The role of arms agents representing weapon manufacturers pitching for defence deals has often been grey and ill-defined. But recently Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said that efforts will be made to structure and define their role. Maroof Raza, defence and strategic affairs expert, speaks to Manavi Kapur about how the armed forces will benefit from this move
What challenges do the armed forces currently face?
If you look at the situation in its entirety, there are several challenges that the armed forces face. The first challenge is that no serious equipment has been inducted for the last 25 to 30 years. Militaries all over world need new, up-to-date equipment, and our needs are only more urgent because of our dangerous and tough neighbourhood. There is little that the military establishment has done to increase India's indigenous capability of producing defence equipment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Make In India campaign can only take the next step forward if the military helps in promoting it.
There is also reluctance among both the defence and civilian establishments towards allowing the private sector into India. But people forget that we currently buy nearly 85 per cent of our equipment from abroad. Don't these companies use the secrets of what they are manufacturing for their business? If the clause of secrecy is not an issue there, then why not allow the private sector to enter the defence industry?
What is the role of an arms agent? How will it help the defence forces when this role is legalised?
Overseas companies employ agents who know India and its diverse terrain. Weapons behave differently in different terrain, so when a company wishes to sell its equipment, it needs someone to tell them exactly what kind of equipment is required. This is where arms agents come in and help ease the process. In fact, this culture of agents has been encouraged by bureaucrats. I'm not sympathetic towards agents, but one has to understand the reality of the business. How can defence be insulated from that? And if these middle-level representatives do everything ethically and by the book, then what's the harm?
Lifting the ban on arms agents is a step in the right direction. These agents can operate with agents all over the world and understand their best practices. Having AK Antony as the defence minister under the United Progressive Alliance government led to a situation where he was more concerned about preserving his clean image and less about taking strong decisions. Now we have to fast-track the 10 years that we have lost.
How are legalised arms agents different from 'middlemen'?
The two mean more or less the same thing currently. No specific qualifications have been spelt out for one to be an arms agent. But the government can specify these guidelines. It can engage agents from companies that have dealt with overseas clients and public sector undertakings over three years. Either way, the defence sector needs sufficient staff with expertise on India's defence requirements.
What safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that arms agents don't engage in corrupt practices?
Countries all over the world have tough laws about integrity and honesty. The United States lays heavy emphasis on the track record of the companies it deals with. In fact, it makes sure that the integrity of US companies is in sync with the integrity of the companies they deal with in other countries. These companies can give agents a certification. Corruption has to be checked at all levels and everyone can work towards safeguarding the process.
It has been a norm to point fingers only at the outsider, but corruption is a two-way street. What are the safeguards that the ministry is willing to put for its own employees? Like the Modi government has suggested, this issue can be addressed by ensuring that meetings with industrialists and companies happen only at the bureaucrat's office and not at a five-star hotel. Ideally, there should be at least one member from the bureaucracy and one from either the military or the political establishment. This will make it harder for people to indulge in corrupt practices.
But what is most important is that the stigma attached to the arms business must go away. We need to accept the fact that modernisation is a greater priority than moralising on whether to modernise or not.