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Little Has Changed In Defence

The apparent lack of political will was graphically illustrated when the defence ministry published a draft of its latest production policy that read like fiction rather than an important statement

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


India’s Armed Forces are seriously under-equipped and the government seems to lack both the political will and the financial and bureaucratic capability to remedy the situation. This is despite serious concern about the country’s readiness to fight a full-scale war lasting more than a few days on one of its borders, let alone simultaneous wars on the two fronts with Pakistan and China, improbable though such a double confrontation may seem.

The apparent lack of political will was graphically illustrated when the defence ministry last month published a draft of its latest production policy that read like fiction rather than an important government statement. It blandly stated that India would be self-reliant by 2025 for 13 manufacturing areas ranging from fighter aircraft and warships to land combat vehicles and gun systems, none of which is likely to be even partially achieved.

 “Poor governance and corruption have such a strong and negative impact on the way that India’s defence establishment operates that it is reasonable to wonder what the Ministry of Defence sees as its primary role,” I wrote in my book, IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality that was published in 2014. “Nominally it is to protect India by building up the defence capability with the latest technologies and efficient well-trained manpower, utilising the best available domestic manufacturing industry to produce world-class aircraft, tanks, guns, and ships. It seems however that the role is seen as protecting jobs for bureaucrats, armed forces officers and other public sector employees, giving prestige and powers of patronage to those at the top of the establishment, and maintaining India’s position as the world’s biggest arms importer, while sustaining extortion and bribes at every level.”

Those criticisms are clearly as valid today as they were four years ago. The Indian Air Force has only 32 squadrons of fighter jets when it should have 42, and many of these are seriously out-dated Russian MiGs, plagued with frequent crashes, yet new large-scale orders are constantly delayed. The Indian Navy does not have the submarines and other ships needed to police its home ground of the Indian Ocean at a time of increased Chinese adventurism, nor other equipment such as torpedoes, nor adequate maintenance and safety measures. The Army’s guns and some armoured vehicles are seriously out of date and ammunition supplies are grossly inadequate.

Endless delays in ordering urgently needed new equipment are caused by a complex mixture of reluctance by officials to sign off on orders (fearing later allegations of corruption), foreign suppliers being blacklisted for alleged payment of bribes, disruption of tenders and decision-making by competing interests, public sector corporations resisting private sector involvement, rivalry between government departments, a serious shortage of funds, and a Ministry of Finance refusal to allow the Armed Forces to roll over unspent funds for use in later years.

For close observers of India’s defence scene, there is little new in this, but the key point now is that little has changed since Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister. He focussed his Make in India manufacturing policy, launched in September 2014, on defence, which looked an easy target for a boom in foreign investment and jobs.

It has however been a dismal failure with no major projects, despite frequent repackaged policies including the latest “strategic partnership” plan for foreign involvement that has not taken off.  As a result, there has been an astonishingly small inflow of only Rs1.17 crore ($180,000) foreign direct investment (FDI) since 2014, according to a parliamentary answer last month. Alongside that, plans for manufacturing companies to become involved in a substantial way are repeatedly stalled.

India has been the world’s biggest arms importer for more than a decade, buying 60 per cent to 65 per cent of its equipment abroad. Russia, the US and Israel are the main suppliers, with France bidding to become a leading player and Russia may be losing ground. China used to be the world’s biggest importer, but it has in recent years built a sizeable defence manufacturing industry and is now beginning to become an exporter.

The levels of out-datedness of equipment have been spelt out time and again. In 2010, General V. K. Singh, then Chief of Army Staff and now a Minister of State for External Affairs, sent a (leaked) letter to the Prime Minister saying that 80 per cent of India’s armoured tanks were night blind. The infantry had “deficiencies of crew served weapons” and lacked night fighting capabilities. Elite Special Forces were “woefully short” of “essential weapons”, and there were “large-scale voids” in critical surveillance capabilities.

The Army’s current Vice Chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, told the Standing Committee on Defence recently that “68 per cent of our equipment is in the vintage category, with just about 24 per cent in the current, and 8 per cent in the state of the art category”. Even worse, he warned that the Army did not have enough funds to buy ammunition needed for “ten days of intense war”.

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) last year said that there was only ten days’ supply of 61 types of ammunition, a little over 20 days for 26 types, and 30 to 40 days for another 33 types. It found “no significantly improvement” in its 2015 report’s findings that only 10 per cent of stockpiled ammunition met war wastage reserve requirements.

Exempted from the economic liberalisation measures of 1991, and with only slow reforms since then, the defence establishment has resolutely resisted attempts substantially to open up the sector. No government has been able to challenge that. But unless the establishment is going to be demolished and rebuilt (which of course it is not), there seems to be little chance of much improvement in the foreseeable future. Modi was elected to change the way India is run – in the defence area he has failed.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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John Elliott

The author is South Asia Correspondent of Asia Sentinel & author

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