In a country where so much relating to national defence is needlessly shrouded in secrecy, the government is seldom called to account for the weaknesses and inefficiencies in its military. Even so, Parliament's Consultative Committee on Defence provides valuable insights into this secret world through the periodic reports it puts into the public domain. Currently headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party leader B C Khanduri, who works alongside 21 members of various parties in both Houses, the committee's latest report on defence budgetary allocations paints a grim picture of a military that is singularly unprepared for the wars it might need to fight.
Based on official inputs from the armed forces and the ministry of defence, the committee has found the military critically short of combat platforms like artillery guns, tanks, missiles, fighter aircraft, submarines and even basic essentials like boots and bulletproof jackets. It says the money allocated is wholly inadequate, not just for sorely needed equipment (the capital Budget) but also for training and day-to-day running of the military (the revenue Budget). In a stinging rebuke to the government, the committee has virtually ordered it to allocate the military additional funds.
While these equipment shortfalls stem from decades of underfunding, throwing money at the military is not the answer. So much equipment needs replacement that India simply cannot afford to buy it all from the international arms bazaar. Nor does the defence ministry have the institutional capacity to handle such large-scale procurement. The answer lies in prioritising requirements and approaching the global market only for immediate essentials - for example, light mountain artillery guns, night vision equipment and submarines. For lower priority equipment, the defence ministry must galvanise domestic producers, especially the private sector, telling them precisely what it needs and allowing them the time to develop that equipment, helping in the process the implementation of the government's "Make in India" programme.
Public sector defence firms have not so far enjoyed great success in designing and building weaponry for the military, except for naval warships. A key reason has been the military's tendency to demand equipment so sophisticated that even global suppliers, working at the cutting edge of technology, find it difficult to meet their requirements. This "over-specification" of equipment dramatically raises the cost of equipment, prolongs the acquisition process and eliminates domestic industry. Were the military to stop demanding the "outstanding" where the "excellent" would suffice, India's procurement scenario would dramatically alter. An array of equipment would come within the capabilities of domestic industry. The military would be assured of maintenance, overhaul and upgrades through the life cycle of the equipment rather than relying on foreign vendors who make more money on life-cycle support than they do on the original sale. Most crucially, domestic industry would enter a design-and-production trajectory where their technological capabilities would gradually converge with top-rung global arms suppliers. This transformation will only occur if the defence ministry assumes full ownership of this process rather than behave like the military's procurement arm. Streamlining equipment acquisition cannot be the new defence minister's primary priority. Nor will it suffice for Indian industry to undertake manufacture of low and middle technology products from transferred foreign know-how. Instead, the minister must plan and promote indigenous design, development and manufacturing capability.