Approaching the end of the year, it is time to make a report card for the Indian Military muscle power. The calendar year 2017 began with many promising statements and happenings at the Aero-India 2017, by all who mattered, but have the statements been converted to action? Sadly, the answer is in the negative. The Indian Military is where it was at the beginning of the year, notwithstanding the brave statements of the three Chiefs at various forums and the sacrifices of the brave-hearts, especially of the Indian Army (IA).
The Indian Armed Forces continue to grapple with shortages, which are degrading their muscle power, be it combat-aircraft, submarines, helicopters or howitzers.
The campaigning for the parliamentary elections in 2014 saw defence and security as major platforms for the parties that form the present Government. The previous Government was repeatedly scoffed at for prolonged indecisiveness and inaction, also called as ‘policy paralysis’. The current Government, however, has fared only slightly better. During the first year in office, from May 2014 to May 2015, acceptance was accorded to projects, which were held up during the tenure of the previous government; the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) – the apex body for the long drawn procurement procedure – in sittings held regularly, concurred and granted Acceptance of Necessity (AON), but the Armed Forces have hardly seen the finalisation of contracts. The delays are from both those in uniform and those out of it! A similar story exists in the plans to “Make in India” to ensure self-reliance in the defence sector. Despite repeated calls and easing of regulations for increasing the foreign direct investment (FDI), there really has been no major initiative by any foreign manufacturer to part with knowledge and skills that India so desperately needs.
Defence R & D Organisation (DRDO) and other Defence Public Sector Units (DPSU) boast of how technologies and innovation have equipped Indian Armed Forces with state-of-the-art weapon systems and technology solutions. A word that is glaringly missing is the word ‘indigenous’! One wonders if the omission is intentional! DRDO and the DPSUs have many systems and weapon platforms being either developed or under production, one of which has been in recent news. The Indian built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) – Tejas – having completed its Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) in Dec 2013 amidst much fanfare and celebrations was inducted into the IAF. This writer was witness to similar celebrations in late 2011 for a similar clearance, namely IOC, which is now being termed as an interim clearance! Unfortunately, the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) has not yet been completed, with several postponed deadlines, while five aircraft are in service and more in the pipeline!
The grumblings and gripes have been continuing for long and the list is seemingly endless. It would be a massive exercise to underscore each and every item that the Services have been asking for to maintain their operational muscle, hence, the aim is to highlight only a few, which are affecting the overall muscle-power of the Armed Forces. Being a man of the ‘Blue’, it is but natural for this writer to begin with the Air Force.
ACM Arup Raha, on the eve of his retirement in December 2016, had mentioned that the Rafale numbers are not sufficient to boost the combat capability of the IAF and that 200 aircraft of comparable capabilities is the bare minimum.
Indian Air Force
Combat aircraft are the ‘Brahmastra’ of any air force; the IAF is no exception. Modernisation and upgradation are ongoing processes, which help maintain the combat edge at all times. How many squadrons does the IAF need to meet a challenge on two fronts, not just to meet its own requirements, but also to support the other two Services? The figure available is that the IAF wants at least 45 squadrons to maintain a dominant superiority over the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and adequate dissuasive power against the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China. While against PAF, the superiority has to be both qualitative and quantitative, against PLAAF, the IAF will have to display its technical edge and operational prowess.
The many studies/committees constituted after the two successive wars with China and Pakistan in the 1960s, recommended that the IAF should be 64 squadrons strong, of which, the combat squadrons should total 45, to effectively meet the challenge posed by our two hostile neighbours. The closest that the IAF has ever been, is to raise and maintain 39 ½ squadrons, a figure achieved during the 1970s and 1980s, when the maximum acquisitions took place. Supposedly, there exists a Government approval for an increase to 42 squadrons by the end of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2022-27); today, however, the strength stands at 33 squadrons, or maybe even lesser, and is expected to dwindle further as the ‘ancient’ MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft are phased out.
India and France signed an $8.7 bn deal for the supply of 36 Rafale aircraft in 2016. This was against the projected requirement of 126 aircraft, the RFP for which was floated more than a decade ago! IAF has reportedly asked for at least two more squadrons of the same aircraft to meet its requirement of medium-weight aircraft, but there is no mention of it at all. ACM Arup Raha, on the eve of his retirement in December 2016, had mentioned that the Rafale numbers are not sufficient to boost the combat capability of the IAF and that 200 aircraft of comparable capabilities is the bare minimum. Experts opine that a squadron-to-squadron comparison with the two adversaries – PLAAF and PAF operate 60 and 25 fighter squadrons respectively – is incorrect; what is important is the number of aircraft available at any given time for operational missions.
Much of the focus of Aero India 2017 in February, was on the navy’s fighter requirement following the continuous maintenance issues of the MiG-29K and the rejection of the naval version of the Tejas.
