How long will we fight with ‘what we have’?

At a recent event, recently retired Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa reflected on politicisation of defence purchases saying that such controversies slow down defence acquisitions, ruing that “had Abhinandan been flying a Rafale instead of a MiG-21 during the India-Pakistan stand-off after the Balakot strike, the outcome would have been different.” 

In an earlier event, Gen Malik who was the Army chief during Kargil and had at the time poignantly said “we will fight with what we have”, cautioned that unless India becomes self-reliant in defence, its security forces would continue to be vulnerable. Notwithstanding these pleas from former chiefs, a recent report in this daily has brought out how in six years, no major ‘Make in India’ defence project has taken off because of bureaucratic bottlenecks, commercial and technical wrangling and lack of requisite political push.

In spite of the government making efforts and acting on recommendations of the Kelkar and Dhirendra Singh committees and following up on the strategic partnership model, if designated projects still continue facing head winds, it is because of the systemic resistance to change that has historic moorings. Unless there is an attempt to understand and redress these, the ‘Make in India’ mission will continue to falter. That the Raksha Mantri has been compelled to form yet another committee to review Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2016, which was launched after prolonged deliberations, merely strengthens this view.

The first challenge is to recognise that defence manufacturing is in a special category. Jacques Gansler, who steered such consolidation in US’s context, best summed this saying “The combination of a single buyer, a few large firms in each segment of the industry, and a small number of extremely expensive weapons programmes constitute a unique structure for doing business.” Drawing from this experience and applying our own conditions both in the public and private sector, we first need to arrive at our own ‘unique structure’ of doing this business which must have unanimity across the political spectrum to succeed.

The second challenge dates back to the Bofors scandal that resulted in a defence procurement eco-system where procrastination has become the mantra. Thus far this mindset had hampered only open tender projects freeing government-to-government ones from the malaise. With the political controversy surrounding the inter government agreement for the purchase of Rafale aircraft, even this avenue may now face hurdles.

The third challenge is recognising that defence acquisition is a complex process involving multiple stakeholders, diverse resources and decision-making systems with the single aim of providing on-performance, on-time and on-cost capabilities to the armed forces. This is a mission for committed professionals and not for administrative generalists and uniformed officers working on rotating assignments. 

In the US and elsewhere, defence acquisition is considered a full-time profession for which people train and specialise and the US has a ‘Defence Acquisition University’ committed to creating acquisition professionals. There are valuable lessons in this specialised approach.

In the Foreword to DPP 2016 , Manohar Parrikar had stated, “The DPP is not merely a procurement procedure — it is also an opportunity to improve efficiency of the procurement process, usher change in the mind-sets of the stakeholders and promote growth of the domestic defence industry.” The biggest obstruction to the ‘Make in India’ mission hence remains outdated mind sets.

The underlying spirit of successive DPPs no longer appears to be to deliver timely war-fighting capabilities to the users. Instead it is being driven by an archaic procedural and legal mindset where the book offers adequate refuge to defer decision- making. This leaves the armed forces bereft of modernisation and simply left to ‘fight with what they have’! 

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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