Blacklisting Foreign Vendors
India has a penchant for blacklisting foreign arms producers without considering negative effects it has on India’s military preparedness.
This is the reasons why recent reports of irregularities in the procurement of seven Barak anti-missile defense systems and 200 missiles from Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd (IAI) have caused serious concern to the Indian armed forces. They fear that the Government may get forced to blacklist IAI as per the provisions of defence procurement procedure.
There are just a handful of competent submarine manufacturers in the world. By blacklisting HDW, India antagonized one of the leading producers and thereby deprived itself of the benefits of latest technological advancements.
Should that happen, India’s defence modernisation plan would suffer irretrievable damage.
Having seen the adverse effects of banning Bofors, HDW and Denel, they dread a similar fate for a large number of ambitious plans under implementation.
IAI is deeply involved in most of the major modernisation plans of the three services. In addition to the upgradation of fighter aircraft (Jaguar, MIG-21, MIG-29 and Mirage-2000), transport aircraft (AN-32) and all helicopters of MI series, it is supplying three Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) systems to India. It is also the prime supplier of unmanned aerial vehicles to the three services. Most importantly, IAI is involved in a number of developmental projects. India simply cannot afford to cut off all dealings with it. The saga of banning Bofors, HDW and Denel cannot be repeated.
After carrying out trials of various guns on offer, India opted for Bofors 155 mm FH-77B towed artillery system. A contract for 410 systems was signed with the Swedish firm in 1986 for Rs1437.72 crore. The contract included transfer of technology for subsequent manufacture of guns in India. India had planned to produce 1,840 pieces within the country to equip 92 artillery regiments. However, with the exposure of kickbacks, the Government banned Bofors for all future dealings. It had the following effect:-
- Although India had paid for transfer of technology, it failed to utilise it. India lost an opportunity to create a base for further development of artillery weapon systems. As a result, indigenous competence to manufacture and maintain guns remained stunted.
- As spares could not be procured from Bofors, middlemen thrived making huge profits. In the absence of adequate spares, the Army had to cannibalise parts from some guns to keep other guns functional. Essential maintenance also suffered.
- Without help from Bofors, India is struggling to carry out overhauling of guns in the stipulated time frame. It is feared that delay in overhaul will adversely affect extension of useful life of the gun systems. Indigenous capacity installed with a Base Repair Workshop is far too less and it will take unacceptably long to overhaul the complete inventory.
- The Navy was already using Bofors guns on some ships and they faced difficulties in ensuring regular supply of spares.
- Indian inventory of 84 mm Carl Gustav Rocket Launchers suffered as Carl Gustav subsequently became a subsidiary of Bofors and thus, came under the ban.
Discussions were in final stages with Denel of South Africa for 155 mm howitzers (both towed and self-propelled) when it emerged that Denel had employed unacceptable means to grab contract for the supply of NTW-20 Anti-Material Rifle. It was alleged that Denel had engaged middlemen to offer bribes to obtain sensitive information about the internal proceedings of the Commercial Negotiation Committee. The Government decided to blacklist Denel in 2005 and cancel all orders placed on it.
Nearly 20 years have passed since the induction of Bofor guns; no new gun system has been procured. Due to ban on Bofors and Denel, India has shut doors on two major producers of guns and thereby limited its choice. Continued shortage of suitable 155mm/52 calibre gun systems implies major gaps in Indias defence preparedness.
The development was highly unfortunate. Bhim project was almost concluded with Denel’s T-6 155mm turret from the G-6 being mounted on Arjun hull. An initial order had also been placed on a public sector undertaking. With the blacklisting of Denel, Indian Army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan suffered a crippling blow. The total requirement envisaged by 2025 is 3600 artillery guns of 155mm/52 calibre. The current inventory is of 410 Bofors guns only. Therefore, India desperately wants to procure 400 additional gun systems (220 wheeled and 180 tracked) on priority to meet inescapable minimum requirement.
Field trials in respect of wheeled systems were carried out in 2003 to ascertain compliance of Services Qualitative Requirements. Three competitors participated – Denel, Soltam Atmos 2000 and FH77 of SWS Defence. All the three systems failed to meet specified standards. Retrials of duly improved versions were held in 2004. With the blacklisting of Denel, the choice got limited to Soltam and FH77. As per the press reports, FH77 emerged far superior to Soltam and was the choice of the Army.
