Column: Admiral Arun Prakash on Defence Acquisitions

Defence Acquisitions - Time to Sweep Away the Cobwebs
by Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)

With two military campaigns on his hands, and with the economy in dire straits, the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates is rumoured to be stalking the corridors of the Pentagon, seeking to axe high cost weapon systems. This has sent shivers down the spines of the US Service Chiefs, because there are unlikely to be any holy cows, and any programme, including the F-22 Raptor fighter, a new class of 100,000-ton aircraft-carriers or the army's Future Combat System could qualify for the chop.

India's defence appropriation of Rs.141,000 crore (US $ 28 billion) voted on account for the coming fiscal year may be dwarfed by the US defence budget of $ 611 billion, but it is said to mark a notional increase of 34% over last year's funding. While we do not know exactly what proportion will remain for modernization after meeting the post-Pay Commission revenue demands, no hatchet-wielding specter should haunt our Service Chiefs.

While India's strategic community will inevitably lament that defence spending should have received a higher proportion of GDP, the Armed Forces are unlikely to be overly perturbed. The frustration and quandary of the Service Headquarters (SHQ) resides in their inability to persuade the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to shed bureaucratic attitudes, and emerge from its state of stasis so that the annual budgetary allocations can be spent on vitally needed equipment for our fighting forces. However, unbeknown to the tax-payer as well the law-maker, there are anomalies in defence acquisition which go well beyond this problem.

The first issue relates to the absence of institutional scrutiny and objective oversight of the force planning processes routinely undertaken by the SHQ. In the absence of a cogent articulation of national interests and security objectives by the Indian state, the Armed Forces, left to their own devices, have for the past 60 years, tended to plan in strategic vacuity. This has often resulted in weapon-systems being acquired capriciously; either because they were foisted on us at "friendship prices" (or even as gifts), or because we wanted to "keep up with the Joneses" either in the technology domain or in some fallacious numbers game.

Since forces built on such principles are not underpinned by a vision of our long-term national interests (which must include shaping of our future strategic neighbourhood), they may lack the capability, doctrinal as well as material, to combat all threats that emerge. We have also remained oblivious to potential problems like burgeoning inventories and block-obsolescence till they actually overtook us.

The second issue is that of the huge parochial pressures (largely professional in nature), generated by the Service constituencies, on their respective Chiefs. Such pressures tend to reduce the Service Chiefs to "Chieftains", battling relentlessly to safeguard the perceived interests of their own Service, rather than focusing on the common weal of national security as members of the collegial Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). There was a time, not too long ago, when such pressures led the Services to openly snipe at one another, especially if it was considered that "roles and missions" were being encroached upon; aviation assets being the most frequent casus belli.

Currently, a gentleman's agreement is in force; which forbids one Service from commenting on the acquisition plans of another, unless there is direct interference. The natural consequence of this unstated truce is that Service acquisition proposals, no matter how profligate or illogical, rarely receive the ruthless scrutiny and inquiry obligatory for requisitioning such large expenditures. The Chairman COSC, being merely the first amongst equals, seldom presumes to undertake this hazardous task, which is then left to the less than knowledgeable mandarins of the MoD.

This leads me to the third issue relating to a concept known as "effect-based operations" or EBO, adopted by the more advanced and jointness-conscious armed forces. EBO is explained by the following simple example. Should we want to undertake a limited precision strike on a terrorist training camp in our neighbourhood, the "effect" desired would be the delivery of "X" tons of high explosive with a specified accuracy on target. Under the EBO concept, this mission could be accomplished with equal dexterity by air force strike aircraft, army missile or artillery units, naval carrier-borne fighters and even cruise-missile armed submarines. The actual choice of weapon system would be dictated by a variety of factors including effectiveness, economy of effort and surprise etc, but the conceptual flexibility bestowed by EBO not only enables wider discretion in weapon acquisition choices, but is an enabler for joint-warfare.

Such a concept remains alien to the Indian system because currently, each Service is accustomed to demanding and getting what it thinks is best for itself, especially since the Service doctrines are autarchic or stand-alone. For example, India must be unique amongst military powers, in that we can embark upon the acquisition of major weapon-systems like fighter aircraft, tanks and artillery in huge numbers, or nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers costing billions of rupees without the semblance of discussion.

Neither politicians nor Parliament, and not even the MoD have the time or inclination to dwell on many vital issues of contention: the evolving threat-environment, the technology versus numbers or technology versus manpower conundrums that exist in this context. Of course, joint-warfare happens to be the last thing on anyone's mind. So hardware continues to be either demanded arbitrarily by our SHQ (despite the feeble efforts of the Integrated Defence Staff), or imposed on us imperiously by foreign governments.

Finally, perhaps the worst kept secret in the country is the predatory interest that the politician takes in every substantive arms acquisition deal that is concluded, and the hypocritical hand-wringing and mud-slinging that invariably follows with each change of ruling party. Unless a bi-partisan "hands-off" agreement can be reached between major political parties, the MoD will, understandably, remain in a state of paralysis on this account, and defence modernization will continue to suffer.

We cannot live in this fool's paradise forever. Defence budgets are going to start shrinking; and the people will demand accountability of Parliament, MoD and the SHQ, sooner than later. The answer lies in opening up the defence acquisition system and making it as transparent as we possibly can. Enlightened political involvement must be invited and encouraged in matters of force modernization, which have a vital bearing on national security.

But above all, we must reform our archaic and dysfunctional higher defence organization. Little Sri Lanka, next doors, has demonstrated brilliantly, through a successful campaign, the benefits to be garnered from integrated planning and joint-Service synergy in operations.

Even if our politicians and bureaucrats continue to nurture irrational antipathy to a Chief of Defence Staff, let the new Government, post-elections, integrate our armed forces and merge the SHQ with the MoD in national interest. Above all, acquisition proposals must be rationalized and prioritized by the Integrated Defence Staff HQ so as to achieve synergy and economy, and to reinforce joint-warfare capabilities. Perhaps the time has also come to create an autonomous Acquisition Board.

(Admiral Prakash was Chief of the Naval Staff from 31 July 2004-31 Oct 2006. He currently lives in Dehradun. A version of the above column is Copyright of The Tribune and appeared in newspaper on March 22. Admiral Prakash contributes columns to journals, magazines, newspapers and, occasionally, to LiveFist)

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