It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch ofincredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…..”—A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

One wonders at the coincidence between Charles Dickens’ famous words in his literary masterpiece and the tumultuous times being faced by the Indian Air Force as it sees a steady decline in numbers of its fighter and trainer fleets and the government unable to fulfil its obligations. But were it to take a positive step and budget the items today, it would still not be adequate to stem the downslide. Sometimes, one wonders if the nation, whether it be the politicians, the bureaucrats or the public at large, not to forget the media which seems to be swaying public opinion, is really concerned about national security and the means required to protect the country from external aggression and insurgency.

The news nowadays is rife with articles on the needs of the IAF (Oh, so much concern), the competitors who will likely fulfil the ‘needs’ and who are baying at the doors of the GoI. It all makes for interesting reading and provides a huge canvas to the scribes as well as the visual media to project the pros and cons of each competitor with state-of-the-art visuals. Senior officers and defence analysts are peppered with questions and quoted, in some cases, all this possibly engineered by the lobbying agents. But where the GoI is concerned, it is not a seller’s market, rather a buyer’s market, which is the reason behind the high stakes games the bureaucrats and politicians play.

For purely selfish reasons and taking advantage of a culture reeking and redolent in corruption, the Indian defence industry has never been promoted to prosper. For a vast country like India, having the fourth largest Army and Air Force in the world, the necessity for indigenous dependency need not be spelled out. While budgetary constraints, lack of infrastructure, limited access to technology, below par quality assurance, etc were contributory factors till about 1990, the inordinate delays of the last quarter of a century are the reason for the mess we are in. It is no secret that acquisition of defence equipment suffer from long gestation periods and come with the added baggage of the constraints / limitations of a ‘Contract’. While acquisition processes have been in place, however bureaucratic in structure, the will to push for an early conclusion of contract to facilitate quick induction of a system, has been found wanting. Add to it our famous indecisiveness, bureaucratic stumbling blocks and ‘sniffing’ for kickbacks and we have the ideal recipe for delay. Caution in high stakes business is understandable but playing with professional judgments and national security is not.

Halfway into a new government, India is finally finding its place on the world stage and for more reasons than one. While the rising economy plays a major role, providing visibility of growth, the acknowledgement of India as a major player, I would consider, is purely due to the sterling leadership currently in place. The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, with his approach to stem corruption, streamline procedures, his international sojourns to convince foreign countries to invest in the potential of India and his ‘Make in India’ thrust which is destined to promote the Indian defence industry by introducing the private sector, is the pillar on which this country will transform and flourish.

This is a ‘never before’ opportunity that India must grab and create a strong indigenous defence production base. The ‘Make in India’ policy is likely to garner new technologies and private industry will now provide the much needed competition to the public sector undertakings which stood like monoliths and behaved much like them. This is the time to streamline procedures, take concerted professional decisions and push for the inventory that will do the nation proud. “It is the epoch of time, it is the season of light, it is the spring of hope ………”

An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.

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