However, due to politically sensitive reasons, the Government incorrectly termed the case as a single vendor situation and decided to float fresh tender enquiries with reformulated Qualitative Requirements. Tender for wheeled guns was floated in March 2007 and the second tender for tracked guns followed soon thereafter. It is learnt that 12 producers of guns have been invited.
Nearly 20 years have passed since the induction of Bofor guns; no new gun system has been procured. Due to ban on Bofors and Denel, India has shut doors on two major producers of guns and thereby limited its choice. Continued shortage of suitable 155mm/52 calibre gun systems implies major gaps in India’s defence preparedness.
Additionally, India’s quest for indigenous production of 155 mm ammunition also suffered a major blow. Work on a new ordnance factory in Nalanda to manufacture 155mm ammunition for Bofors guns has got stalled, as Denel was to provide technical know-how. Hundreds of crores of rupees have also gone down the drain.
The case of HDW makes instructive reading. A contract was signed with the German firm in December 1981. India was to get two HDW 209 class fully built submarines and sub-assemblies and components for assembling two other submarines in India. HDW was also to provide required training to Indian personnel.
HDW delivered two submarines in 1987 and two more were assembled in India in due course. As allegations of bribery and kickbacks became public, the Government decided to blacklist the company. It was also decided not to build any more submarines of the same class. Marlog, a company jointly owned by HDW and Ferrostal, took over the responsibility to fulfill all contractual obligations.
There are just a handful of competent submarine manufacturers in the world. By blacklisting HDW, India antagonized one of the leading producers and thereby deprived itself of the benefits of latest technological advancements. HDW is the world leader with the most advanced air-independent propulsion system. Continued collaboration would have given a boost to indigenous submarine building competence. Additionally, India would have acquired wherewithal as regards maintenance, overhaul and repair support.
As India had not received the complete drawings and NATO identification numbers for all spare parts of the submarines, it faced immense problems in procuring them from other sources. Middlemen made huge profits. The Navy wanted to increase the offensive punch of the submarines by mounting Exocet missiles on it. As HDW could not be engaged, others laid unacceptably harsh conditions. Indian plans for the upgradation of the submarine entailed an increase in their length and that could be done only by HDW. To sum up, by blacklisting HDW India deprived itself of maintenance support, upgradation opportunities and development of indigenous skills.
Probity Provisions of the Procurement Procedure
Defence Procurement Procedure -2008 (DPP-2008) has laid down clear guidelines for all foreign vendors. They are warned not to resort to any unethical practice to influence the decision makers.
A ‘Pre-Contract Integrity Pact’ has been made mandatory for all schemes exceeding Rupees 100 crores. The vendors are required to sign and submit it separately along with the technical and commercial offers. It is a binding agreement in which the procurement agency promises that it will not accept bribes during the procurement process and bidders promise that they will not offer bribes. It also includes an undertaking by each bidder to disclose all payments made in connection with the contract in question to anybody (including agents and other middlemen as well as family members of officials).
The Government can enforce the following sanctions for any violation by a bidder of its commitments or undertakings: –
- Denial or loss of contract.
- Forfeiture of bid security and performance bond.
- Liability for damages to the principal and the competing bidders.
- Finally, debarment of the violator by the principal for an appropriate period of time.
While signing the final contract, every vendor (irrespective of the contract value) is required to give an undertaking that he has not given, offered or promised to give, directly or indirectly any gift, consideration, reward, commission, fees, brokerage or inducement to procure the contract. Any breach of the aforesaid undertaking by the seller or any one employed by him shall entitle the buyer to cancel the contract and all or any other contracts with the seller and recover the loss arising from such cancellation. Should the Government desire to ascertain if any unauthorized payments have been made, a vendor has to allow inspection of his account books.
It will be seen that debarment of a vendor is the last resort and has to be taken only in extreme cases.
Appraisal of the Issue
Before initiating any action against a company, the Government must weigh pros and cons of all alternatives open to it. While punishing a defaulting vendor, own interests must be fully safeguarded. India must consider the following points while taking decision on blacklisting foreign vendors:-
- There are limited manufacturers of major high-tech defence systems in the world. Additionally, world defence trade is circumscribed by embargoes on technology export. Thus, there are very few manufacturers who possess and are willing to offer advanced weaponry to India.
In every irregular transaction, there are always two parties…the bribe giver and the bribe taker. Action must be taken against both and in equal proportion.
- To develop indigenous defence industry, India needs imported technology and reliable foreign partners with long term commitment. Blacklisting nullifies all transfer of technology agreements, even if paid for.
