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Ajai Shukla: Defence (procurement) minister

An ill-informed public narrative centres on expensive weapons platforms instead of the little things that would improve capability

Ajai Shukla 

Ajai Shukla

Going by the public statements made so far by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, one could be forgiven for mistaking him as minister for In practically every statement he promises "transparency and speed in defence procurement". To be fair, he admits it will take him time to grasp issues relating to national defence. Even so, if he continues promising only faster procurement, it might well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would be worrying to have a defence minister who measures his success in capital rupees spent. Instead, Mr Parrikar must focus on adding capability. This can be done at relatively nominal cost.

A striking example has been reported in this newspaper on Tuesday ("Sonar contract provides major boost to navy"). Over the last two decades, the navy has built up a powerful and enormously expensive fleet of capital warships - the aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes that control the seas in war. Yet these warships, each costing several thousand crore rupees and crewed by a couple of hundred sailors, have remained desperately vulnerable to enemy submarines. This is simply because they lack "advanced towed array sonar", or ATAS, which the (DRDO) had promised to deliver but did not. By now procuring from the global market - each worth a piffling Rs 50 crore - tens of thousands of crores worth of naval warships have become combat-capable.


Such examples abound within the military. Yet the ill-informed public narrative on centres on enormously expensive weapons platforms that, in many cases, are operationally ineffective even after lavishing billions because smaller systemic or structural drawbacks restrict their full employment. In militaries like that of Pakistan, where money is short even after unfairly burdening the national exchequer, there is awareness of the need to obtain bang for the buck. India's relative wealth has not nearly been translated into commensurate capability.

Remaining with the navy (ironically the most cost conscious service), there is constant breast-beating over the submarine shortfall and China's growing lead in submarine numbers. The media constantly harps on how India has just 13 submarines compared to China's 53 conventional and five nuclear attack submarines, though that lead could increase this afternoon, giving how fast is building more. Everyone's solution, predictably, is to throw more money at the problem, by quickly sanctioning (quickly and transparently, as Mr Parrikar would say!) Project 75I, which envisages building six new submarines for a mind-numbing Rs 50,000 crore.

Yet if one were to scrutinise the ongoing Project 75, under which Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai, is building six Scorpene submarines, a sane planner would be aghast to discover that these submarines - which have been in the works for more than a decade - will be operationally hamstrung when they finally roll off the line. The submarine's key weapon is the heavyweight torpedo and, incredibly, the defence ministry has omitted to buy any for the Scorpene. In 2011, Finmeccanica subsidiary WASS had been selected to supply 98 torpedoes for some Rs 1,850 crore. Since that contract remains unsigned, the Scorpenes will join the fleet without their key weapon.

Yet nobody in the military, the ministry, the government or the media is called to account for allowing a Rs 1,850-crore procurement to stall the battle-readiness of Rs 24,000 crore worth of submarines. One can forgive the ministry, manned as it is by generalists for whom torpedo sounds like a variety of libido. The Prime Minister's Office, with so many ministries to meddle in, can only focus on big-bang procurements - and that means those that are regularly reported on, or those that the military is pressing for. The media, especially top editors, choose not to waste mindspace on the nitty-gritty of defence economics, and instead, focus their collective gaze on high-voltage procurement contracts that can be easily remembered by the billions they cost.

Take the media fanfare over the selection of the (MMRCA), an apparently fixed match that was won by the French Rafale fighter, the least expensive of the two most expensive fighters on offer, which were predictably ushered into the final selection. Currently, this $20-billion tender remains the single-most reported defence story, with uncounted column inches speculating on the imminent signature of the Rafale contract. This newspaper has been practically alone in carrying cost-benefit analyses on the Rafale proposal, and in debating whether the opportunity cost of buying this fighter is too high.

In contrast, there is little mindspace for the little things that would improve operational capability at little cost. Maintenance, that boring process that can put a hundred additional Sukhoi-30MKIs into the sky just by better inventory control and technician training. Light fighters, especially the (LCA), which should be the pride of India, but is sadly the bastard child of the laughably named Indian Air Force. Force multipliers, like airborne refuelling aircraft and airborne early-warning and control systems, can be wisely procured and deployed to make each squadrons as effective as two. But this is humdrum stuff. So are issues like night-blindness that dramatically reduces combat capability across the three services, especially the army.

It is these mundane essentials that Mr Parrikar must focus on. Appointing a tri-service chief would spare him the confusion of having to navigate the tri-service jockeying for funds and resources. He must institute a detailed capability audit, in which each service presents a plan for optimising their existing weapons and platforms rather than just stretching out their palms for newer, better and, of course, more expensive toys. It is militarily prudent to get our existing kit working optimally - the military equivalent of fixing the Indian Railways before building fancy new bullet train lines.

Twitter: @ajaishukla
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