India’s Blighted Defense Forces

India’s armed forces are seriously under-equipped with outdated armaments ranging from guns and tanks to fighter jets, but the government seems to lack both the political will and the financial and bureaucratic capability to remedy the situation.

That has become clear in the past month with a serious of statements and reports about under-preparedness at a time when there is an active debate on the country’s ability to fight simultaneous border wars on the two fronts with Pakistan and China, improbable though such a double confrontation might seem.

The Indian Air Force has only 32 squadrons of fighter jets when it should have 42, and many of these are seriously outdated Russian MiGs, plagued with frequent crashes, yet new orders are constantly delayed. The Indian navy does not have the submarines or other ships needed to police its home ground on the Indian Ocean at a time of increased Chinese adventurism, nor other equipment such as torpedoes, nor adequate maintenance and safety measures. The army’s guns and armored vehicles are seriously out of date and ammunition supplies are grossly inadequate.

Much of the public comments and reporting on these shortages focuses on the Ministry of Defense’s frequent prevarication over placing orders that can last for many years. The reality however is that so much of the annual US$63.2 billion defense budget goes on salaries, pensions and other routine costs that less than 25 percent is available for new weaponry, and much of that is committed to existing orders.

“The government can promise all it likes. It doesn’t have the money,” said Ajai Shukla, a former army officer and a leading defense journalist and analyst. “It doesn’t have the expertise, intelligence and political will to shape priorities in a coherent manner.”

Corruption, rivalry and blacklists

The result is a complex mixture of reluctance by officials to sign off on orders (fearing later allegations of corruption), foreign suppliers being blacklisted for alleged payment of bribes, disruption of tenders by competing interests, public sector corporations resisting private sector involvement, rivalry between government departments, the shortage of funds, and a Ministry of Finance refusal (just re-confirmed) to allow the armed forces to roll over unspent funds for use in later years.

The Make in India clunky lion icon

For close observers of India’s defense scene, there is little new in this, but the key point now is that little has changed since Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister. He focused his Make in India manufacturing policy, launched in September 2014, on defense, which looked an easy target for a boom in foreign investment and jobs.

It has however been a dismal failure with no major projects and a failure of re-packaged policies, including the latest “strategic partnership” plan for foreign involvement that has failed to take off.

As a result, there has been an astonishingly small inflow of only the equivalent of U$180,000 foreign direct investment (FDI) since 2014, according to a parliamentary answer given earlier this month. Alongside that, plans for manufacturing companies to become involved in a substantial way are repeatedly stalled.

India has been the world’s biggest arms importer for more than a decade, accounting for nearly 12 percent of global sales according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s latest annual report. Russia, the US and Israel are the main suppliers, with France bidding to become a leading player.

The precise levels of out-datedness of equipment have been spelled out to a parliamentary committee by the army’s vice chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, who said that any modern armed force should have “one-third of its equipment in the vintage category, one-third in the current category and one-third in the state of the art,” according to a parliamentary report of the Standing Committee on Defense which was tabled in the Lok Sabha, or Parliament, on March 14.

Two-thirds vintage equipment

”As far as we are concerned, the state today is 68 percent of our equipment is in the vintage category, with just about 24 percent in the current, and eight percent in the state of the art category,” Chand told the Committee.

Even worse, he warned that the army did not have enough funds to buy ammunition needed for “10 days of intense war” – a scary admission at a time when there are regular firing crises on the Line of Control with Pakistan and when India should be prepared for a confrontation with China in the Himalayas.

Chand said the army’s financial allocation this year “is insufficient even to cater for committed payment of US$4.48 billion for 125 on-going schemes, emergency procurements, or the urgent procurement of ammunition for 10 days of intense war and other DGOF (director general ordnance factory) requirements.”

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) last year said that there was only 10 days’ supply of 61 types of ammunition, a little over 20 days for 26 types, and 30 to 40 days for another 33 types. It found “no significantly improvement” in its 2015 report’s findings that only 10 percent of stockpiled ammunition met war wastage reserve requirements.

The most widely reported example of procrastination and indecision concerns India’s urgent need for 126 fighter jets known as the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), which were first sought with a formal “request for information” to companies in the US, Russia and Europe in 2001.

Estimated over the years at US$10-20 billion, the bids involved four twin-engine fighters – America’s Boeing F-18, Russia’s MiG-29/35, the four-nation Eurofighter, and the French Dassault company’s Rafale – and two single-engine, the US Lockheed F-16 and the Swedish Saab Gripen.

Eventually the French Rafale was chosen in 2012, but that became bogged down in contract details, including arrangements for substantial parts to be made in India, plus a lack of finance.

Modi junked the order and personally ordered 36 Rafales “in fly-away condition as quickly as possible under a government-to-government deal” when he was visiting Paris in April 2015, without informing the then defense minister, Manohar Parrikar. That deal also became bogged down in negotiations.

An over-optimistic headline!

It took 18 months to finalize at €7.87billion and is now the subject of corruption allegations mounted by the Congress Party against Modi because he bypassed established procurement procedures and because the cost was significantly higher than the original 126 fighter price.

Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa acknowledged that this was a cost-cutting option last November. “Right now, we are concentrating on the single-engine so as to make up the numbers with lower cost,” he said, adding there was a requirement for twin-engine fighters later.

In the past few weeks however, the defense ministry has indicated to all the companies involved that it wants to include twin-engine options, thus sidelining the F-16 and Gripen. Some 17 years after launching the initial inquiry, this will inevitably delay a decision for several more years, though the government could have gone ahead with the order now and looked later for a twin-engine option. France is pushing for a second batch of 36 Rafales but India is resisting that for now, which is scarcely surprising given the corruption allegations.

No accountability

An internal defense ministry report leaked by the NDTV television station earlier this month condemned “multiple and diffused structures with no single point accountability, multiple decision-heads, duplication of processes, delayed comments, delayed execution, no real-time monitoring, no project-based approach and a tendency to fault-find rather than to facilitate”.

Prepared late last year by defense minister of state, Subhash Bhamre, the report said that of 144 deals in the past three financial years, “only 8-10 percent fructified within the stipulated time period.” Delays exceeded deadlines by up to 15 times.

The report pointed to the well-known problem of a “lack of synergy between the three services” plus the Coast Guard which “put greater strain on the limited defense budget and as a result, we are unable to meet the critical capability requirements.” Various departments in the ministry “appear to be working in independent silos” driven by their interpretation of policy and procedures, and the armed forces viewed the ministry’s acquisition wing “as an obstacle rather than a facilitator.”

Special problems were found with a technical oversight committee that caused delays and rarely produced anything relevant, while a cost negotiation committee did not have access to international benchmarks. Finally, the finance ministry and cabinet committee on security would cancel purchases because, the report said, they were “not aware” of the defense ministry’s plans and needs.

Defexpo among the temples

Meanwhile politics trumps everything, even the siting of the biennial international Deepa exhibition which, till 2014, was always held in Delhi. In 2016 Parrikar, then the defense minister, moved it to his home state of Goa, which did not lead to much criticism because Goa is easily accessible.

In January however the current defense minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced that this year’s event will be held next month at Mahabalipuram in her home state of Tamil Nadu. Mahabalipuram is a famous temple town more than an hour’s drive from Chennai, the state capital, with none of the infrastructure or accessibility needed for a big international exhibition.

But, hey, if you are not going to place orders, does it matter if your biennial showcase is in a difficult location and visitors and exhibitors stay away?

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.