Though two successive negative budgets have left little scope for modernizing the Armed Forces, whatever modernization is planned remains haphazard. Why haphazard is because while much noise is made about ‘big ticket’ weapon systems, the poor infantry, referred to as poor bloody infantry’ in army parlance, remains grossly neglected by way of both arming and equipping. The massive governmental defence-industrial sector has failed to deliver despite years of fidgeting. Even now if plans have got going for state-of-the-art bullet proof jackets, it is because of the initiative of Professor Shantanu Bhowmick, Departmental Head Aerospace Engineering in Coimbatore’s Amrita University. When the IPKF went to Sri Lanka, it discovered the Sri Lankan foot soldier was much better equipped. The state has not improved much since.
According to media reports, the Army is slated to get the advanced medium-range-surface to air missile (MRSAM) capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, fighter jets, AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems), surveillance aircraft, helicopters and drones, at a range of 70 km, by 2020. These missiles are to be produced in a joint venture (JV) between the DRDO and Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI). DRDO has signed a Rs 17,000 cr deal with IAI to produce these missiles. The MR-SAM, a land-based version of the long-range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM) for the Navy; the deal envisages 40 firing units and around 200 missiles. The first set of missile system reportedly will be ready in the next three years, albeit what that ‘set’ will constitute has not been specified. Hopefully, DRDO will meet this timeline but the overall provision of 40 firing units and 200 missiles will go much beyond 2020. However, this certainly is good news since these MRSAMs will mark a paradigm shift in Army’s strike capabilities.
What is not good news is the media report that the MoD has junked the order for procurement of light machine guns (LMGs) for the Army. According to the report, the MoD has scrapped the procurement plan for some 44,000 LMGs for the foot soldiers of the infantry, describing it as “another major blow to the Army’s modernization plans.” MoD retracted the RFP (request for proposal (RFP) for the 7.62mm LMGs on ground it is single-vendor situation with only Israeli Weapon Industries (IWI) in the fray after protracted field trials (December 2015 to February 2017). The procurement plan was to import 44,000 LMGs with transfer of technology (ToT) under ‘Buy and Make’ followed by large-scale indigenous production by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), cost estimate of entire project being Rs 13,000 crore. The media report elaborates further that this is the third such project, after the cases for new assault rifles and CQB carbines were junked over last two years. This is the third such project, after the cases for new assault rifles and close-quarter battle carbines, to be junked over the last two years.
In May 2015, the RFP for the assault rifles was scrapped, forcing the Army in September 2016 to re-launch its global hunt for around 2,00,000 new-generation 7.62mm x 51mm assault rifles after similar bids over last decade were shelved on various grounds including corruption. In 2016, the MoD also scrapped tender issued in 2010 for 44,618 close-quarter battle carbines, in which too IWI had emerged as “resultant single-vendor” over Italian firm Beretta, amid allegations of irregularities and political intrigue. Significantly, the Army had issued a global tender in 2008 (nine years ago) to replace the 1944 vintage British-era carbines but the ensuing cycle has brought all efforts to nought. The saga of new assault rifles actually began in 1980 when 17 x 5.56mm rifles from 11 countries were imported by MoD to equip three Para Commando battalions and three Para Battalions. Despite successful trials, the red tape and mafia blocked imports, giving these 17 weapons to DRDO who took 15 years to produce the 5.56 INSAS rifle that was nowhere close to top 10 assault rifles of the world. The IPKF went to Sri Lanka in 1987 armed with the unwieldy 7.62 SLR rifles battling the LTTE armed with AK 47 assault rifles. Eventually, Army had to import 1,00,000 AK 47 rifles (then costing only US$ 300 apiece) to give 100 per infantry battalion in the IPKF.
In 2011, another tender was floated for direct acquisition of 65,000 new generation assault rifles for the Army costing Rs 4,848 cr to equip 120 infantry battalions. Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) was to then manufacture over 1,13,000 such rifles through JV with the foreign vendor providing ToT. The rifle was to weigh around 3.5 kgs with advanced night-vision, holographic reflex sights, laser designators, detachble under-barrel grenade launchers etc. However, since the DRDO’s ‘Excalibur’ had only some cosmetic changed to the original INSAS, it too failed in the trials undertaken by the Army. Now the whole process for procuring an assault rifle for the Army has started once again. Procurement of state-of-the-art LMGs has unfortunately met the same sorry end. The irony is that the soldier at the cutting edge continues with antiquated weapons and equipment though the nation uses the Army as first respondents even for law and order duties that should be taken on by the huge police forces.
Forcing the infantry to continue with antiquated weapons on pretexts like “single vendor situation” and even “resultant single-vendor” is ridiculous. Why exceptions can’t be made given the crying need for modernizing the foot soldier. Take the CQB carbine procurement; is the fault of the Army that despite elaborate trials, “resultant single-vendor” situation occurred. If MoD had doubts, the entire trial process could have been scrutinized and retrials ordered, if required. For that matter, is the procurement plan for the MRSAMS not single-vendor situation? Then why can’t the same be applied to infantry weapon procurement after a global tender has been floated? The fact remains that no defence deal anywhere in the world goes without something under the table. This is the harsh truth that must be expected. It is as relevant, if not more, to India where the bureaucracy is a constant factor while political masters come and go – and this is unofficial boast by from the horses mouth; MoD bureaucrat. Unfortunately, in case of small arms weapons especially in the case of ‘Buy and Make’ where only small number are to be imported, that ‘something’ is too small an amount. The situation we have arrived at is that the foot soldier is not only paid lower than his police counterparts, he is poorly armed and equipped. Will he get any relief from such treatment? Sure the Vice Chiefs of the military have been delegated more financial powers but let us not be deceived by the availability of overall funds, and the red tape of the financial clearance. Besides, Sure delegation of more financial powers to Vice Chiefs is good move but where MoD is scrapping tenders for assault rifles, LMGs and carbines, can the Vice Chiefs buy such weapons through their financial powers?
The fate of equipping of the foot soldier has suffered with unfortunate cycles as mentioned above with no end in sight. Barely 10 days after the present government was sworn in May 2014, national dailies headlined “PMO tells MoD, MHA: Get forces involved in policy”; elaborating that in an attempt to improve the working environment for the armed forces and other internal security outfits, the Prime Minister’s Office has directed the home and defence ministries to ensure that decisions, especially those relating to the uniformed forces, should be taken only after detailed consultations with their top officers. The news item elaborated that PMO strongly believed matters relating to the armed forces should not be decided by civilian bureaucrats sitting in North and South Block and that the military leadership should be involved more in decision-making. But the fact remains that the decision making remains with the bureaucracy and indications of future reorganization of MoD doesn’t hold much promise of any change even if a CDS / Permanent Chairman of COSC with limited operational powers is installed. This can only be rectified with a defence minister shifting his gaze to include the cutting edge, for which the foot soldier and the infantry have been waiting past 70 years. How long that wait will continue is anybody’s guess.