On defence procurement, UPA’s legacy is uninspiring. New government must change old habits.
The army’s transport crisis in supplying and maintaining troops at the Siachen Glacier, as reported in this newspaper on Monday, offers a disturbing glimpse of the larger problems of procurement and modernisation. At Siachen, the army’s light Cheetah choppers have reached the end of their service life. As a fallout of the AgustaWestland scandal, the army’s purchase of 197 light helicopters was halted.
HAL’s alternative Cheetal choppers have failed high-altitude tests, while crashes involving indigenous advanced light helicopters (ALH), pushed beyond capacity, have left the world’s highest battlefield vulnerable. Siachen offers a troubling snapshot of the legacy the UPA has bequeathed to the new government in the defence sector.
Under the UPA, long-term defence planning was neglected. The lowest defence budget since 1962, along with red tape and the blacklisting of several defence MNCs, stalled military modernisation. The army has not had new artillery in three decades, it lacks close quarter carbines and anti-tank guided missiles. The air force’s 126 multi-mission medium-range combat aircraft (MMRCA) are yet to clear the procurement hurdle and the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) languishes behind schedule, with the “Tejas” not yet combat ready.
The problem here, too, is that HAL’s expertise does not stretch much beyond joint production, and there are inordinate delays and unsatisfactory products. The navy, meanwhile, has undergone a crisis of a different magnitude, with incidents featuring its frontline warships and submarines setting back its emergence as a bluewater force. The UPA avoided inducting new platforms and let the navy exploit old ones like its kilo-class submarines beyond their life cycles. The indigenous air defence ship is behind schedule, while the INS Vikramaditya was delivered after several cost increments and time overruns.
These setbacks to the military’s morale and combat readiness will not be redressed without abandoning the ad hoc procurement policy. At the mere hint of a scandal, the UPA’s instinct was to jettison a deal or blacklist a supplier. And yet, the AgustaWestland scandal occurred. While ridding itself of indecision and anticipatory bans, the MoD needs to think strategically on procurements and help build a military-industrial complex where the domestic private sector is invited full-time into defence manufacture and PSUs are made to compete and collaborate with it.
Overhauling procurement, by making its processes more transparent and its players accountable, could also call for training a set of military officers dedicated to the task, as in the US. The NDA government should start by appointing a full-time minister for this important portfolio.