Development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), in collaboration with Russia, is yet to be finalised, while HAL is developing one on its own, without taking IAF into confidence, as always. Talks for a single-engine aircraft like the F-16 of USA and the Grippen of Sweden, to be manufactured in India as a joint venture (JV) or in a strategic partnership (SP), also do not seem to be getting anywhere. The slow manufacturing rate of aircraft by HAL is another worrying factor. The Tejas, yet to obtain its FOC, has a painfully slow serial production; one wonders when the order for 123 aircraft will materialise. The order for a replacement of the Avro aircraft, Chetak helicopters, and air-to-air refuelling aircraft are nowhere near fructification; while the former two deficiencies affect the day-to-day functioning, the latter is critical as the deficiency affects operational capability.
The country has an aging fleet and the replacements/modernisation plans are often delayed due to various reasons. The Indian Navy (IN), since 1961, has had a unique power projection capability due to its aircraft carrier, giving it a distinction among the Asian navies. India initially outlined its intentions of developing blue-water capabilities under the 2007 Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan, with the priority being the projection of power in India’s area of strategic interest. The operations, however, are based on a single aircraft carrier, the second carrier having been decommissioned in March 2017; an indigenous carrier, undergoing trials at present, is expected to be inducted in 2018 sometimes. With two carriers, the IN would require aircraft onboard, which are lacking. Much of the focus of Aero India 2017 in February, was on the navy’s fighter requirement following the continuous maintenance issues of the MiG-29K and the rejection of the naval version of the Tejas.
The IN is also weak on sub-surface capabilities. It has a nuclear submarine on lease from Russia and is trying for another such lease; the only indigenous nuclear submarine was inducted in mid-2016, while a second of the same class is getting ready. It is the shortfall in diesel submarines that is worrying; a Scorpene Class submarine, INS Kalavari, made in India by the Mazagaon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL), was recently commissioned into service, but the need is for many more, if India is to match the sub-sea power of China.
…the indigenously developed Dhanush and the M777 US howitzer are two artillery systems that would meet the requirements to a great extent. The question is ‘when’?
Another worry for the IN is the lack of integral naval utility helicopters (NUH) and multi-role helicopters (MRH), both of which are urgent procurements; even if the IN was to close the deal today, the last of the 111 NUH would take 13 years to arrive! These helicopters, lacking on the majority of the Navy’s 140 warships, are used for several purposes and are essential inventory for any warship. It is unclear what route the IN would take to procure the helicopters; whether through a direct purchase with a ‘Make in India’ clause or a ‘Government-to-Government’ contract, it is a crucial operational requirement for the IN and time is of essence.
In its report submitted in July this year, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has highlighted deficiencies in the performance of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and found no improvement in the functioning of its factories in comparison to what it was in 2013. The report underscored two critical shortages in the artillery and tank ammunition and blamed the OFB for failing to deliver as per the roadmap that was set in 2013. The Indian Army (IA) has been struggling to meet its critical shortages since long and the target has now been set as June 2018 to meet its requirements.
Upgrading old equipment is important as acquiring new equipment. After the induction of the Bofors 155mm self-propelled gun for the artillery in the 1980s, IA has not purchased any new equipment. The DRDO developed new 155mm gun, Dhanush, has failed its trials for three months in a row; similarly, the trial of the M777 US howitzer suffered a setback when a 155mm shell misfired and exploded in the barrel. Nonetheless, the indigenously developed Dhanush and the M777 US howitzer are two artillery systems that would meet the requirements to a great extent. The question is ‘when’?
Long-winded procedures and bureaucratic bottlenecks continue to hinder the already long-delayed modernisation of the Army, which is grappling with shortages in several areas ranging from modern assault rifles, bullet-proof jackets and night-fighting capabilities to howitzers, missiles and helicopters, as well as high-end anti-aircraft missile systems. Not much has happened in the past two years and the Government’s efforts at smoothening the acquisition process has not yielded the desired results for the IA to build its muscle-power.
The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) is a maze, which even the best of financial strategists find difficult to unravel.
The Indian Armed Forces continue to grapple with shortages, which are degrading their muscle power, be it combat-aircraft, submarines, helicopters or howitzers. There are also shortages of basic equipment such as new-generation carbines and assault rifles, and bullet- proof apparel. It is a cause for concern.
The 2017-18 budget with a defence outlay of Rs 2.74 crore, working out to 1.56% of GDP was the lowest since the ignominious 1962 war. Underutilisation of allotted funds by the Armed Forces has been the bane, but there is a cause for it. The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) is a maze, which even the best of financial strategists find difficult to unravel.
Operational gaps and muscle degradation rule the roost. It is time that due priority is given to fast track procurements.