by Lt General K J Singh

Mercifully, the ‘Maha Dangal’ — Indian elections — has entered the concluding phase. It is amply clear that the key focus of these elections has been national security.

Contemporary American quote, “You can have security without development but you can’t have development without security,” is being taken rather seriously, primarily to garner votes.

Unfortunately, within the much-touted framework of security, debate never got focused on meaningful issues.

Public, charged with ‘josh’- laced euphoria and with whetted appetite is likely to take Balakot as the new normal and expect more surgical strikes and muscular responses. These hard power projections and control of escalatory ladder are conditioned by political will and decisive force asymmetry.

While government has displayed commendable intent, but can that alone suffice? Hence, the very first job of the next government should be to attempt an honest reality check of our capabilities and equally dispassionate analysis of critical hollowness.

A limited survey throws up several disturbing questions. The good news is that in terms of capabilities, our current obsession Pakistan, is worse off. Not so good news is that on asymmetry matrix, our edge is not decisive enough to deter Pakistan. Pragmatic approach suggests that it is difficult to intimidate Pakistan, backed by China and blessed in ample measure with Fidayeen resource base.

China is in a different league and we need to graduate from dissuasive to credible deterrence. An official analysis shared by Air Force, specifically highlights the need for capability enhancement, as flying skills may not be able to ensure success in the next round of aerial combat. Army has been forced to resort to emergency procurement of missiles and even small arms. It is only very rare procurement proposals that are succeeding and these are through strategic sales like Rafael, ULH and S-400 type of inter-governmental agreements and emergency purchases.

The stark reality is that efforts made to kick-start defence production industrial base have failed to take off. This is compounded by the fact that our procurement system remains nonfunctional despite sincere efforts of the government. It is time to look at some out of box measures. The biggest stumbling block in decision making is an over cautious bureaucracy, due to the postmortem of major deals amounting to scandal mongering. Two apt examples are Bofors and Rafale, both world class equipment but also ideal election fodder.

It may sound Utopian but can we incorporate opposition in decision making cycle? The leading opposition party can be asked to nominate a panel of experts to participate in defence acquisition committee (DAC) and other important meetings. We have various models for constitutional appointments with three-member committee comprising prime minister (PM), leader of opposition (LOP) and chief justice.

The proposed committee at apex could have PM, LOP, defence minister, comptroller and auditor general (CAG) and service chief. While, our system has post-audit scrutiny by CAG, public accounts committee and standing committee, but time has come to stymie the bickering and give opposition voice in decision making for mega deals. This will not only aid transparency and accountability but transfer some responsibility to opposition.

India has dubious distinction of being the fourth largest importer amounting to 5.6% share of global kitty and, more ominously, imports 60% of its capital procurement. India is also the third largest defence market and yet it has failed to leverage it to its advantage. The answer lies in setting up an Indian Space Research Organisation-type of empowered agency under PMO, staffed by experts with mandate to revamp defence manufacturing Eco-system. Our current over-reliance on defence public sector undertakings and ordnance factories leads to bloated order books and resultant queuing. It is sad that what is dismissed as ‘HAL bashing’ is life and death issue for pilots due to shoddy quality control. Even if painful, these white elephants need to be genuinely corporatised.

Acquisition cycle is retarded and often mired in controversy due to the desire to achieve commonality of equipment with multiple trials in all kinds of terrain. Many of our commands have larger inventories than powerful armed forces. They also have logistics grid on theatre basis with hardly any equipment moving out. It may be worthwhile to ‘adopt horses for courses’ approach with tailor-made equipment customised for theatres. Our large, unwieldy orders take nearly a decade to service.

This is specially applicable for support equipment like multi-utility vehicle. During trial of current vehicle, it was reported that Mahindra variant had outperformed TATA, in many parameters yet requirements were tweaked to avoid single vendor situation. In junking viable competitor, we seem to have lost an opportunity to foster competition, speed up delivery and build redundancy. Multi-vendor approach is already operational in Pinaka rocket system with TATA & Larsen & Toubro sharing the order. Artillery fleet will see induction of nearly 3,000 guns, it is indeed an ideal opportunity to set up region -based, multiple, competitive manufacturing facilities with commercially viable regional orders.

The recent reports of orders for 464 T90 tanks is another opportunity to create second contemporary assembly line as existing one at HVF Avadi is already antiquated, over loaded with considerable backlog. The new facility can be on public-private partnership model and located in now defunct Hindustan Machine Tools workshop in Pinjore or selected base workshop, close to deployment areas, thereby, reducing turnaround for over hauls. As one-time measure, to make up critical hollowness and ammunition inventory, budgetary allocations should be substantially enhanced. Concurrently, reforms flagged by various committees need to be implemented post-haste.

The writer is former Army Commander, Western Command