Thursday, January 10, 2013

Costs of lowering our guard byAbhijit Iyer-Mitra

There is lack of vision and financial management on the part of the Defence Ministry and the Armed Forces. As a result, the country ends up squandering most of its defence budget on wasteful peacockery and so-called big-ticket reforms
There are several way of looking at the recently announced five per cent cut in the defence allocation for this budgetary year amounting to some Rs10,000 crore. The negatives are obvious — most of the cuts will be to the capital account. This means most acquisitions will be the most hard hit. Indications are that the Rafale deal for the Air Force, the light helicopter deal for the Army and the raising of the mountain strike corps, will be severely affected. Besides this cut, the additional Rs40,000 crore reportedly being sought for modernisation will also in all probability not be had. Consequently the three services have reportedly been asked to prioritise their acquisitions.
As the saying goes, history repeats itself usually as a tragedy. Historically the militarily relevant period here, when defence was starved of funds, dates back to the China war of 1962 for much the same reasons. Then, as now, reckless spending on ill-conceived socialist projects saw to it that defence never really got what it wanted in terms of finances. Historians give Jawaharlal Nehru a clean chit for this, claiming quite rightly that then Union Minister for Finance Morarji Desai did not give what then Union Minister for Defence Krishna Menon asked for. All this conveniently ignores the fact that the precarious economic situation was precisely one of Nehru’s making. Then, as now, tainted Ministers — and Krishna Menon was seriously tainted due to his involvement in the purchase of defective Army jeeps — survived merely because of their loyalty to the dynasty, despite their proven incompetence.
This, however, is one side of the story. 

The other side is the lack of proper vision or financial management on the part of the Defence Ministry and Armed Forces themselves, which means that India squanders most of its defence budget on wasteful peacockery and big-ticket items.

A lot of this has to do with the complete lack of a strategic vision. Notably, self-defeating obstinacy usually masquerading under the guise of ‘strategic autonomy’ would be the main culprit. In the narrowest sense, strategic autonomy would mean the ability to hit Pakistan with US weapons free from US reproach or the threat of sanctions.

 In the broadest sense, this could mean that India should be able to mount an independent invasion of Lichtenstein hidden high in the Alps. The problem of course is that a generalist bureaucracy guiding a generalist Minister simply cannot narrow down the scope of strategic autonomy to something tangible and workable.

What this means is that the Armed Forces are required to spread their resources very thin over a broad spectrum of threats. What this results in is that India chooses by its own volition to be a jack of all trades and master of none. 

The jack-of-all-trades state comes about largely because of inter-Service rivalry — jockeying for scarce resources

Given that we trumpet civilian supremacy in this country, it falls to the civilian bureaucrats and their civilian Minister to then prioritise acquisition. The problem here is that defence — specifically the nature of modern warfare and the complexity of the acquisition process — is a heavily technical subject requiring knowledge of the industry, technology and its processes and of war. One just needs to look at the service directory to see that none of the ‘civvies’ in the Ministry have any such experience. Prioritisation, therefore, falls prey to a substandard debate based on half-baked facts and half-baked knowledge.

The second issue, however, lies with Armed Forces themselves and their own idiosyncrasies. Even within their own ranks they seem completely unable to define their roles. The lack of political direction is obvious, but the lack of vision and leadership within the Armed Forces needs to be acknowledged. 

Start, for example, with the Jaguar and the MiG-27 procurements, each totalling about 120 plus airframes. The only real difference was that the former was made by an Anglo-French combine and the latter by the Russians. Both performed the exact same role, and yet the Air Force in its infinite wisdom chose to waste its money duplicating capacity. The Air Force gained two separate logistics chains, two separate engines, two separate sets of weapons, two separate sets of communication equipment, two separate training protocols and two separate sets of tactics. None of this has translated into local expertise of any sort, as evidenced by the fact that we were unable to master the production of either. Local assembly was passed off as local production.

If history repeats itself as a tragedy, it is also equally prone to repeating itself as a farce. A case in point is the acquisition of the Rafale. Whatever the Rafale does, the Sukhoi also does — and much better usually. It fights at the same altitude, has a much bigger radar, and flies anywhere between three and six times the distance the Rafale can. A host of Israeli systems, including jamming and reconnaissance pods, active electronically scanned array radars et al, means that Western quality can be combined with a cheap Russian platform with relative ease, given the enormous onboard power of the Sukhoi and its onboard space. Yet, for some strange reason, the Sukhoi is yet to be indigenised. This process was to be completed by the time at least half the airframes were acquired of a planned total of 230. Yet, in 2011, the Government had to sign a deal to procure an additional 42 airframe kits from Russia for local assembly.

Now, despite this, the Air Force chooses 126 Rafales — a plane that is inferior to the Sukhoi in every sense of the word. The Air Force has a lot of explaining to do. But the babus too have some explaining of their own to do, given that this inferior Western platform costs twice as much as its Eastern analogue. In reality, the Rafale was severely underpriced to win the contract. 

When Dassault does submit the final bid, expect the price to rise anywhere between 200 per cent and 400 per cent. Given that the service directory lists French as the spoken language of several Defence Ministry babus, it is curious that none of them bothered reading French Senate reports indicating a per unit price upwards of 200 million euros a pop and rising — nowhere close to the 80 million euros quoted.

So, the Government bears serious blame for financial mismanagement and the bureaucracy for incompetence. But our sense of gratitude for those who defend us must not prevent us from calling the Armed Forces out when they go so far astray.

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