Under-armed and under prepared (Defense,Essay)

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Some would argue that India, a country with such a huge number of the poor, should be spending more on development than on defence. But development cannot exclude security imperatives because India is in one of the most hostile nuclear weapon regions of the world

Last week, the government announced the appointment of S. Christopher as the new head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). His predecessor, missile scientist Avinash Chander, was unceremoniously dumped on January 13 this year, with 16 months still left of his tenure. It took the government over four months to find his replacement. Reportedly, most of the other senior Director Generals of the DRDO are also on extension, unsure of when the axe may fall.
The DRDO was set up in 1958 as the fulcrum of India’s indigenous defence production. However, its performance, or the lack of it, must count as one of the biggest uninvestigated scandals of independent India. Among its notable failures is the production of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which was commissioned over a decade ago but ran years behind schedule with a cost overrun of over Rs.5,000 crore. The aircraft’s Kaveri engine was commissioned over two decades ago; it ran over 15 years behind schedule with similarly high cost overruns. Other projects allocated to the DRDO, such as the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) System, the naval version of the LCA, the Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LRSAM), and the Advanced Lightweight Torpedo (ALWT) have all missed deadlines by several years.
Nothing to cheer about


The performance of our public sector units handling defence has been equally scandalous. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) could not rectify simple design faults in the HPT-32 basic trainer aircraft, forcing the Indian Air Force (IAF) to import propeller driven trainers. The Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) prototype is nowhere close to flying, and the Light Combat Helicopter and the multi-purpose civilian aircraft, Saras, have forever been in the pipeline. Our ordnance factories are similarly languishing. The Nalanda ordnance factory, in collaboration with an Israeli company, is reportedly only a fourth complete. The commitment to indigenously supply 1,000 T-90S main battle tanks to the Indian Army could not be met because the project failed. Indian-made 125 mm smooth bore barrels for the T-72 tanks also reportedly failed because the barrels blew up during field trials.
The DRDO had set itself the aim of producing 70 per cent of our defence needs by the year 2005. Today, a decade later, its production is still lackadaisically hovering around 30 per cent — and much of what emerges from its factories is put together with “screwdriver” technology. In 2008, the Rama Rao Committee had recommended that the DRDO should only focus on 8 to 10 critical projects of strategic importance. Such recommendations have been thrown to the winds, and the country’s premier defence production company continues to focus its energies on esoteric products like dental implants and mosquito repellents!
As arms importer


To see a nation with global aspirations blundering so egregiously when it comes to meeting critical defence requirements is nothing short of treason. As a result of our woefully inadequate defence production, India has become the world’s largest importer of arms. In contrast, China, with a much bigger arsenal, has dropped to fourth place because its internal defence production has been efficiently upgraded. Apart from the exorbitant burden arms imports place on our exchequer, an overdependence on imports has grave security implications. In his book on the Kargil war, General V.P. Malik, who was then the Army chief, mentions that two years before the Pakistani invasion, the Army had finalised imports of AN/TPQ-37 Firefinder radars from the United States. “Prices were negotiated and just before purchase, DRDO offered to manufacture them at half the price and within two years. The government shot down the army’s plans to buy those radars. In 1999, during the Kargil war, the radars were desperately needed. Neither had the DRDO manufactured them nor could they be purchased from the US (post the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests there was an arms embargo). Several lives were lost in Pakistan shelling (as a result).”
A decade and more later, nothing had changed. Another Army chief, General V.K. Singh (who is now a Union Minister of State in the government) was compelled to write in March 2012 a letter directly to the then Prime Minister in which he bluntly stated that the war-waging capability of the Army had been “seriously degraded” because of delays in critical procurements. According to him, reserves of vitally needed anti-tank ammunition had fallen below critical levels because the Israeli firm supplying them had been blacklisted because of alleged kickbacks; artillery equipments were stalled for a similar reason, and emergency replacements sought to be obtained from the U.S. Army were still awaiting approval from the Ministry of Defence’s bureaucracy. At that time, the nation was facing a peculiar double jeopardy: we could not produce what we needed internally, and we could not import — in time and efficiently — what we needed to buy from abroad because of a “morality paralysis” that sought to ban every major foreign supplier on the basis of uninvestigated allegations. Obviously, defence purchases must be corruption-free but, equally, defence ministers must have the guts not only to be concerned about their own personal integrity but also about the crucial security interests of the nation.
Comparison with China


Our lack of offensive and defensive weaponry becomes even more glaring when compared with that of our potential enemies. For instance, China’s arsenal of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), battle tanks, latest tactical aircraft and armoured infantry fighting vehicles far outnumber ours, as does its border infrastructure. The importance for us to keep this gap within sustainable limits is self-evident, especially since we cannot rule out a war in the future in which China and Pakistan work in tandem. Opponents of adequate investments in armaments argue that a country with such a huge number of the poor should be spending more on development than on defence. It is the old guns versus butter argument. The obvious riposte to this is that India needs to pursue both development and defence efficiently and it cannot be one or the other. A country’s security is imperilled if its economy is suboptimal and the deprivations of the poor are not attended to. Equally, development cannot exclude security imperatives because we are in one of the most hostile nuclear weapon regions of the world. We have 4,057 kilometres of a disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China; a 778-kilometre-long disputed Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan; a total of 15,106 kilometres of international borders with seven countries, and a 7,516-kilometre long vulnerable coastline. It would be suicidal for any nation to ignore security concerns in such a situation.
The fact of the matter is that we neither pursue development nor security efficiently. China spends more than twice what India does on its armed forces, yet its defence expenditure, as a percentage of its GDP, is lower than that of India (1.3 against 1.89, as per revealed figures). The Chinese economy has grown at a faster pace, and its defence budget, although larger, is more efficiently used. Arms imports have come down dramatically. Russia and Ukraine are the only outside suppliers of China’s weaponry, most of which is now produced at lesser cost at home. If India had pursued its indigenous arms production effectively, we could have had by now one of the world’s largest military-industrial complexes, and could be exporting arms and using that income for development.
Not much impact


The new Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance (BJP-NDA) government came with a muscular resolve to strengthen India’s defence abilities. This resolve was particularly evident in its strident critique of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. However, for five months after the new government assumed power last year, the country did not even have a full-time Raksha Mantri, with Mr. Arun Jaitley inexplicably holding the dual charge of both finance and defence. The government did announce an increase from 26 per cent to 49 per cent for foreign direct investment (FDI) in the defence production sector but this may not be very attractive to investors who will seek majority control. Moreover, the Defence Technology Commission, set up as a commercial arm of the DRDO to attract investments, is yet to take shape. The “Make in India” slogan for defence production means little unless it is part of a credible policy framework. It is also not known whether the national technology council to be chaired by the Defence Minister with representation by private companies engaged in the production of arms and defence equipment, as was recommended by the Naresh Chandra Task Force, is going to see the light of day. According to estimates, some Rs.30,000 crore is required only to end the perennial shortage of artillery and ammunition. Where is this money to come from if the government’s priorities are to spend double this amount on bullet trains? Important steps also need to be taken to create a more effective procurement policy. The Rafale fighter aircraft deal is, I believe, an outright purchase and does not involve the transfer of technology. And, finally, it is time that specialists from the armed forces have a much greater say in the entire defence production process, but there is no sign that this is happening. The short point is that, whatever the rhetoric, India lacks a strategic mindset to tackle its defence preparedness and this government has been, thus far, not any different, and certainly much too slow in changing past approaches.
(Pavan K. Varma, an author-diplomat, is a member of the Rajya Sabha representing the Janata Dal-United.)
Keywords: DRDO, India’s defence spending
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