The past decade of relative peace on our borders could have been better used to fulfill the long standing wish list of India’s armed forces to modernize and upgrade. However, what we’ve witnessed instead is a combination of politico bureaucratic procrastinations leading to an abysmal state of affairs, which has lead to a cynical view that ‘India’s first rate military is now saddled with vintage equipment’.
This has been brought about for a number of reasons. One is that while India’s politicians often pay lip service to the needs of its armed forces, mouthing phrases like: ‘all that they require will be provided for’. But the armed forces know better. In reality India’s current defence minister has shown greater zest in cancelling contracts and blacklisting companies, than perhaps all his predecessors have done in the past! Apart from the ghost of the ‘Bofors scandal’ having stalled any effort to buy equipment that could lead to a controversy, a personal obsession of some politicians to retain their squeaky clean image, has denied India’s armed forces even desperately needed air defence systems, the helicopters or artillery weapons, and much more.
To their credit however, the current UPA-II regime has bought few big ticket items like the C-130 aircraft, but this has been through the direct foreign military sales (FMS) route. However, most of these items – worth around $10 billion have apparently come from American companies, as though to make up for not awarding the ‘mother of all deals’ for the 126 fighter jets to the French Dassault. One reason has been the scam free FMS process as the purchaser (like India) doesn’t deal directly with the seller (a US company) but with the US government. This has the added advantage of making Washington feel good!
Also, the painfully long process of India’s defence acquisitions through the DPP route, that takes several years and even then a choice isn’t at times made doesn’t have to be adopted. Besides it looks good politically, that the needs of the military are actually being met.
The FMS purchases were made around the time, when the controversy involving the sale of 12 Agusta Westland helicopters for VVIP travel made news in India. Fearing a ‘Bofors’ type backlash, the UPA-II government cancelled the contract on allegations of bribes having been paid.
What went ignored in all the media reporting of this case, was the fact that by altering the specifications for the helicopters and that was done apparently by the PMO, not the defence ministry two vendors came into play (ie, Augusta Westland and Sikorsky) instead of only one, as was Eurocopter initially. This happened as GSQRs were altered at a later stage by India, and the (Eurocopter) tenders was scrapped midway. This can be extremely annoying to any vendor.
However, what went unnoticed was that, such knee-jerk reactions not only unfairly do damage to the reputation of big companies (like the Fimeccanica Group that owns Augusta Westland), but also further narrows the pool of companies for India to chose from, in future.
Apart from the items listed above, the army’s ATGM project and the navy’s multi-role helicopters (apparently 125 in all) could either now have one bidder (with BAE backing out), or have no solution at all, as would be the case for naval guns or the army’s need for new mechanized infantry vehicles.
Ironically therefore, while India is slated to spend about $200 billion in weapon purchases over the next 10-15 years, there will be few if any companies to buy much needed weapon systems from, if the blacklisting bans are to remain enforced. A pity, because unlike Pakistan India has the money, but its choices could soon be, few and far between.