Ten years ago, in 2012, the then Chief of the Army Staff wrote a detailed letter to the then Prime Minister bringing to his notice the “critical deficiencies” in the Army’s arsenal and military hardware which was have a crippling impact on the operational readiness of the Army. He brought out that the Army would need Rs 41,000 Crores just to make up its existing “critical deficiencies”. These “critical deficiencies” pertained mainly to the combat arms and combat support arms. In writing to the Prime Minister, he bypassed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as he probably felt that the Ministry would only sit on it in endless “consideration”, a problem which was very real under the then over cautious Minister who was more concerned with his “Mr Clean” image than military modernisation.
The Chief attributed the problem to a number of systemic issues. These, inter alia, were; long-winded arms procurement process; procedures and processing time from identifying the necessity till induction of equipment; legal impediments by vendors; recalcitrant/stubborn bureaucracy; poor work ethic of the Ordinance Factories and lack of urgency at all levels.
Recounting what was listed in that letter will not be worthwhile but has the issue being tackled since is more relevant. The present dispensation at the Centre has made a concerted effort and undertaken major decisions, which, to the status quoists are too disruptive and having far reaching effect. The reforms have been instituted through policy changes, innovation and digital transformation.
Along with the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff and the creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) through the 353rd amendment to the Government of India (Allocation of Business) 1961, in 2019 is particularly significant. With this new setup the three Services, Defence Headquarters Staff and the Territorial Army came under the wings of the DMA. In addition, a number of additional responsibilities are entrusted to it, namely, the procurement for the Services, except capital procurement; promoting the use of indigenous equipment; jointness in procurement, training and staffing for the Services and creating unified theatre commands.
The archaic bureaucratic systems steeped in red tape are being replaced by a time bound digitally monitored system making those handling it responsible and responsive. It was (hopefully not now) a fact that a low level official in the MoD, by endorsing a vague comment, could send a file ‘into orbit’ (as colloquially known), that the file did not get back to his desk for the balance of his tenure. It probably is a bane of all governments the world over, that the Civil Servant and officials of all hues are not held accountable for actions/inactions since their pay, promotions, perks and pension are guaranteed and well protected. There is no deep desire for them to rock the boat in being overly enthusiastic about anything but the four P’s mentioned and then in securing another cushy government assignment, post retirement.
It must be granted that it is the bureaucracy that has come up with some significant path-breaking measures having far-reaching import for the defence sector. These are, increasing the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in defence industry sector to 74 percent. Creating the new Defence Acquisition Procedure, 2020, to promote use of indigenous materials and Transfer of Technology of materials through offsets. Ban on imports of 209 major platforms and systems (list of 101 items released in August 2020 and list of 108 items listed in May 2021) to push towards new technological developments within India. Boost for Start-up’s, Micro Small Medium Enterprises and Electronic and Software industries. The Defence Research and Development Organizations’ (DRDO) procurement manual was revised in October 2020. For Defence Research and Development five new laboratories have been established, with Scientists below 35 years of age, these are in the fields of – Artificial Intelligence, Asymmetric Warfare Technology, Cognitive Sensor Technology, Smart Materials and Quantum Technology.
To make it attractive for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM’s) to bring in their technology to the Indian industry, the new Offset Policy too has been revised. Salient features of this are: The policy will apply on capital acquisition of Rs 2000 Crores or more. The quantum of the Off-Set will be 30 percent of the estimated cost of the acquisition. The Offset obligation is to be discharged through an Indian Offset Partner (IOP); the vendor is free to select a partner who could be either from the private industry/ DPSU/ DRDO. There would be a preference for purchase of defence products as compared to components. The overall goal is to be able to export Indian defence weapons and equipment. As mentioned by the Defence Minister, the aim is that by 2025 the Indian defence industry should be worth US$ 25 Billion.
To enable the Armed Forces to speed up the procurement, the government has enhanced the financial powers vested with the Vice Chiefs, Deputy Chiefs, Army/Navy/Air Force Commanders in Chief, and Master General Sustenance (erstwhile Master General Ordinance) and his counter parts in the Navy and the Air Force. In 2018, the financial powers of the Vice Chiefs were enhanced in respect to various sub-schedules of the Army Schedule of Powers-2016. In case of some sub-schedules where the Vice Chiefs were not the Competent Financial Authority (CFA), he has been included as higher CFA with enhanced powers. These enhanced powers will apply for procurements under the category of Other Capital Procurement Procedure (OCPP) in the Defence Acquisition Procedure-2020 (DAP 2020).In a first there is now a funding of upto Rs 50 Crores for prototype development cost with even a private defence manufacturer.
This delegation of powers within service headquarters and up to (theatre) command level for items of capital nature such as overhauls, refits, upgrades etc, will enhance the utility of existing assets and will facilitate faster processing and implementation of projects for modernisation of armed forces. This is part of an ongoing trend that places greater onus on the military for low-value capital and revenue procurements.
These substantive measures have been taken by the government to give impetus to ‘Make in India’ initiative particularly in the defence sector and the ecosystem that feeds it. The whole concept was conceived and formalised in fields where there was no precedent of any sort. Therefore, there were bound to be glitches in implementing these measures but there has been a pro-active approach to rectify, modify or amend the Policies which needed to be amended. Such path-breaking initiatives cannot bring about changes overnight and where status quoists have so much at stake.
