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Defence Production: Fixing Accountability?

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The defence services capabilities are woefully short of essential weaponries which not only lower operational/fighting efficiency but also its morale. But surprisingly, no one has been held accountable or questioned for the capability gap and present state of our defence forces.

 An immediate concern for India's armaments strategy is to strike a balance in the holding and the problem of replacement of obsolescent major weapon systems. Presently the fighter strength in the Air Force has alarmingly depleted, the submarine arm of the Navy virtually left with no punch and in the Army, the state of the fighting arms i.e. mechanised forces, artillery, air defence, infantry and Special Forces, as well as the engineers and signals, is indeed alarming. A presentation on state of equipment to the Parliament's Standing Committee on defence in Dec 09 highlighted the Army's preparedness in key areas, like armoured corps 71%, combat helicopters 17%, mechanised infantry 62%, artillery 52%, air defence 44%, engineers 60%,  infantry 65%,  special forces 69% and in Net centricity 24%. The worrisome state of the operational preparedness of the Indian Army has not improved even as of now.

Recently a group of wives of Army Aviation Pilots approached the defence minister and drew the attention on accidents and high crash rate of 1960 Vintage single-engine Cheetahs and Chetaks helicopters. Since 2010, 30 military helicopters have crashed claiming well over 50 lives. Does it require CAG to point out  that out of the 181 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters flown by the Army Aviation, 51 are more than 40 years old and 78 between 30 and 40 years old. It means 52 per cent of Army Aviation helicopters are more than 30 years old and only 40 percent available for operations. The desired level of 80 per cent serviceability, the Chetak and Cheetah choppers have been operating at mere 65 percent serviceability. Since 1st January 2013, there have been six naval accidents claiming well over 50 lives of defence personnel. There has been number of accidents in the past also, though few of them are due to negligence but most of them were caused due to maintenance failures.

In past various Chiefs of the three services have also spoken about the capability gap, various CAG reports have supported this  and the MoD has also said there is obviously a gap in the capabilities and we are trying to bridge that gap.

The Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha stated at a press conference on October 4, 2014 that “Every project, be it acquisition, design and development, is taking longer than it should. We have lost timelines. We have quite a few fleets which are on their last legs. It's definitely a concern”. Recently, Gen VP Malik ex COAS, in an article has also raised an issue of accountability within MoD, DRDO and DPSUs. Strange no one ever been held accountable for the capability gap, national tragedies or lives lost.

Development Failures & Delays

DRDO has not been able to meet the forces requirements even after promising them with a timeline. The glaring examples are MBT Arjun for the Army and LCA & KAVERI engine for the Air force etc. Audit examination of 14 Mission Mode projects carried out by DRDO Laboratories for IAF revealed that all the projects failed to achieve their timelines and their probable date of completion were extended many times and sub-optimal utilisation of operational capabilities of aircrafts mainly due to un-serviceability. In five projects there were cost overruns as well. No long term arrangement existed for repair and maintenance of these which was being managed with interim maintenance services contract.

Surprisingly the DRDO has never been made accountable for the lapses for the inordinate delays in project development as mentioned above. If they set a deadline, they must meet it. Delay of one, two, three years can be acceptable but delay of 25 years is not acceptable.

Project MBT started in eighties to replace old vintage T-55 & T-72 tanks; the project is not yet completed even after 35 years and resulted in buying of, T-90 tanks for replacement as interim measure and IA had to initiate a case for FRCV recently. Similar is the case with ICVs. The FICV project, which was conceived in 2009, is still waiting to take off. DRDO have not been able to produce hand grenade since last 15 years, which is a low technology.

The LCA programme sanctioned in 1983, to be inducted into IAF by 1994 to replace the Mig -21, is not yet completed. Due to this delay, IAF had to go for up-grade of MiG Bison, MiG-29, Mirage-2000 and Jaguar aircraft at a cost of over INR 20,000 crores.

Army had bought the 155 mm Arty Gun including the complete ToT in late eighties. Surprisingly, the concerned agency was not aware of the ToT and after a lapse of almost three decades, OF found the drawings and managed to produce 155/45mm calibre artillery gun called Dhanush, based on the Bofor's drawing. Dhanush is under trial.

