Army Day on Tuesday, 15 January, will see an impressive display of soldiers and war-fighting equipment. But behind the pomp is an unsatisfactory story.
CHANDIGARH: Two days from today, the Army will celebrate Army Day with the Chief of Army Staff taking the salute at the customary Army parade in the Delhi Cantonment parade ground with much fanfare. The same Army Day parade contingents will form a dominant part of the annual Republic Day parade on 26 January on Raj Path, Delhi’s most iconic road that links Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate.
But behind the impressive display of soldiers and war fighting equipment at these two monumental parades continues an unsatisfactory story: A disappointing and worrisome story of underpreparedness, deficiency and obsolescence. This sordid state of affairs has been in perpetuity since long and nothing tangible seems to have been done to reverse this negative state of affairs.
Consider the following: A staggering 68% of the Army’s equipment is of vintage category against the norm of one-third vintage, one-third current and one-third state-of-the-art category. Instead, the Army’s equipment is officially calculated at 68% vintage, 24% current and only 8% state-of-the-art. No wonder the Army had to go on a quick and fast buying spree for certain specialised equipment to execute the five simultaneous retaliatory strikes on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.
How prepared is the Army to fight an intense or long conventional war? “Not very”, is the short answer. The Army is suffering a severe shortage of every type of ammunition in its inventory. The War Wastage Reserve (WWR) ammunition, the reserves of ammunition needed for meeting the requirements of 40 days of intense war or a full scale war, continues to be at a critical level especially for the Army’s tank and artillery regiments.
A report prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General tabled in Parliament last July was subsequently soon removed from the website because of the highly sensitive revelations that it contains. The rather startling data reveals that as many as 55 types of ammunition are below the Minimum Acceptable Risk Level (MARL). MARL is the Army’s requirement for ammunition for 20 days and is considered the “minimum inescapable requirement” to be maintained at all times to meet the Army’s operational preparedness.
Furthermore, 40% of the ammunition is at a shockingly critical level with a stock of less than 10 days. This means the Army lacks the ability to fight even a short intense war lasting about 10 to 15 days. Then again, out of the total 152 types of ammunition, the stock of 121 types of ammunition (80%) is below the authorisation level of 40 days WWR. Worse, “the availability of high calibre ammunition relating to Armoured Fighting Vehicles (tanks) and Artillery are in a more alarming state”, the report states.
More recently, in his deposition before members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, the Vice Chief of Army Staff admitted that the allocation for modernisation in the current fiscal year (2018-2019) was insufficient to cater for committed liabilities, ongoing schemes, “Make in India” projects, infrastructural development, policy of strategic partnership of foreign and Indian companies and procurement of arms and ammunition. Further, the Capital budget has not provided any money to back the financial powers of the Army’s Vice Chief, thereby reducing the security of military stations and compromising on other acquisitions, notwithstanding the disturbing terror attacks on Army locations including at Uri in September 2016.
The problem is systemic as much as it is attitudinal. A little over a year ago, in December 2017, a 27-point report prepared by Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre narrates a telling story of the incredulous state of affairs in the Ministry of Defence, notwithstanding a more pragmatically revised and prepared Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP-2016) and the “Make in India” announcement that is aimed at encouraging, speeding up and expanding the country’s self-reliance in its defence requirements.
Pointing to how different departments of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) “appear to be working in independent silos” driven by their interpretation of policy and procedures, the rather candid report states how in the last three financial years (2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17), only 8%-10% of the 144 defence procurement deals materialised within the stipulated time period. This makes it a maximum 14 deals out of 144. The delays, a matter of notoriety, range between an average 2.6 to 15.4 times the deadline of the nine-stage ordering process for defence equipment.
From the Request for Proposal or RfP stage, which is when the government formally reaches out to arms manufacturers for their proposals to the final purchase clearances, it takes an average 120 weeks (about two-and-a-quarter years), which is six times more than the rules laid down by the MoD in 2016. Most amazingly, the minister’s report points to how the fastest RfP clearance was accorded in just 17 weeks (about four months), while the slowest RfP took a staggering 422 weeks or slightly over eight long years. Trials and Evaluation of weapon systems by the Armed Forces takes “an average time of 89 weeks”, which is three times more than authorised. The Cost Negotiations Committee (CNC) stage involves delays “about ten times more than that allowed” because of the MoD’s inability to benchmark costs with global standards “especially where an item is being procured for the first time or is involved in Transfer of Technology”.
The problem does not lie with just the MoD. The junior minister’s report also assigns responsibility on the Armed Forces which he terms as “part of the problem” as they list “ambiguous trial directives, leaving scope for varied interpretation”. Also, the Services too are lacking in synergy, the report states. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard do not work as a system, which “puts greater strain on the limited defence budget and as a result we are unable to meet the critical capability requirements”, the report points out.
But on the whole, reveals the report, acquisition of equipment for India’s defence needs are being frequently crippled by “multiple and diffused structures with no single point accountability, Multi-decision heads, duplication of processes, delayed comments, delayed execution, no real-time monitoring, no project-based approach and a tendency to fault-find rather than to facilitate”, observes the highly explosive report.
No wonder, the report points out, that the Armed Forces, as eventual users of the weapon systems, “continue to view the Acquisition Wing (of the MoD) as an obstacle rather than a facilitator”. So there needs to be a “tectonic change in the mindset of the (defence) ministry officials and the need of the hour is assigning responsibility and accountability”, the report advises, while damningly observing how as a result of these flaws the government’s flagship “Make in India” initiative for the defence sector (launched in 2014) “continues to languish at the altar of procedural delays and has failed to demonstrate its true potential”.
Parades and brave statements apart, the government needs to ensure that the country’s last and ultimate instrument is never found wanting. This is a neglect that India can ill afford.
Dinesh Kumar is a defence analyst.