Ever since independence, almost every major defence deal that has been initiated by India, has run into a controversy. And though the current tightly worded Indian ‘Defence Procurement Procedure’ has clauses to keep out middlemen and to ensure integrity of the supplier (OEM) of weapons platforms, we have the AugustaWestland scandal that is now causing media headlines. But, in all the cacophony of charges being traded, the central issue that is getting little mention is that India’s armed forces are now in for another long lull in the purchase of crucial equipment that they need to remain battle worthy. 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.

Instead our abysmal state of affairs, leading to a cynical view that ‘India’s first rate military is now saddled with obsolete equipment’ 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. More recently, precious funds are being diverted to enhance our ‘Make in India’ capabilities. This however will take a decade or more before any worthwhile weapons platforms will be locally available. Until then, certain weapons systems that are immediately required will have to be imported. Sadly, India’s previous defence minister had shown greater zest in canceling contracts and blacklisting companies, than perhaps all his predecessors have done in the past! Add to that the ghost of the ‘Bofors scandal’ and now that of ‘AugustaWestland’, and we will see no desire to buy equipment that could lead to a controversy. Sadly, 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 even a basic rifle for our frontline fighting soldiers.

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, this bypasses 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.

However, what went unnoticed was that, such knee-jerk reactions not only unfairly do damage to the reputation of big companies, but also further narrows the pool of companies for India to choose 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.

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