Can India Afford Eternal Delays in Critical Defence Deals?

Written by: Pathikrit

Months of uncertainty on the purchase of the much awaited 126 Medium Role Combat Aircrafts (MRCA) namely Dassualt Rafale for Indian Air Force came to a naught with the Defence Minister A K Anthony stating it clearly that the deal cannot be signed in this financial year because of paucity of funds. His statement, "Major procurement can only be possible in the next financial year. There is no money left," did create some ripples and raised questions as to why the situation has come to such a stage.

Incidentally it is not the just the purchase of the 126 Dassault Rafale, meant to replace the ageing and depleting fleet of Mig-21s, which is hanging in balance. There are a plethora of critical defence deals which have either been postponed for lack of funds, bureaucratic delays or political inability to take a final call as well as a self defeating procurement process.

Consider the case of the purchase of 126 Dassault Rafale. It was way back in 2001 that Indian Air Force had intimated the Defence Ministry about the need to replace the ageing and depleting fleet of Mig-21s with that of a minimum of 126 units of a 4th generation fighter jet. It took the Defence Ministry another six years to send out a Request For Proposal (RFP) and after extensive trials, it was in January 2012, Dassault Rafale was selected and Dassualt was invited for price negotiations for the 126 Rafales with an option of another 63.

It's been two years since then and the final contract has not yet been signed. Generally it takes four years for the first lot of aircrafts to get delivered after the final contract is signed. This means that if the contract is hopefully signed by 2014, even the first aircraft would not arrive before 2018. The moot question then one is forced to ask is why is it that even in two years the Defence Ministry cannot conclude a negotiation with a company? Why is it that things don't move on a war footing when it comes to procuring weapons for those who would fight the war?

Maj Gen (Retd) Gagandeep Bakshi states, ‘Our Squadron strength of the Air Force is going down daily. This is even as the strength of the Chinese PLA Air Force is increasing daily. As of today it has 913 Fourth Generation Fighters to India 's 322. The gap is increasing on a daily basis. By 2020 the Chinese Air force will have 1300 4th gen fighters. Now the govt tells us that No Rafales will come - do they realise the implications? ".

Add to this the issue of eternal delays in the induction of Light Combat Aircraft Tejas.The project for the development of an indigenous light combat aircraft was mooted and initiated way back in early 1980's and it took almost 30 years for the aircraft to get the Initial Operational Clearance with the Final Operational Clearance coming not before 2015 after it attains mid-air refuelling capability, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) firing capability as well as integrated with an internally mounted machine gun. The inductions of the Tejas thus would be at a much slower pace than the depletion of squadron strengths due to decommissioning of old fighters.

No doubt that making a fighter aircraft from scratch is not a joke, but even then why does it take 30 odd years? Does it put a question on national capability? Perhaps not because in the last thirty years India has successfully launched several major satellites including critical and path breaking missions to Moon and Mars. Making an aircraft might be challenging but more challenging is sending a mission to Moon or Mars or developing an Inter Continental Ballistic Missile or a nuclear bomb. If India has succeeded in each of the latter, there is no reason why inordinate delays would happen for an aircraft development except for lack of a sense of urgency.

The issue here is not just of Rafale or LCA Tejas. Several critical deals including deals for acquisition of several hundred helicopters for the armed forces have been delayed or have been in pipeline for years. The same is the case with acquisition of artilleries as well. It is nothing less than shocking that India has not acquired any new artillery after the 400 Bofors Guns it acquired in 1980s which incidentally got mired in controversies.

Since then successive governments developed cold feet at the proposal of buying new artilleries. Tenders are invited, trials take place and then either they are cancelled or delayed or in some cases merely on the basis of some stray allegations whole process gets cancelled and retendered deferring deals by years or decades at times.

Today, India needs to purchase nearly a 1000 helicopters and between 3000-4000 artilleries to consider it battle ready for future warfare especially given the kind of modernisation that Chinese military is undergoing as well as the kind of assistance China is giving to Pakistan for developing its own arsenal. Similar modernisation of infantry weapons is also critically important today just as India's depleting strength of submarines is a real cause of concern.

India faces twin threats from Pakistan and China

Today India faces threats of a two frontal warfare and perhaps it is only self defeating for a nation if it keeps on allowing red tape, indecisiveness and lack of understanding of the strategic implications of these delays to jeopardise the nation's security. No doubt peaceniks would term such expenditures on defence as redundant but their myopia tend to overlook that it was not long back that both Kargil War and 26/11 did happen and either of the two can happen anytime soon.

Given the enormity of China's defence modernisation and the augmentation of Pakistan's arsenal with Chinese made weapons is happening, it would be utterly self defeating to presume that they are not meant to rattle India. War preparedness is thus a relative thing. It is always about how much the opponent is prepared. Even though there is no need to get into a rat race, India needs to buy some extremely critical equipment on a war footing for at least to maintain the minimum deterrent.

While any effort to clean the process of defence procurement for reducing corruption is extremely appreciable, the solution to avoiding corruption cannot be not buying anything at all or eternally delaying deals and even calling them off randomly.

The solution ideally is to create a reasonable fool proof system and simultaneously fixing responsibility on the civilian bureaucracy to have the procurement of critical deals cleared with a specified time period. If there is stringent accountability in the armed forces for every minute act of theirs, one wonders why the same cannot be applied on the civilian bureaucracy or the executive for purchase of the weapons systems so very important for the defence of the nation.

Fiscal austerity and prudence is fine but questions do remain as to why such austerities are remembered during defence procurement only and not considered at all when populist subsidies and loan waivers are doled even when they seldom help the nation in the long run. Further, social development would only make sense if the society survives and needless to say, there are many in India's neighbourhood who are not known to be India's true well wishers. Delays in critical procurements can thus result in painful sagas later on.

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