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Delay in procurement taking a toll on India's defence

Last updated on: August 16, 2013 14:33 IST

The conservative bureaucracy that influences the political masters is clearly not concerned with the vision documents prepared by defence chiefs to bring India’s military into a state of preparedness, says Seema Mustafa

The Indian Navy has received a major jolt with the explosion and sinking of the Russian submarine at the Mumbai harbor, with at least 18 sailors, including three officers, feared killed. This is one of the worst tragedies to hit the Navy since the sinking of INS Khukri during the 1971 India Pakistan war.

The disaster hit the Indian Navy after a particularly good week in which the first home built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant was launched, and the reactor in the first indigenously built nuclear submarine INS Arihant went critical. Within three days, INS Sindhurakshak became a ball in the sky, with the blaze gutting the submarine capable of firing cruise missiles at a range of 125 miles.

This was the second fire in a Russian-Kilo class sub, the first from a defective battery in 2010, in which a sailor was killed and others injured.

Built in St. Petersburg the submarine was sent back for a Rs 480 crore upgrade, and had returned only seven months ago from the Zvezdochka shipyard.

It is early days yet, but the explosion seems to have been triggered yet again by a defective battery. And as Naval officials have pointed out to the media, it was fortunate that this happened while the submarine was docked and most of the sailors were able to save their lives by jumping into the waters. The scale of the disaster would have been far greater, had the sub been on operational deployment.

But while the Navy copes with the disaster and the nation awaits the results of a probe that will no doubt be ordered into the incident, the Indian Navy’s ambition to emerge as a “blue-water navy” is being seriously undercut by its diminishing submarine fleet. In fact, the entire military seems to be suffering from a dire want of equipment with the government dragging its feet on this for a while now.

Defence Minister AK Antony has slowed the pace of procurements considerably with his inability to take quick decisions, and his poor understanding of the defence vision.

The submarines provide a case in point. On the one side, the government and its strategic advisors make much of Chinese incursions into India, with media stars on prime time television insisting on “action.” On the other, this big talk is not matched by true action with India’s reducing submarine force set to equal Pakistan’s in another two years.

China forges ahead with its current tally of around 45 submarines, and plans to build at least another 15 Tuan class attack submarines based on German diesel engine purchases. Delays are inbuilt into Indian plans, with the six Scorpene submarines being built at the Mazagon Docks in Mumbai expected to be ready only by 2017. According to initial plans the first should have been commissioned in 2012.

The Indian Air Force too is in dire need of 126 multi role combat aircraft. The Rs 82,000 crore MMCRA deal, increasing with every hour, eventually went to Dassault Rafaele from six featured aircraft at a revised cost of USD 20 billion. This was in January 2012. Nothing has moved since then, even though at the time Antony himself had said that the negotiations to finalise the contract would begin soon. The deal seems to be stuck with no official confirmation one way or the other from the Union Defence Ministry. It might be recalled that the process to procure these aircraft began as far back as 2001 with the Indian Air Force clearly struggling with the available fleet of outdated aircraft.

The armed forces are clearly being shackled by the civilian wing, namely the Defence Ministry, which retains the last word on procurements. The conservative bureaucracy that ultimately influences the political masters is clearly not impressed or concerned with the vision documents prepared regularly by defence chiefs to bring India’s military into a state of preparedness where it can face the most determined of aggressors.

The vision is necessarily linked to weaponisation, and over the last ten years in particular nothing has moved to close the gap between the two. Instead, the gap has increased with the apathetic bureaucracy and weak or corrupt defence ministers for whom procurements are inextricably linked to the commissions, and not necessarily to the military’s urgent requirements.

The rot within was exposed during the Kargil conflict when it became apparent that the soldiers of the Indian Army were being made to fight a war at high altitudes without even the basic facilities, such as snow shoes, or food that could survive the weather conditions.

The response of the government at the time was not to fill in the gaps and equip the jawans with the latest of equipment, but to purchase coffins at a high commission! The soldier continues to work under extreme conditions with poor facilities surviving only because of his professionalism, as there has been little change in the situation insofar as his welfare is concerned. A paucity of tanks and ammunition continues to confound the armed forces, with reports of the former being cannibalised to keep at least some sections afloat.

So instead of screaming war, and becoming almost hysterical on prime time television, our news anchors would do well to raise the serious issues confounding the armed forces. For the dangers come not from the outside, but from within.

The Indian armed forces across the world are known for their professionalism. But unfortunately, defence deals are now mired under deep corruption giving the defence establishment of India not a very good name across the world besides affecting our state of preparedness.

As in all cases, if action had been taken at the onset, this would have acted as a much needed check and balance. In other words if Bofors had not got away, the role of middlemen, commissions and corruption might have been another story.

Seema Mustafa in New Delhi