to the Make in India aspect in defence production, hence, remains the outdated mindset.

Whatever the official claims, to impartial observers, the underlying spirit of successive DPPs is no longer ‘delivering and sustaining effective and affordable war-fighting capabilities to users within a specified time frame’. Instead, each successive version is being driven by a procedural, legal and defensive mindset where following the book appears to be an end in itself, leaving the armed forces bereft of modernisation and left to ‘fight with what they have.’