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Think before accusing the armed forces

January 06, 2014 09:32 IST

Two lessons from the closure of the Barak investigation: be careful with investigations, and buy from the US or Russia through transparent protocols. Premvir Das examines

Reports indicate that the Defence Acquisition Council, chaired by the defence minister, has finally cleared the purchase of a couple of hundred missiles for the Barak anti-air systems fitted in the warships of the Indian Navy.

This proposal had been kept in abeyance for several years even as the Central Bureau of Investigation was charged by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to probe allegations of corrupt practices in the purchase of the systems for which these missiles were sought to be procured.

Since this weaponry constitutes the last defence against incoming aircraft and the anti-ship missiles fired from them, the decision not to procure clearly exposed the ships to very serious danger of their being hit, possibly sunk.

This vulnerability, apparently, did not merit attention; things could wait till the CBI completed its probe. This it has now done and concluded that there is no evidence of any wrongdoing that would stand up to scrutiny. This entire episode merits examination.

In 1983, the Defence Research and Development Organization initiated work on development of four missile systems -- Agni, Prithvi, Aakash and Trishul.

The first two were derivates of rocket technology that already existed, while the other two were to be anti-air systems which would be far more complex since they had to cope with fast moving targets.

The DRDO tried to update technology available in similar weaponry of Soviet origin already in use in the Air Force and the Navy; but, despite all its efforts, the goal could not be achieved.

In the meantime, the threat to our ships from aircraft and low flying anti-ship missiles had increased.

In this scenario, the Navy's recommendation, after critical evaluation of systems available in the international arms market, to fit the Israeli Barak system in the aircraft carrier INS Viraat, was approved by the MoD in 1997.

For equipping other ships in similar fashion, it was decided to await development of the Trishul on the assurance of the then head of DRDO that this would soon come about -- which did not happen. In 1999, came the conflict in Kargil; and, faced with the exposure of major warships to the air threat, the Navy recommended fitment of Barak in some of its frontline platforms. This proposal, approved by MOD, made eminent sense -- including for reasons of standardisation.

In 2006, based on some reports -- from vested sources or otherwise -- the defence minister directed a CBI investigation into the purchase of these Barak systems.

Concurrently, procurement of missiles for them was suspended. A FIR was lodged by the investigating agency after a "preliminary enquiry" in which, amazingly, the then Chief of the Naval Staff was, personally, named as possibly complicit in malfeasance. Left unrecognised was a simple fact: chiefs of our armed forces neither personally nominate any hardware for procurement nor evaluate them.

Whatever recommendation they make emerges from the work done in their headquarters by dozens of officers of different ranks, all of them with more professional knowledge and experience than most others.

To say that questioning a chief's personal integrity and thus humiliating him, was an unfortunate decision for which the defence minister has to bear responsibility, is putting things mildly.

Service chiefs are not heads of some public-sector units or even secretaries to government; by subjecting them to indignity, the entire institution they command, navy, army or air force, is denigrated.

Now, seven years later, the CBI comes up with a closure report and the DRDO, in response to persistent demands made by the slighted navy chief under the Right to Information Act, grudgingly admits that Trishul had never been a product development but only a technology demonstration exercise and had belied even that expectation.

But this is not just about one case of palpable indifference to combat readiness of the armed forces by politicians in power.

Procurement of 155mm Bofors guns for the army from Sweden and submarines for the navy from a company in Germany in the 1980s went the same route.

In both cases, the firms were blacklisted; in the first a beaming CBI director returned from Switzerland with bagfuls of documents which he claimed would nail the guilty in months -- but, 15 years down the line, there is nothing that has been proven.

In the second case, the CBI had to file for closure for want of evidence; yet, a former vice-chief of naval staff had been named in the FIR as a likely collaborator in the conspiracy. As a fall-out of the first, the army has not had a replacement gun for more than two decades; and as for the second, production of submarines in India was laid waste for 15 years, leave aside the tattered reputations of honourable men.

In the late 1990s, procurement of T-90 tanks from Russia was questioned by an ex- prime minister based on unsubstantiated inputs and the integrity of a senior army officer brought into question. Most recently, a former chief of the air force has been FIR-ed, literally, for having approved a modification in specifications for VVIP helicopters; that this was demanded by the user agency responsible, with the concurrence of the National Security Adviser, was ignored.

This purchase has now been cancelled and the company stands ready for getting blacklisted -- without any reason to believe that it will not lead to another closure by the CBI some years later. More purchases might also follow this route.

As one looks at these instances critically, two things stand out. One, the political leadership shows little concern either for issues which impact the combat readiness of the armed forces, or of the adverse impact of having the senior most military commanders routinely investigated. Second, the principal investigating agency, as a consequence, spares little thought in naming service chiefs in the FIRs, subjecting them to a humiliation which no subsequent closure can erase.

The civil bureaucracy in the MoD, which contributes to both, becomes a bystander with little accountability. This is not to suggest that there are not similar investigations in other countries; but they are processed with due care and credible evidence and invariably lead to prosecution and conviction, not closure. In short, they are preceded by 'application of mind'. This, sadly, is lacking in our system of governance, such as it is.

Finally, as much of the mud gets thrown around, largely as a result of vendor competition, it may be appropriate to recall late K Subrahmanyam's advice: import of major military hardware should go the single-vendor route and either be channeled from Russia through price negotiation, as was done over several decades and more recently for warships and MIG 29Ks acquired by the navy; or with the United States through the foreign military sales (FMS) route, in which purchase cost is anchored to what the US military has paid -- as has been done in the case of C-130J, C-17 and P-8I aircraft.

Other methodologies are clearly unsuited to the Indian way of doing business, only resulting in controversy and humiliation, not combat capability.

There are lessons to be learnt from Barak

The writer was a member of a 2000 task force on higher defence management and has also served on the National Security Advisory Board