The month of March has seen some major setbacks to the Indian military

First, due to shortage of equipment, it was forced to decide to lease military equipment not used in actual war i.e. transport fleet, trainers and simulators. It was an admission that the draft defence procurement policy (DPP) 2020 that emphasises on Make in India and indigenous defence capability enhancement will not deliver in the short- and medium-terms. The draft policy had proposed to increase the Indigenous Content (IC) in various categories of procurement by 10 per cent to support the ‘Make in India’ initiative but now a new Category — Buy (Global – Manufacture in India) — has been introduced. Leasing is now allowed under two categories — Lease (Indian) where Lessor is an Indian entity and is the owner of the assets and Lease (Global) where Lessor is a Global entity to that “rather than spending huge capital budget on procurement of these items, they can be rented which would also entail all spares and service.”

Second, another shock came when Dassault suspended the production of Rafale fighter jets due to the coronavirus outbreak. Not only that, the training schedule of Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots has also been affected. The Indian Air Force believes that now the delivery schedule of much-hyped fighter aircraft would get affected. As it is, four Rafale jets are currently under production at the French facility while four others are under trials. But it is unlikely that 11 Rafales could be delivered to India this year as planned.

Third, a significant development came as the Indian defence ministry forced the Indian Air Force to go for indigenously-manufactured 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark 1A Tejas from the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). It said in a statement, “While orders of 40 Tejas aircraft had been placed with HAL in initial configurations, DAC (Defence Acquisition Council) paved the way for procurement of 83 of the more advanced Mark 1A version of the aircraft from HAL by finalising the contractual and other issues… The proposal will now be placed for consideration of Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). This procurement will be a major boost to ‘Make in India’ as the aircraft is indigenously designed, developed and manufactured with participation of several local vendors apart from HAL.” This is the largest defence order placed by the Narendra Modi government under the ‘Make in India’ initiative.

The 83 Tejas Mark 1A will be slightly better than the 40 Tejas Mark 1 that the IAF has already ordered. The difference between Mark 1 and Mark-1A Tejas is that the latter will be equipped with the Israeli Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar instead of the manually-scanned Elta EL/M 2032 radar, also Israeli. The Indians have failed to develop their own AESA radar, Uttam. But neither the Indian Air Force nor foreign manufacturers and vendors of defence equipment trust the capabilities of HAL, which was not even selected for partnership with Dassault. Indian Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur, has admitted: “Media reports have highlighted how the IAF has repeatedly pointed out to the MoD the below-par work of HAL many a time in servicing of aircraft to meet production targets. Ask any IAF pilot who has gone to HAL to accept an aircraft rolled out by it, and the litany of un-serviceability and snags necessitating repeated air tests before final acceptance will flow; and this is true not only for overhauled aircraft, but also brand-new ones. The delay in acceptance sometimes extends eight to nine months, necessitating many more flights (sometimes 10 plus) than only two or three, which should suffice if the workmanship is as per standards.”

The Indian air marshal added: “There are three reasons for this. First, a lack of accountability in the first three quarters to meet quarterly production figures. No one is punished for the delay. Second, the resultant increased workload in the last quarter, especially as March 31 approaches, coupled with flexible work ethics results in overtime work — and payment of course! So, substandard work ensues, else why the repeated and enhanced number of acceptance flights? And last, but more importantly, a degradation in ethics and morals to claim kudos for a job not well done and not on time; when such scruples are scuppered in an aviation company, we are asking for trouble.”

Fourth, India’s efforts to build a leaner and modern technology-enabled force are going very slow. Reports say the Indian Army has so far carried out four transformation studies and is working on trimming its force by about 1.5 lakh personnel, which could take a minimum of five years. On the other hand, Chinese president Xi Jinping had in 2015 announced downsizing of PLA to make the force leaner and reliant on modern warfare and are working at a sufficiently fast speed to achieve the targets. “Since 1985, China has continuously sought to modernize its military by curtailing the number of personnel and streamlining organizations and systems through reforms, including those currently being implemented, in order to improve operational capabilities … China has rapidly modernized its missile forces in recent years,” a Japanese military document said.

With approximately 1.4 million personnel, the Indian media is boasting that Indian Army has become the world’s largest ground force, ahead of China, which cut down its strength by half and is now focusing on its navy, air force and technology. The Indian military, meanwhile, follows China at a snail’s pace.