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The mental block against modernisation

The army is unable to utilise the paltry amount the government allots for new weapons. This year it has had to surrender Rs 103 crore out of...

Written by Ashok K Mehta |
May 1, 1998

The army is unable to utilise the paltry amount the government allots for new weapons. This year it has had to surrender Rs 103 crore out of its residual modernisation kitty of Rs 431 crore. It began the year with an impressive allocation of around Rs 2000 crore for its modernisation programme. Nearly Rs 1,500 crore went towards pending bills.

For eleven and a half months it tried to spend Rs 431 crore on new weapons and projects but could not. Reason: MoD sat on its files, despite the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) spelling out the deployment of these funds, writing to and meeting the secretary of defence and the minister. Suddenly in the last ten days files got dusted and moving, though not the ones the army wanted moved.

Because it is defence finance which calls the shots, not the COAS to whom the funds are allotted. According to MoD plan, Rs 170 crore was allotted to DRDO and another Rs 105 crore offloaded on a PSU – all for low-priority equipment. The army is required to pay 20 percent advance on newequipment. The last-minute transfer of monies by MoD to PSUs earns government rate of interest. The net result is the army does not get the weapons and equipment it wants and what it gets is invariably 10 to 15 years too late. The COAS has been telling the government, including the new defence minister George Fernandes, that he is responsible for the war-readiness of the army. But he has no say in the acquisition of the wherewithal to fight the war.

What is the reason for this proxy war between the army and the MoD? There are a number of institutional reasons for the standoff. Foremost is civilian control which results in nit-picking both by defence ministry and defence finance. No decisions are taken for most of the year. Then, in the last ten days to avoid embarrassing parliamentary questions, there is a scramble to clear the files. While the government is committed to indigenisation, the army requires priority operational equipment through import. This is the second hurdle.

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The biggest cause for delayis simply the painfully `long march of the file’ between North and South Blocks. And there is also a mental block. The MoD believes that in the short term there will be no war, so no new conventional weapons are needed. On indigenisation, the track record of DRDO is not as impressive as is made out. The performance of PSUs responsible for productionising the equipment is only slightly better. The users are also to blame for designing the General Staff Qualitative Requirement (GSQR) beyond reasonable and realistic parameters. The LCA and MBT are examples.

Nitpicking occurs routinely. Take some recent cases. The Battle Field Surveillance Radar (BFSR) is required by the infantry for tactical surveillance. Trials on imported equipment were first carried out in 1975 and then every ten years. The BFSR was re-energised last year. The defence secretary asked the stock questions – on its extended range, cost, etc and then on file made this hilarious observation: "Why can’t the IAF do this surveillance?"

Many othermodernisation schemes are awaiting the green light. When the army reported that its four-year indigenous research for the Advanced Tactical Communications System had not fructified, and imported designs needed to be examined, the defence secretary is reported to have remarked: “Well, take ten years, what’s the hurry?”

There will be no surprises in the new defence budget to be announced next month. Once again the army will present its existing modernisation plan and prepare for the no-win game of all snakes and no ladders with the MoD. From this annual charade there is a lesson to be learnt and a warning to be heeded. The lesson from the 10-day rapidfire clearance of files is that where there is a will there is a way.

The warning is that MoD may be right about no war in the short term. But it forgets that the COAS, not the MoD, is accountable for the army’s operational preparedness.

The writer is a retired major-general

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