Home arrow Archives arrow Defence Notes arrow Defence Notes 2006 arrow India On Buying Spree:ARMS MAJORS’ RUSH AT DEF-EXPO, by B.K. Mathur,6 February 2006
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India On Buying Spree:ARMS MAJORS’ RUSH AT DEF-EXPO, by B.K. Mathur,6 February 2006 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 6 February 2006

India On Buying Spree


By B.K. Mathur

India’s most powerful Defence Minister after Krishna Menon or Bansi Lal to some extent, is Pranab Mukherjee.  Perhaps the Service Headquarters had never so good before. Ask for any machine or weapon system and you have it without much delay – at least on paper.  Official figures show that during 2004-05, India’s armed forces spent a staggering $6 billion to purchase from abroad weapons and weapon systems and became the largest procurers of military equipment among the developing countries.  Even China and Saudi Arabia spent between $2-3 billion during the year.  These figures, it may be hastened, do not include assistance some countries are known to be getting secretly or openly from militarily advanced friends.

With India going on a buying spree of armament and systems, defence industry in military advanced countries has got busy in marketing their produce in the country.  Such efforts are being made by Russians, Israelis, French, Britishers and Americans.  They were all present in last week’s DefExpo-2006 in New Delhi for business with India’s armed forces and defence planners.  As many as 20 armament companies from 30 countries displayed their lethal military machines, in addition to the presence of over 40 official delegations from abroad, some of them led by their Ministers.  Armament majors had their eyes on India’s plan to acquire 126 multi-role combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force, involving a large expenditure of about $6.5 billion.

Similar mega deals already in advanced stage of consideration and clearance are for the Army and Navy.  The land force has Rs.8,000 to 10,000-crore artillery modernization plan which includes induction of nearly 200 self-propelled 55mm 52-calibre guns.  The plan for acquiring these guns progressively is hoped to be finalized within this year and companies from several countries, prominently the US, Israel, Russia and South Africa are in the running. They prominently presented their offers at last week’s exhibition.  It was evident at the DefExpo that the Americans were trying for a bigger chunk of the Indian defence pie. 

It is not only the American aviation major, Boeing and Lokheed Martins, which have been campaigning in a big way to sell their F/A-18 Super Hornets and the F-16s respectively.  France, the UK and Russia too are not far behind. The former has already bagged the $3.5 billion Scorpine submarine project and the latter $1.8 billion Hawk AJT (advanced jet trainer) contract. The race for capturing the Indian military market is now hotting up following Pranab Mukherjee’s statement at the DefExpo: “India is no doubt a big defence market… it was the largest arms importer in 2004...” He has also indicated that the defence budget for the coming financial year would be substantially increased from Rs.83,000 crore for the current fiscal.

Inaugurating the DefExpo, Mukherjee made an interesting and surprising disclosure that defence deals during the procurement process will not be open to public scrutiny under the new Right to Information (RTI) Act.  They can be scrutinized only after the procurement deals have been contracted under the RTI or through Parliamentary debates or other mechanism.  Let us not go into the legalities of the RTI Act.  But on the face of it, one fails to understand why a defence deal cannot be disclosed until it has been finalized or the contract signed.  The whole thing is not understandable. In fact it raises grave doubts, especially when so many scandals in arms purchases have come to light in the past. 

Mukherjee’s move or interpretation of the RTI Act at once reminds me of the former President of India, R. Venkataraman. As Defence Minister he used to tell us that the best way to know the quality of a military machine or system intended to be procured for the armed forces is to disclose the move to the people through the Press.  Once that is done, lobbies start working on behalf of the manufacturers and even government pressures mount.  Columns start appearing in the Press in favour and against the machines from the time the Ministry seeks information from various producers.  Indeed, that is the right way to negotiate a defence deal to acquire the best available machine.

Unfortunately, a crisis and ad hocism in military purchases and production continues, notwithstanding the fact that efforts have continuously been made to make the system transparent.  But defence deals continue to be wrapped in secrecy.  Certain deals are undoubtedly raised for political gains, as happened in the Bofors gun scandal which caused the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi Government at the Centre.  The same happened to the controversial Phukan Commission report which probed the Tehelka expose into fictitious defence deals. Significant parts on the Commission’s observations on procurement policy have been put into the background and the report has been rejected by the UPA Government for political reasons.  The sufferers once again are the armed forces.               

It is common knowledge that the procurement process for the armed forces has always created controversies, especially in cases of expensive purchases from abroad. Several Committees have gone into the defective policy. After the Kargil operation in 1999, a Group of Ministers, headed by the, then, Home Minister, L.K. Advani, studied the problem, among others, in depth and made several recommendations.  None of them has, however, been fully accepted so far.  What has been implemented cannot in any way be described beyond ad hocism which continues to be the bane of India’s defence planning, not only in the case of the country’s security and intelligence management but also in regard to purchasing policy of military hardware.

Besides the controversies created time and again about the procurement process, another problem that invariably crops up is the differences between the users and the providers, that is, the armed forces headquarters and the government. The result? Ill-advised priorities for acquiring the machines. For example, if the Service headquarters want a particular machine on the basis of immediate security requirement, the vested interests in the Government go by their own priorities and “conveniences”.  In this kind of a tug of war, the forces’ qualitative requirements are not fully met.  At times, expensive machines are imported without assurance from the supplier for providing adequate spare parts and ammunition, as happened in the controversial 155mm. Bofors gun.

Such defective purchase policies can be corrected only by the integration of the Ministry of Defence and the Service headquarters, as has been suggested by various expert committees and this column time and again.  In every purchasing process for any military machine or system the user must have full say. That can possibly be achieved if the user becomes a part of the planning and purchase mechanism in the Defence Ministry.  There is no denying the fact that some efforts have been made in this direction by the present Defence Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, as also his predecessor George Fernandes.  But it would be more useful, and in national interest, if complete transparency is allowed in defence deals. These must be open for public scrutiny during the procurement process.  That will ensure clean transaction, Mr. Minister---INFA.


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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