Procurement Delays

Army has not procured any Arty guns or AD guns since last 30 years resulting into the obsolete inventory. Similar is the situation with the tanks & ICVs, the Infantry's modernisation programme has not taken off, more so they are still awaiting for the basic weapons like Hand Grenade and modern rifles.

The Indian Air Force today is down to 34 squadrons against 42 authorised and as per reports, out of these 34 squadrons, 14 comprise of virtually obsolete fighter aircraft which reduces the figure to 20 squadrons only. Besides, the Indian Air Force is deficient of 197 helicopters, air refuelling aircraft and an ageing transport fleet over 30 years old.

Similarly in Navy, the AoN for the Project 75I for six new advanced stealth diesel-electric submarines has lapsed number of times and this delay has caused the Navy submarine fleet strength to be precariously low at 13 vessels against the requirement of a fleet of 24. The programme now is expected to cost Rs 80000 Crores which was initially to cost Rs 50000 Crores.

Upgradation

Every defence platform has to undergo upgrades periodically in order to enhance its operational worthiness. Till date most of the upgradation programmes of the three defence services are facing time and cost overruns and also plethora of them still waiting to be inked. The T-72 & BMP modernisation is moving at a snail's pace.

Need for Fixing Accountability

The defence services plans for modernizing and upgrading their capabilities are woefully short of essential weaponries which not only lower operational/fighting efficiency but also its morale. It can be attributed to the cumbersome and unrealistic weapons-buying/procurement process, flawed by bureaucratic delays, timely decision making and poor long-term planning resulting in ageing inventory, over exploitation, lack of maintenance and spares. Recently, the Defence Minister stated that in the last 10 years, procedures have taken over the end goals of procurement, which is to provide modern equipment to the armed forces in a timely manner. This amplifies the procurement delays.

The India's apex political leadership should take upon them the task of reviewing the combat effectiveness of all the three Services of the Indian Armed Forces. The appointment of CDS as recommended must be implemented. The MoD needs to be restructured and the Defence Minister should deal directly with the military hierarchy on matters of national security and maintaining the combat effectiveness of the Armed Forces.

The DPSUs and the OFs are the major providers of weapons to the defence forces and continue to dominate domestic defence production and Research & Development facilities in India, however they are not accountable and having assured orders are not ready to change their ethos thus causing loss to the nation in terms of delay, cost overrun and quality. Design & Development production may be considered to be under different Ministry.

In the present procurement methodology, the numerous procurement functions are dispersed between the service headquarters and the acquisition wing of the MoD. However, the Director General (Acquisition), who heads the acquisition wing, does not have the full responsibility to ensure accountability, as many of the acquisition functions, such as formulation of QRs, trials, offsets etc, are beyond its power and purview. In other words, if something goes wrong, there is not a single authority other than the defence minister that can be held responsible. The Government needs to decide who will have the lead role in final decision in creating capability.

There are too many committees with multiple members, each having its own interest. Government should try and lessen the numerous committees that a defence proposal has to go through as this will help in reducing the time. Further, every acquisition that gets inordinately delayed or cancelled must be questioned and should be analyzed to identify the reason and thereafter necessary and immediate action should be taken. The need of the hour calls for the fast pacing the procurement process and to supplement it with committed funding. To curtail the delays in procurement from vendor's side, it is essential to choose only capable and reputed vendors after thorough analysis.

The plight is that the defence proposals in pipeline are still stuck at the AoN stage especially some of them which are quite critical. Basically, the follow-up has been at a snail's pace, resultantly, there being no significant progress on issuance of RFP on the projects granted AoN even after months. The accountability for the subsequent steps has to be clearly fixed to ensure the timely action.

Our procurement procedures and the methodology of induction of new weapons and other systems definitely need to be streamlined. The delayed procurement process not only derail the modernization plans of three services but also result in serious fallouts by way of time and cost overruns, besides the inducted technology becoming outdated.

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