Bottomline | Castles in Air

The Standing Committee on Defence report exposes the fog of bureaucratic thinking

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

There is disturbing news from the Indian ministry of defence. Deposing before the Standing Committee on Defence (SCD) 2004-2005, which tabled its report in Parliament on 25 April 2005, the defence secretary said that ‘as far as the present assessment against the immediate neighbour on either side of our country is concerned (China and Pakistan), we feel that we can take on the threat without compromising on our security or territory, and in any case we will be able to inflict more damage to the other side.’ Even as this statement is farthest from the truth, it is disheartening to note that nothing has been learnt from the past. Remember, in 1962, the Chinese humiliated us militarily after our Prime Minister publicly threatening to throw the Chinese Army out of our territory. More recently, after launching Operation Parakram, we blinked first and demobilised our troops after a 10-month-long military standoff with Pakistan. The reason for all this is that India’s military preparedness does not match the claims made. And this is what the SCD report is all about.

For example, there is a comprehensive planning procedure in the defence services. The navy, which has long gestation periods for shipbuilding, has a 15-year Long Term Perspective Plan (LTPP), a 10-year Ship Building Plan, a five-year Service Capital Acquisition Plan, and the Annual Acquisition Plan. In its LTPP, the navy had asked for a total of 195 ships.

The Defence Acquisition Council, run by bureaucrats, told the navy on 25 March 2003, that its strength should not fall below 140 ships.

However, given the acquisition and de-commissioning rate of the fleet, the strength will fall to 123 ships in the near future. Moreover, there are shortfalls in critical areas like long-range surveillance aircraft and submarines. The Mazagon docks in Mumbai are loosing technical expertise as the last submarine built there was in 1994. Let alone the desired three, even two fully operational aircraft carriers at any time do not seem possible.

The air force has similar problems. Instead of the desired 39.5 combat squadrons, at present, the air force has 37 squadrons. By the end of 12th defence plan (2017), the shortage will be almost one-third of the desired strength. Moreover, the air force has 26 different types of aircraft that require different types of infrastructure to operate. The SCD feels that there is a need to check the large inventory by acquiring aircraft that are already in service (implying a no to F-16s). Amongst other equipment, there is a critical shortage of low-level surveillance radars to cover the whole geographical areas of the country (more Purulia arms dropping of 17 December 1995 are not ruled out).

Regarding the army, where the infantry and Special Forces have been given some attention, equipment with all other arms and services face obsolescence. The worst affected are the field artillery, the air defence artillery, across-the-board night fighting capabilities, missiles and smart ammunition, and surveillance means. Probably the biggest irony is that alongside individual services’ acquisitions planning, there is joint planning by the Integrated Defence Services headquarters (IDS) as well. If still nothing moves there are two mains reasons for it, which have been succinctly enumerated by the SCD report. One, none of the plan has a committed defence allocation. For instance, to make up their deficits, the finance ministry took back Rs5,000 crore from the 2003-2004 annual defence budget without undertaking any exercise to check ramifications of its decision on defence preparedness. This was not enough. Brushing aside the defence ministry’s protest that the money was a committed burden and should be passed on to the next year, the finance ministry did just the opposite. It arbitrarily cut the projected capital requirements for year 2005-2006 by Rs10,000 crores, and no one lost sleep.

Worse, the report notes that the finance ministry even after three years of the 10th Defence Plan (2002-2007) have still not cleared it. It is obvious that the other defence plans, medium and long term, which are diligently prepared by the tri-service integrated defence headquarters have met similar fates. It does not require a genius to appreciate that all this happens because the faceless bureaucrats are not responsible for defence preparedness, and the service chiefs remain focussed on their respective immediate requirements. Hence, the need for the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

The report says that ‘there is an imperative need to create the post of CDS to provide a focal point for better coordination among the three services in the long term perspective plan in conventional and strategic capabilities, prioritise R&D and provide effective coordination leading to the path of self-reliance.’ Everyone knows that after the Vajpayee government accepted the need for the CDS in February 2001 recommended by the Group of Ministers report, the air force and bureaucrats opposed it tooth and nail. The Manmohan Singh government promised to review the matter, but nothing has happened so far. Chances are that the CDS will not be formed and the present half-house in the form of IDS will continue.

Interestingly, the SCD report, while supporting indigenisation, has called for a ‘Performance Audit’ of certain projects like the Light Combat Aircraft, the indigenous Kaveri engine, the Arjun tank and so on. Even as the army has placed a limited order for 124 Arjun tanks, it wants the tank to undergo additional performance trials before induction (obviously the user is not still happy with Arjun). While the SCD report needs to be complimented for what it has said, it has ignored probably the most important thing that needs to be done to vitalise the indigenous defence sector, that is, real participation of the private sector. Unfortunately, this will be a more difficult task than even appointing the CDS. Meanwhile, we will wait for another SCD report with similar observations.


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