Transparency, astuteness vital

Defence Modernisation

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Restructuring of the Indian Army is being planned in phases and it is understood that its strength (including that of support staff) is proposed to be reduced by 1.5 lakh or 1.5 per cent. The reason for such restructuring has been the report of a Government-appointed committee that recommended making the army a “lean and powerful machine” which means more automation through modernisation. Recently, the Army Commanders’ Conference discussed these issues under the chairmanship of Army Chief General Bipin Rawat.
Our whole outlook in various matters is to follow the Western countries and in this case also a similar strategy is to be adopted. But the situation in India is different and a high level of automation and modernisation may entail a high degree of expenditure and strain our resources. On the other hand, ‘rightsizing’ to some extent may be necessary as it would help using the resources for arms procurement. The balance has to be brought about and according to reliable sources such ‘rightsizing’ may save anything between Rs 5000 to Rs7000 crores in revenue expenditure.
No doubt, the procurement of sophisticated arms is necessary and the money saved could help the issue. In fact, this March, the Army Vice Chief deposed before a Parliamentary panel and pointed out that the army “neither has enough money nor does it have modern firepower in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Jammu & Kashmir”.
Arms purchase for the Armed forces — Army, Air Force and Navy — is definitely necessary keeping in view the geopolitical situation of the country, but it is a fact too that big defence manufacturers such as the US, Russia and France have been putting pressure on India to buy their weaponry. While accepting the need to modernise our forces, such purchase, strictly as per requirement, and the price factor have to be kept in mind. As is well known, kickbacks in defence deals should be avoided so that the weapons are available at the best price, the negotiations should be judicious and transparent.
The Rafale deal has kicked up a controversy for escalation in prices, compared to what the UPA government had negotiated, and also due to selection of a new Ambani company as the partner of Dassault Aviation, the French manufacturer of these fighter planes. The enhanced price has quite reasonably generated a debate as also the fact why the vastly experienced Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) was ignored and a relatively new company without any experience made the partner company in India.
Apart from this, a $5.2 billion deal has been finalised during President Putin’s recent visit to India for purchase of S-400 from Russia. It is understood that this is a versatile system with four different missiles — the very long range 40 N6(400 km) series, which is ready for deployment, the 48 N6 (250 km) series, the 9M96 (120 km) and the short range 9M96E(40 km). India has an old association with Russian anti-aircraft missiles and their associated radar systems. Moreover, to get the Americans on board there is fresh defence contracts worth $10 billion, including a $8 billion deal to buy 100 stripped down versions of Avenger drones and a $2 billion deal to buy MHp60 Romeo multi-role helicopters.
It goes without saying that India’s air dominance is vital for deterrence and stability in South Asia and for preserving the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region. Though IAF’s requirement for 42 squadrons — some 750 aircraft – may be on the higher side, at least 50 per cent of the figure may be necessary as per defence sources.
Though there is no need to compare India with China in matters of defence modernisation, the army has been somewhat handicapped due to lack of modern gadgets and arms A July 2017 report of the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) revealed that almost 40 per cent of the stockpile in September 2016 would not even last for 10 days. It cannot be denied that the soldiers are desperately in need of state-of-the-art machinery, combat uniforms and equipment.
The most important thing that comes up here is how far India had advanced in building up its indigenous manufacture of weapons. INS Vikramaditya was supposed to be supplemented this year or next, by India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, but this has been pushed back considerably. The problem arises from disagreements about the type of aircraft carrier to be built.
Even regarding the Rafale deal the original proposal was acquisition of 126 combat jets, 108 to be made in India and the rest bought off the shelf, to beef up IAF’s depleting fleet strength with the help of Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). But this has not happened and the present acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters at a much higher price is far from judicious.
Though this year’s defence budget has been increased by 7.81 per cent to Rs 2.96 crores, this may not be enough if indigenous efforts are not seriously explored without any further delay. Moreover, tie-ups with international arms manufacturers, who are ready to set up units in the country and collaborate with HAL, Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers or any other such country — whether in the public or private sector — may be explored.
Thus, it is indeed quite distressing that ‘Make in India’ as regards the defence sector has not been accomplished. The failure in this regard has been a big economic loss to the country as, at one time, there were plans to set up units which could export small and medium arms and defence equipment to developing countries in Asia and Africa.
The question now is not against defence modernisation but carrying out the same in a judicious manner. For the army particularly, modern gadgets are vital to fight terrorism, which is an ongoing problem, that has been resulting in hundreds of deaths in encounters, specially in J&K. This cannot be allowed to happen and the political leaders have to act with urgency in the matter. Financial resources would continue to be a crucial issue in carrying out the modernisation as development needs of an emerging economy are also equally vital.
As such, there is a need to strike a balance in the matter. Equally important is to ensure the need to hard bargaining in arriving at the right price for the weapons imported without getting into controversies. Transparency in the matter is thus very much needed but unfortunately this has not happened. The judiciary could possibly entertain the pricing of imported arms so that corruption does not enter into negotiations. The end result should be that purchase of defence equipment is spared controversy of big money changing hands.—INFA