Nothing much seems to have changed in the last three decades in defence procurement. I reproduce below a post that I had written here five years ago (February 21 , 2015), which is broadly a repetition of what I had written even during UPA Two. It shows we fiddled while China built its economy and war machine

by Captain GR Gopinath

Stem The Rot In Defence Procurement For Make-In-India To Happen

Napoleon Bonaparte, military leader and former Emperor of France, said, “The army marches on its stomach.” It was metaphoric. Troops can win wars if they are well stocked with not just food but guns, ammunition, clothing and more. While our soldiers are one of the finest in the world, it is the lack of resources that has been their bane ever since the Chinese war that exposed them to their vulnerability against an army vastly superior in armament and logistics. Napoleon also said that it is not canons alone but lightening speed that helps armies win wars. It is key not only at the level of army commanders on the battlefield, but also as critical at the political leadership level that can be fatal for troops and compromise sovereignty of the country if the leadership dithers and prevaricates.

In the days of emperors, the army came directly under their command. And so, in matters of deciding on equipping their armies or building forts, their actions were as prompt as their thoughts. They knew intuitively that delay may cost them their kingdom. Our defence ministers, at worst, may have a change of portfolio. It was said of Chengiz Khan that he shortened a straight line to reach his objective. Now we all agree that we don’t want a dictator ruling us. The worst democracy is preferred to the best monarchy. So, here is a dilemma: How do we get democratically-elected leaders to act with speed and integrity?

It is nine months since Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister. Manohar Parikkar with good credentials, a former Chief Minister from an IIT background has assumed charge as Defence Minister just three months ago. He is yet get his feet wet and get a grip of his portfolio. And so, things have not still changed much on the ground. On the contrary almost the whole world of defence manufacturers are frustrated and confused. Modi’s vision ‘to make in India’, especially defence equipment is laudable. Phil Shaw head of Lockheed Martin India, the world’s biggest defence aerospace industry, speaking at the Air Show in Bangalore said, -” Lockheed has completed more than 40 billion dollars worth of programmes globally, without problems, but is struggling in India and is finding it a challenge.” Dealing with Indian defence is beset with horrendous bureaucratic delays and lack of clarity in policies. He was diplomatic and did not mention the cancer of corruption.

Take an example: the Indian Army put out a tender for advanced light helicopters 14 years ago. The tender itself was late by 25 years! The current fleet of Chetak helicopters is more than 50 years old in technology and manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics under licence from French company Eurocopters now renamed Airbus Helicopters. Eurocopters have stopped production of this version decades ago. The defence ministry has yet to award the contract. Even a layman can grasp that if a contract is delayed beyond two or three years, then a host of issues like obsolescence, expiry of quotes, lack of continuity due to change of people dealing with the contract, change of government, etc, will crop up, rendering the whole exercise futile. And an award never gets finalised. Many tenders have been awarded after twenty years delay in selection, in the Airforce and Navy. In fact, people from Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and others will tell you that it just takes two to three years to get an award of a defence contract in countries like Brazil, Turkey or South Africa. Never more. Even those countries are not free of vested interests and the proverbial middlemen. Manohar Parikkar has admitted candidly at the Defence air show in Yelahanka Airforce Base Bangalore yesterday – “I agree that current procedures are very complex. .. There has to be a definite time frame ..” It was an understatement.

The ongoing Helicopter tender after extensive field trials , which reached final stages of bidding was scrapped in favour of the new FDI policy of 49 percent in Defence sector rolled out in a hurry by Arun Jaitley in the last budget, to give a push to ‘Make In India’, the new mantra. At 49 per cent equity no foreign defence manufacturer is showing interest to manufacture in India and part with its technology, without management control. The contract to supply the above 300 odd helicopters under offset policy was awarded three years ago to Airbus Helicopters. Allegations of corruption and misdemeanours derailed the award. And the Indian Army is back to square one, woefully strapped in its requirements to meet its operational needs.

Gen VK Singh, the former Army Chief and minister of state in the present government wrote a blunt letter to the then Defence Minister AK Antony, ”The Indian Army is alarmingly ill-equipped.” Many chiefs earlier from all three services have echoed this, which has fallen on deaf years on successive governments. That the cause of inordinate delay has been due to vested interests: from ignorant or rapacious politicians to bureaucrats, and retired Generals to arms dealers, conniving to divide the spoils from the kickbacks of the deal is not in doubt. It is an open secret.