- India needs to modernize its armed forces expeditiously and its shopping list spans a vast canvas, including all major systems. As most major defence companies produce a large array of equipment, blacklisting in one contract will have a ripple effect on all other purchases as well.
- India possesses a huge inventory of weapon platforms which are in need of immediate upgradation to increase their useful life. This task can be undertaken by a handful of companies. Banning any will reduce own options.
- No company produces a complete defence system. Most major producers are in fact mere integrators. They outsource major assemblies from varied sources. Blacklisting of an assembly supplier can also jeopardize major acquisition proposals.
- One of the stated aims of DPP-2008 is to ‘demonstrate the highest degree of probity and public accountability, transparency in operations, free competition and impartiality’. Blacklisting of vendors reduces competition and forces the Government to resort to single vendor procurements with related cost penalty. This is also contrary to Government’s declared policy.
- Every time a finalised contract is suspended, the earmarked funds remain unexpended resulting in their surrender.
- Most importantly, the services get deprived of the essential equipment. It may have critical effect on nation’s war preparedness. Fresh floating of tenders entails major delays and cost overruns.
In every irregular transaction, there are always two parties – the bribe giver and the bribe taker. Action must be taken against both and in equal proportion. It is unfair to apportion the entire blame to bribe givers and take no action against those who demand and extract bribes. It conveys an impression that the Government is reconciled to the fact that procurement functionaries are bound to fall prey to temptations, if offered to them. It amounts to a tacit admission by the Government of its inability to find officials with unimpeachable integrity and to exercise control over them. The Government thus, feels that the onus of keeping all transactions clean is entirely on the vendors – they should decline to pay bribes even if demanded by the decision makers. This is a strange logic. Instead of putting its own house in order, India holds foreign vendors accountable for all wrong-doings.
The Way Forward
The Government must have conclusive proof that a major breach of probity provisions has taken place. Media reports and rumours cannot be the sole basis. As has been seen, a majority of media reports are subjective, biased and even planted to sabotage a deal. This could be done either by a losing vendor or even by entities inimical to India’s interests. As has been seen earlier, every blacklisting of a foreign vendor puts back India’s defence modernisation plans by decades. Undoubtedly, it is the most cost effective option available to adversaries to impede India’s defence preparedness.
India must also remember that banning a major foreign vendor may have little effect on his business and India may suffer more.
Retaliatory action must always be well considered and commensurate with the degree of misdemeanor. It does not have to be blacklisting at the outset. It is prudent to follow a phased and graduated approach for two reasons. One, the defaulting vendor gets unambiguous message that the Government means business and the vendor should exercise due caution in further dealings. Secondly, should blacklisting become inescapable, the Government can time it to suit own requirements. In the case of HDW, hasty action to ban the company deprived India of catalogues and drawings. India could have easily waited for a few months.
India must also remember that banning a major foreign vendor may have little effect on his business and India may suffer more. Thus the whole exercise of punishing a foreign vendor for his alleged misdemeanor may become counter productive and end up boomeranging on India. In fact this is exactly what has happened in all cases. We have ended up shooting in our own foot. There cannot be another example of immature and reckless decision making. While trying to fix a vendor for his misconduct, we put our own defence modernisation plans in disarray, with consequent critical capability gaps and cost overruns.
The Government seems to have realised the foolhardiness of its policy. It has decided to tread cautiously. Blacklisting of Bofors has been revoked as the company is now owned by SWS Defence with considerable equity being held by a US based company. The Government should similarly allow HDW to do business with India. Nearly 20 years have lapsed and India has not been able to collate conclusive proof of wrong-doings. It is time to close the old chapter and start afresh. Although Denel has been proscribed recently, the Government should offer a way out by asking it to make good financial loss with stiff penal deduction. For generating maximum competition to obtain best deals, the Government has to show maturity, practicality and adroit handling. Outright blacklisting is the easiest and the most imprudent way of managing a delicate and highly critical issue.
A sustained and inspired media campaign was carried out by a small section of press to sabotage Scorpene submarine deal. It is to the credit of the Government that it resisted all demands to reopen the case. It is similarly hoped that the current reports against IAI would be looked into judiciously and an objective view taken. In case any misdemeanor is proved, appropriate and balanced action should be taken against both the vendor and the functionaries involved. Blacklisting, however, must remain the last resort. Cutting off your nose to spite your face can never be considered a prudent policy.