India's Obsolete Defense

Despite years of concern on the part of defense analysts, former generals and others over the inadequate state of preparedness of India's armed forces, the defense establishment remains mired in corruption, red tape and bureaucratic sloth.

In a damning indictment, India's Air Force Chief Marshal P V Naik said recently that half of all the systems and equipment of the air force are obsolete and that steps are being taken to bring down the obsolescence levels in the next four to five years.

"The obsolescence percentage is 50 percent," he said adding that "by 2014-15, it would come down to 20 percent." Naik went on to add that despite the existing status, the IAF is capable of handling threats.

Signs of trouble leaked out as long ago as 1999 during the high-altitude war with Pakistan in the Kargil area of Kashmir, when it was revealed that India's defense forces were dealing with acute shortages in every sphere.

The then-Army chief, V P Malik, said at the time his forces would make do with whatever was in hand, given the fears for a full-scale war. That was eventually avoided due to pressure to desist by America under then President Bill Clinton, who personally rebuked Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and asked him to withdraw Pakistani soldiers from the territory.

The Kargil review committee report noted that: "The heavy involvement of the Army in counter-insurgency operations cannot but affect its preparedness for its primary role, which is to defend the country against external aggression.”

Ten years hence, matters don't seem to have changed much. According to media reports in 2008, reluctance for battle by an ill-prepared army played a major role in precluding an all-out attack on Pakistan in the aftermath of attacks in Mumbai by a band of terrorists in November 2008 that took 174 lives.

It became apparent that during closed-door meetings, top military commanders and political leaders discussed the poor state of the armory, both ammunition and artillery, which tilted the balance against striking at Pakistan. The army commanders impressed on the political leadership in New Delhi that an inadequate and obsolete arsenal at their disposal argued against any make-or-break battle.

Although there have been expensive attempts to hasten India's overall defense modernization program, there are gaping holes. There also appears to be no defense contract that passes through without the usual cycle of allegations of corruption, political brinkmanship and investigations.

India's defense expenditure has fallen below 2 percent of gross domestic product for the first time in decades despite analysts pegging 3 percent as adequate. Years of neglect have meant that India's fighter jet squadrons are far below required strength due to frequent crashes, for instance. The bidding process for long-sought medium fighter planes has only just begun and may take years before it is completed.

Although India's submarine fleet is depleted, the first deliveries of French Scorpene subs won't begin before in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Bofors gun scandal which broke out in 1987 and resulted in the fall of the Congress government, has stymied the Army's artillery modernization plan for 23 years. No howitzers have been purchased since 1986, with the army's stock of 155mm guns having dwindled to 200 such weapons.

The Army has been looking to buy 400 howitzers from abroad and another 1,100 manufactured domestically, without success. Last year, the defense ministry blacklisted ST Kinetics, a Singapore state-owned company, and six other defense arms firms after they were named in a corruption case against the former chief of the ordinance board. The army was just about to schedule attest of Kinetics' Pegasus gun when the scandal broke.

In addition, the army's huge tank fleet is in bad shape due to want of Russian spare parts, while indigenous efforts to build one, such as the main battle tank Arjun, have largely failed. Army Chief Deepak Kapoor earlier this year said 80 percent of India's tanks, dominated by 2,400 obsolescent Russian T-72s, are unfit to fight at night. More modern T-90s were purchased in 2001 but to keep costs down after a squabble in Parliament, they lack crucial battle systems.

This is not to say that India hasn't been buying arms. In the decade that has followed Kargil, deal value has exceeded US$50 billion, with every sign of such momentum carrying over the next decade and crossing US$100 billion.

Interestingly, India's arms acquisitions have more than doubled over the last five years from 2004-2009 (US$35 billion) compared to 1999-2004 (US$15.5 billion), as defense plans of the earlier period due to the Kargil conflict have been followed to fruition.

The defense ministry has signed more than 450 arms contracts worth over more than US$30 billion within the last three years. A Deloitte-Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) report has said that in the next couple of decades India's defense budgets will likely surpass that of major western nations like the US, the world's biggest overall defense force by far.

However, there are structural issues that need to be addressed in India's defense sector for acquisition and modernization processes to be sustainable, continuous and not ad hoc. India's local arms industry remains in the hands of monopolistic state-owned corporations that hark back to the pre-liberalization (pre-1991) era of India's socialist past. Given the "strategic" nature of defense, private players were kept out of manufacturing.

There is need for major restructuring to reach a level of competence including play of private entities to reach level of Western competition. But the huge cost of production and time lines required to manufacture have been major bottlenecks.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed concern about the state-owned Defense Research and Development Organization, which oversees all defense production, as imports escalate in the defense sector due to incessant delays in indigenous delivery of weapons systems.

Most observers agree that the agency's performance record has not been up to the mark and there is need to incorporate foreign technology and help. Among severely delayed are the home-made Light Combat Aircraft Tejas and the Arjun, which is far behind schedule and dogged with problems.

India has been trying to replicate efforts by both China and South Korea to provide increasing play to private entities in defense, ruling out allowing multinational arms companies to go in for indirect offsets (investments in non-defense sectors) in defense deals and encouraging private investment. The offset clause requires that 30-50 percent of deal value be reinvested in India.

In an assessment the Confederation of Indian Industry has said: "Indian companies should rise to qualify for the requirements of Indian defense." But while private firms have developed some expertise, they need to scale up to the next level of competition. That appears to be dishearteningly far into the future.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com