The above notwithstanding, there is need to seriously review the current state of “hollowness” in the Armed Forces and prioritise making up of these critical deficiencies effecting operational readiness.
The Long Term Procurement Plan (LTPP) of the Army and Long Term Integrated Procurement Plan (LTIPP) of the Integrated Defence Staff had been more of an aspirational one than it being based on the a threat based holistic modernisation of the military. The threat visualized was biased to the hostile western neighbour and projections for equipment were based on that as primary threat. India was reluctant to name China as the primary and more dangerous threat. When it did so in 1998, it faced a major backlash from the Chinese and India had to retract its enunciations much to the embarrassment of the NDA 1 government.
The Chinese aggression in Ladakh has brought to fore where the real threat to India lies. All of a sudden the Arjun/T-90 Main Battle Tanks, the PMP/PMS Bridge trains, Pinaka Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers firing Extended Range Rockets with Area Denial Munitions, Dhanush 155mm Gun Howitzer and many weapons of this category cannot be deployed along the northern borders. In Ladakh the Chinese deployed their newZTQ-15 Light Tank which has fairly advanced technology built into. Indian DRDO had undertaken to develop a light tank in the 1990’s but with no interest shown by the Army in this tank the project was abandoned. Interest again revived in 2017 during the Doklam stand-off but again it did not make any headway. In 2020 India floated a “Request for Information” for 200 wheeled and 100 tracked light tanks with specifications listed as – weighing less than 22 tons, capable of operating in areas upto 3000 meters altitude, equipped with the main armament which should be able to fire high explosive munitions and Guided Missiles to destroy advanced armour upto 2 km range. India had envisaged interest in the 2S25 Sprut-SD Russian light tank. The new Russia is now a hard bargainer and will extract its ‘pound of flesh’ seeing India in a tight spot in Ladakh. However, India too has sought alternate sources for such equipment, Ukraine being the new found friend.
The Infantry continues to be the worst off as far as “hollowness” is concerned. The basic weapon of an Infantry soldier is the rifle. The 5.56 mm INSAS Rifle, has been in service since the 1990’s. It has been beset with problems and has not been an effective weapon. The Infantry had to be issued 7.62mm AK47/74 rifles for counter-terrorist operations. The DRDO in the last 30 years has not developed a suitable replacement. A multi-caliber assault rifle was mooted to be inducted but the process was aborted. Today, as a half-measure, SiG Sauer (SiG-716) rifles have been issued to two of the four rifle companies in an Infantry battalion. Weapons require backup mantainence/spare parts and logistics support for ammunition replenishment. Having a weapon profile of different type and caliber of rifles is illogical from the logistics point of view. Interestingly, the Special Operating Forces have weapons of German, Israeli, US, Hungary and Russian origin – their ‘kote’ must be a veritable museum of international small arms!!
The India is procuring 670,000 7.62mm AK-203 Indo-Russian assault rifles to replace the INSAS, through a contract with Russia. The first 70,000 rifles were purchased from Russia and delivered in January 2022. The remaining 600,000 rifles will be manufactured in Amethi, in UP province, under a Transfer of Technology agreement, by joint venture company Indo-Russia Rifles Private Limited (IRRPL).Consequently, for some time to come there will be four different assault rifles in the Armed Forces – INSAS, AK-47/74, SiG 716, and AK-203. Something that would not have happened had DRDO designed and developed a worthwhile replacement for the INSAS rifle.
In addition there are critical deficiencies in an Infantry battalion in weapons like – Medium Machine Guns, 30mm Automatic Grenade Launcher Systems, 40mm Multiple Grenade Launchers, sniper rifles, Precision Guided Ammunition for small caliber weapons like Sniper rifles and mortars, and shortage of training ammunition for imported weapons are not available. Modern wars are fought in the hours of darkness, the darker the night the better. To execute the tasks, whether in counter-terrorist operations or conventional operations, modern night vision devices and weapon sights need to be standard authorization. There are serious deficiencies in availability of night sights. A related problem is the short-life of batteries and their recharging.
The 9mm Carbine (Sterling 1A1 Sub-Machine Gun) is of 1944 vintage design. The DRDO, Armament Research Development Establishment and Small Arms Factory have not been able to develop a suitable replacement for the Carbine despite their efforts since 2005-06. The saga of the replacement of the Carbine is a one of overconfidence of the DRDO but pathetic product development.
Besides the weapons, there is a severe shortage of specialist vehicles in the Infantry. Drones and anti-drone capability is nonexistent. Shelters and protection against enemy small fire and shrapnel need to be of the type that is easily set up. In the stark terrain of Ladakh the troops are exposed to all types of fire from the enemy and local resources to build shelters and overhead protection does not exist.
There is no doubt that “hollowness” in the combat arms and combat support arms exists and that has an effect on their combat readiness. Modernisation will need to cater for ‘hollowness’, obsolete systems, and system in the obsolescence stage as these will seriously impede modernisation plans.Evidently, modernisation of the Armed Forces is going to be a long drawn process and can only be possible by full-fledged indigenisation of the defence R&D, development and manufacturing.