“The Armed Forces can give their best only when they are provided with the best equipment and training. These steps boost the morale of the soldiers, help them overcome challenges & emerge victorious. Our government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, is leaving no stone unturned to provide the military with world-class equipment & training, so that the country can overcome all future challenges. …..,” the Raksha Mantri [Defence Minister] Shri Rajnath Singh said during his message to soldiers through Akashvani on August 14, 2023, the eve of 77th Independence Day.
This is the traditional Independence Day message from the Defence Minister of India aired on the national radio channel for greater accessibility for soldiers, sailors and airmen strung across the vast land and maritime borders of the country.
Despite the commitment of the government and the positive narrative of achievements in defence modernization, however long term deficiencies persist in the Indian Armed Forces resulting in concerns of operational readiness even as the Two Front – China Pakistan threat continues to loom on the horizon.
With the Ministry of Defence focused on defence exports – where there has been an uptick in the recent years, procurement for the armed forces appears to be a second order priority. Thus, reliance on the proverbial Indian soldier some of whom are now known as the Agniveer under a new scheme launched in 2022, to stand up to the adversary appears to be the main military strategy.
Alternately managing the threat through a combination of diplomacy – implying not pushing hard enough on disengagement from the Line of Actual Control with China while opening new fronts at some of the core issues impacting Beijing such as Taiwan and expanding the profile in the South China Sea to create leverages appears to be the course adopted.
Dissuasion through expanding relations with the United States, exploiting the adversarial posture adopted by Washington as outlined in the US National Security Strategy of 2022, emergency procurements based on critical operational requirements projected by the forces and leasing as stop gap arrangement is seen as a viable alternative rather than sustained commitment to acquisitions by following up multiple projects that have been in the pipeline for decades be it fighter aircraft, helicopters, artillery guns or submarines and mine clearance vehicles.
Given the short span of tenures in the top appointments dealing with acquisitions which is not a popular line in the operationally oriented armed forces in the country projects continue to falter even as a similar constraint mars the Ministry of Defence civil bureaucracy.
With very few specialists in acquisition in the country, navigating the complex Defence Acquisition Procedure in various versions which are presently in vogue for procurement depending on when the project was initiated from 2016 to 2020 with amendments is strewn with road blocks even as funding remains constrained.
Witness the last minute rush for procurement by Ministry of Defence in the month of March this year worth almost US $ 4-5 billion with orders placed on the Defence PSUs.
Meanwhile Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has flagged report after report of poor planning for procurement. The latest one being significant delays in the intermediate jet trainer (IJT) project that was sanctioned almost 25 years ago. “Incorrect assessment of the required thrust and lack of clarity on the availability of A Type Engine led to improper engine selection, which, in turn, had a cascading effect on the design and development of Project 2 (IJT),” the national auditor said in its latest report.
The outcome is that the Indian Air Force rookie pilots have not intermediate trainer and have to make do from the basic to the advanced through some possible modifications.
Use of leeway under Emergency procurement and leasing is also growing though at what costs these come for the country needs some careful scrutiny.
While the thrust for indigenization is laudable, there appears to be micro management by pre-allocation of funds. For instance for the financial year 2023-24 in the ratio of 75:25, where 75% i.e. Rs 99,223.03 crore is for Domestic procurement and 25% i.e. Rs 33,078.24 crore for foreign procurement as per the Ministry of Defence. Is it based on the envisaged procurement and is the domestic industry able to meet up to the requirements of 75 % indigenization remains unclear.
This concern arises due to the fact that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Defence Public Sector Undertaking (DPSU) combined have not been able to fulfil commitments in multiple domains from drones to the assault rifle. While private industry is roped in it is given step motherly treatment as the DRDO and DPSUs are the ministries own entities and their profitability is one of the key result areas for the Department of Defence Production headed by a Secretary of the government of India.
What needs to be done?
While the deficits in acquisition cited above are well known, the procurement procedure remains in a closed loop where the outcome of arming the armed forces with the latest weaponry is deprioritized to prove efficiency of the process and those who operate the same.
With an active Chief of Defence Staff in General Anil Chauhan the Department of Military Affairs needs to get into the act of assessment of the operational readiness of the armed forces, publish a report each year identifying key requirements and deficits and prepare time bound plans for acquisitions which needs to be pursued with vigour to a logical conclusion.
For this expansion of the mandate of the DMA may be necessary from, “optimal utilization of resources and promote jointness among the three Services,” to include critically assess the operational readiness of the armed forces and submit an annual report to the Minister of Defence.
In fact, even without a mandate, HQ Integrated Defence Staff which also falls in the ambit of charter of the CDS has the task of, “the entire spectrum of converting higher intent into capabilities required and further into precise Long, Medium and Short Term Plans”. An annual review of readiness can well be added to this charter.
An annual operational readiness report will provide the national leadership a clear perspective of the present status and necessity for prioritization by rejuvenating the acquisition system else there will be only piecemeal addons flashed in joint statements of heads of state from the S 400 with Russia in 2018 to the HALE drones wtih the US in 2023.