Competing bidders scuttle the deal when they discover they are unlikely to win it. An arms dealer is like any salesman. He doesn’t care which weapon you buy as long as he pockets his commission. But as the General said, it is a different matter if those responsible for awarding the contract compromise with the middlemen and recommend substandard equipment, then he has committed ‘high treason’.

A K Antony though incorruptible and was referred to as ‘Saint Antony’ was also generally perceived to be notoriously indecisive and lacking in dynamism. There’s credence to both perceptions. Now we have a new dispensation led by Modi who in complete contrast, is perceived as decisive, bold, hawkish and desires a militarily very strong India – which helps in rebooting the defence forces. But we are speaking of correcting the system rather than individual traits. Can we afford an honest leader who is indecisive or a corrupt one who decides in haste ?

We need urgently a well thought out and a clear defence procurement policy keeping in mind the strategic vision and interests of India and that is well informed and dictated by the needs of the three services, in the next three to six months, that can be reviewed once in three years.

Let us look at the anomalies. Defence procurement was not preferred from Indian private sector. Being a holy cow, procurement was only from moribund government ordnance factories or government public sectors like HAL which are in a time warp. But it is alright to buy from foreign private companies! Bofors, Jaguar, Boeing, Mirage, Dassault and Eurofighter, Rafael, Lockheed Martin are all private companies, with the result Indian private sector does not have the technology and depth of manufacturing combined with research capabilities to meet India’s immediate defence needs. Therefore the FDI policy needs to be quickly tweaked to equip our forces in a time bound manner and in the interim, a quick and thorough overhaul of the import and offset policy has to be undertaken till the Indian private sector becomes capable and globally competitive to attract investments.

The defence procurement budget and its needs must be decided by a committee of people with specialised knowledge from all three services including members from foreign service and intelligence like RAW, reputed defence analysts etc, so that all aspects are considered, especially strategic, in view of rapidly changing technology and geopolitical interests.

May be a separate directorate for procurement is created with stringent qualifications and minimum tenure so that we don’t have IAS officers, howsoever brilliant (and most are), who have spent all their life in Jharkhand or Uttar Pradesh or Kerala in departments of animal husbandry or social welfare , or commercial taxes, getting postings to defence ministry through networking, and influence and presiding over purchase of crucial high-technology weapon systems.

Policies must be put in place that ensures contracts are awarded within three years after all formalities including completion of field trials. And delays must be investigated and accountability established, both within the forces and the ministry, and guilty punished.

It is well known that while ‘something is rotten’ in the civilian set up of the defence ministry, all is not well within the three forces either. The arms dealers worm their way through retired Generals to senior officers who are in charge of technical evaluation and user trials, to get better rating for their own arms and fudge those of their competitors. And they use all means: gifts, Swiss accounts and honey traps. Corruption in defence procurement should be treated as treason and Indian Penal Code should be suitably amended.

We have no dearth of extremely capable, honest and eminent people who can be picked up, not only to formulate a defence procurement policy and enact a robust framework to plug loopholes but also knowledgeable men to fill the specialised posts for procurement on a revolving basis. May be a separate directorate for procurement is created with stringent qualifications and minimum tenures.

Systemic changes can be brought about if there’s a political will and urgency. Political leadership need not necessarily have expertise in weapons or fighter jets to be able to lead the forces in deciding what armament to acquire, but we can ill-afford lame-duck ministers who are indecisive and out of depth for the portfolio they hold who are easily manipulated by the bureaucracy or influenced by arms lobbies. In times of crisis, we need political leaders who can galvanise the defence forces and lead from the front. And the buck ultimately stops with the Prime Minister. He must clean up the Augean stables through his defence minister, who has a reputation for honesty and capability, and overhaul the system and strengthen the country’s defence forces. Time is running out.”

Now after the Chinese incursions in Ladakh and their continuing overbearing and bullying tactics along the LAC and their increasing hegemonic designs becoming clear and brazen by the day, we must remember the famous lines – “ The woods are lovely dark and deep but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep , before I sleep. ”

These were reported to be the hand written lines of Robert Frost , by Jawaharlal Nehru found on his writing desk the night before he died , a broken man , who felt betrayed by the Chinese when they invaded and overran our unprepared, ill equipped troops in 1962.