Last month, India’s Parliament was up in arms over the leak of a supposedly top secret letter written by Army Chief Gen. V.K. Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In typical Indian fashion, the uproar – partly spontaneous, partly orchestrated – was at first more about the leak of a highly confidential letter than the critical shortages of weapons and equipment that were pointed to.
Among the problems Singh pointed to were the claim that the Army’s entire fleet of tanks is “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks,”the suggestion that the country’s air defense were “97 percent obsolete,” and criticism that the Elite Special Forces was “woefully short” of “essential weapons.”
After the initial din died down, however, the import of the Army Chief’s letter gradually dawned on lawmakers asked the government and the Army to explain why the shortages haven’t been addressed. Indeed, the shortages are all the more baffling because India’s Defense Ministry reported it had spent its full quota of funds in each of the last three financial years, while the Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said recently that between 2006 and 2010, India ranked first in terms of arms imports.
So why all these shortfalls?
The answer lies in the convoluted and often excruciatingly slow acquisition process that exists within the Defense Ministry. By even some conservative estimates, it can take anywhere between three and five years for a proposal mooted by a service headquarters to come to fruition. This snail’s pace has been noted by lawmakers in the past.
The Standing Committee on Defense (2008-09), a cross-party body of lawmakers, said in its report: “In the opinion of the Committee, the present state of affairs in the Ministry is clearly indicative of lack of seriousness towards timely finalization of plans, which ultimately leads to adverse bearing on modernization process in the armed forces.”
In his first interview on assuming office on April 1, 2010, Singh told me bluntly: “Our biggest challenge is how to remove our hollowness in terms of deficiencies in various fields, and the second one is modernization. Both need to be addressed (as a) priority so that whatever the Army requires that makes it battle worthy is there.
“When I talk of ‘hollowness,’ it is when you authorize something, but it may not be there because over a period of time, the procurement (process has) delayed acquisition,” he said, adding that such delays inevitably mean that some of the equipment is obsolete by the time it is available for combat units.
Two years on, and it’s clear that despite the voicing of such concerns, even the day-to-day requirements of many combat units are at dangerously low levels. Singh wrote first to Defense Minister A.K. Antony and then to the prime minister to highlight this fact.
But it shouldn’t have taken a letter from Singh to make clear shortcomings that were already obvious to many. Numerous commentators and analysts had already pointed out the sorry state of India’s air defenses and artillery. Gurmeet Kanwal, until recently director of the Army’s think tank, the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, has written:
“Sadly, the Indian Army has almost completely missed the ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs…The Corps of Army Air Defense is also faced with serious problems of obsolescence. The vintage L-70 40 mm AD gun system, the four-barreled ZSU-23-4 Schilka AD gun system, the SAM-6 (Kvadrat) and the SAM-8 OSA-AK have all seen better days and need to be urgently replaced by more responsive modern AD systems that are capable of defeating current and future threats.”
One of the key reasons for the military shortfalls has simply been the duplication of effort in processing a procurement proposal at both the Service Headquarters and the Defense Ministry, since the two aren’t integrated at the functional level. As a result, files are typically initiated and processed at the service headquarters before undergoing the same process at the ministry.
In addition, the generalist bureaucrats at the ministry are often unable to grasp the urgency of the armed forces’ requirements, frequently sitting on files for months on end. The civil servants, for their part, say the military keeps changing qualitative requirements, leading to delays.
And so the blame game goes on, leaving soldiers without basic requirement. The solution, analysts say, is to truly integrate the bureaucracy and the service headquarters through cross postings and by creating specialists with domain knowledge across the spectrum.
Unfortunately, this is all easier said than done. One barrier is the high level of mistrust between armed forces representatives and the civilian bureaucracy, a state of affairs that has existed since India secured independence in 1947. Despite the change in nomenclature, with the service headquarters now known as the Integrated Head Quarters, the processes haven’t really changed.
As former Chief of Army Staff Gen. S. Padmanabhan noted in his book A General Speaks: “Even after independence, India’s political leaders found it convenient to keep the Army, Navy and the Air Force out of the ‘policy’ making bodies. The service HQs were left at the level that the British left them – that of being ‘attached offices’ of the Ministry of Defense. Even at the level of defense minister and service chiefs, exchanges on major matters of defense policy were few and far between.”
With a view to overcoming these problems, the Defense Standing Committee of Parliament backed the creation of a core group from an existing liaison forum to identify problem areas and “evolve a system of smooth mobilization and thereafter to meet the logistic needs of the Army.”
But this was back in 2008-09, and it’s apparent that little has changed.
Within days of Gen. Singh’s letter becoming public, Antony called for a high level meeting between Defense Ministry officials and Army headquarters. But a vague official press note after the meeting simply said:
“During the meeting, Antony directed the Army to streamline its acquisition process in such a manner so that accountability can be fixed in case of any slippages. He also asked the officials of MoD and the Army to examine the possibility of compressing the time taken for technical evaluations and trials. He favored delegation of more financial powers to Service headquarters if it can lead to speedier acquisition of equipment, platforms and systems for the Services.”
Reading between the lines, though, there’s a simple message: give more financial power to service chiefs. As things stood, acquisitions of up to Rs 50 crore ($9 million) could be cleared by the chiefs and vice chiefs, while the defense secretary has had the authority to approve deals up to Rs 75 crore. India’s annual defense outlays of about $40 billion may pale in comparison with China’s official $100 billion-plus, but defense majors from across the globe have been flocking here trying to sell their wares. The problem has been that most big deals in the finalization stage, or even those that have been finalized, have become stuck in the final stages in part because Antony is ultra cautious in trying to reassure over the legitimacy of the acquisition process.
Still, the embarrassing national, and indeed international, headlines that Gen. Singh’s remarks prompted appear to have spurred the Defense Ministry into some kind of action, and it has asked for 14 strategic railway lines to be built along the border with China, and formed an “empowered committee” headed by the defense secretary to monitor “capability development plan on the Northern Borders.”
This committee has also moved to fast track efforts to provide equipment to India’s Special Forces, including advanced assault rifles, all-terrain multi-utility vehicles, GPS navigation systems and underwater vehicles. This comes on top of a range of items that have been cleared for immediate purchase, including two regiments worth of Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers, 10,000 Konkurs-M anti-tank guided missiles and 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers, which cost $647 million and will come from the United States, the Times of India reported last week.
Politically, at a time when the country has been wracked by one corruption scandal after another, Antony’s caution over the acquisition process has been understandable. But the upshot is that the military is consistently faced with delays and shortages of critical arms and ammunition. It’s this reality that makes a mockery of India’s aspirations of becoming an effective regional military power.
Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7