Once in a few decades a major scandal erupts in India about the purchase of military equipment. While this has political implications, the real blow is to the modernisation of our armed forces. The latest scandal — involving the sale of 12 Agusta Westland helicopters for VVIP travel — may take some of the punch out of the UPAII government’s pre-election posturings, but it is certain to stall further purchases of military equipment for some years now, just as the Bofors guns scandal of the 1980s did. So wary is the defence minister, AK Antony, of any financial allegations that he has responded with alacrity to cancel the current contract of AgustaWestland. As if to make up for his failure to act decisively in the controversy surrounding General VK Singh’s standoff with the government, Antony has blacklisted more firms than all his predecessors put together.
But in a first for the services, it is alleged that a former air chief, SP Tyagi, had altered the specifications of the helicopters at the behest of his cousins, who are arms dealers. However, some reports say this was done on the instructions of Brajesh Mishra, national security adviser in the NDA government, who asked for multiple vendor options. Thus AgustaWestland came into the picture. Moreover, if the defence procurement process (DPP) is anything to go by, then it’s not a service chief but a vice chief who leads the ‘acquisition process’ of a service, though this involves a number of people — military and bureaucratic — who agree on specifications for any equipment to be purchased before placing it in the public domain. And these then cannot be altered, through the five to tenyear- long process of trials.
However, despite India’s painfully long and fault-proof DPP, its armed forces were able to utilise the entire sum allocated for the defence acquisitions in 2010-11, after decades of procrastinations. But now, Finmeccanica (the owner of Agusta Westland) will probably be blacklisted, and our VVIPs will get another set of helicopters (possibly the Russian Mi- 17). As another selection and trial process could take a decade (the Agusta deal took nearly nine years despite the alleged bribes), the bureaucrats at the ministry of defence — who control the purse strings — will simply refuse to sign any files for fear of post-retirement harassment with investigations. For the sins of a greedy few, for years hereafter our armed forces will be denied the cutting-edge technology so essential for India’s security in a tough neighbourhood.
Nearly three decades after the Bofors scandal, we are yet to purchase another artillery weapon system, and now the requirement of 197 helicopters for the army will lie frozen. And while our scientists produce first class missiles and rockets, India is the world’s largest arms importer simply because the public sector units (PSUs) owned by the ministry of defence and ordnance factories have repeatedly failed to come up with the technology that our armed forces require. It is tragic that despite a vast and pampered set of defence PSUs — DRDO, HAL, BEML— all that we seem to come up with are assembled units of aircraft and trucks. Successive governments have been wary of allowing the Indian private sector to participate in defence initiatives on grounds of ‘secrecy and security’. Our defence minister would do well to tell us how it is that all the top flight equipment that make up India’s ad hoc arsenal are foreign manufactured, and we still convince ourselves that their capabilities are a guarded secret. Article Courtesy: The Week, March 2013.