Business Standard, 3rd June 07
Last Friday, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) breathed life into one of the world’s most keenly anticipated defence contracts: India’s proposed purchase of 126 Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) for an electrifying Rs 26,000 – 30,000 crores ($6.5 – 7.5 billion). The MoD’s Request for Proposals (RFP) from prospective vendors, however, is only the first step towards actually buying the cutting edge fighters. Before that, bids from manufacturers of aircraft like the F/A-18, F-16, MiG-35, Eurofighter, Rafale and the Grippen must be technically evaluated for issues like warranty and maintenance support, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will conduct its invariably prolonged user trials and, finally, prices will be compared and negotiated with the vendors. It has taken six years just to send out the RFP; signing the contract could take even longer.
The MRCA is an expensive and long-playing fetish that has diverted attention from the urgent needs of national defence. In a single example, the MRCA proposal encapsulates much of what is wrong with Indian defence planning and procurement.
Both common sense and strategic tradition dictate that the first step towards dealing with threats to the security of the country is to identify those threats. Unlike countries like the USA, which spells out (and regularly updates) strategic threats in a publicly available Quadrennial Defence Review every four years, India has never burdened its people with such information. Last month, however, Defence Minister AK Antony broke with tradition. Addressing the Asian Security Conference in Singapore, he perceptively identified India’s greatest security threats as long-playing insurgencies, movements like Naxalism that stem from lack of governance, and communal and caste dissension, like the Gujjar agitation for scheduled tribe status. China and Pakistan came a poor second.
Changed threat perceptions demand fresh debate on the broad direction of defence spending. In fact, however, India’s defence allocation continues to be parcelled out between the army, navy and IAF in a fixed percentage and the MoD is unwilling to rock that boat even if changed circumstances so demand.
The MoD does little to scrutinise the logic that all three services produce to justify their share of the pie. The IAF has made an article of faith of the myth that national defence requires 39.5 squadrons of fighter aircraft (some 630 aircraft), a figure about which the only certainty is that it was arrived at decades ago. In those times, the air force roles of air defence, ground attack, photo-reconnaissance and interdiction were all carried out by different types of aircraft. As their name indicates, MRCA are built to carry out all of these roles, but no MoD official has interrogated the IAF with the obvious argument that smaller numbers of qualitatively superior fighters can do what larger numbers of older aircraft achieved. Today’s mobile phones perform the roles of the cellphone as well as the personal digital assistant of the last decade. But nobody I know has bought two cellphones because it is performing two functions.
The IAF backs its demands by suggesting that a large number of fighters are completing their service lives. The previous boss of the IAF, Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi wrote to Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee complaining that IAF numbers were dwindling so fast that Pakistan would soon have more fighters than India unless the MRCA contract was quickly concluded. Well-informed analysts credibly disputed those figures, arguing that upgrades and overhauls could keep existing aircraft going until the Sukhoi-30 production plant gets into full flow, and the India-Russia 5th generation fighter comes into production.
In every military across the globe, armies, navies and air forces are competing for a limited budget. In the Indian context there is no referee to officiate in this contest. Despite long-standing recommendations, there is still no Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who can define the equipment his three services must have. The MoD, with neither analysts nor in-house expertise, accepts whatever comes from the three services. Any MoD objections to the IAF’s purchase of MRCA (or for that matter the navy’s demand for aircraft carriers, or the army’s insistence on more T-90 tanks…) invite complaints from that service of discrimination and under funding.
Equally worrisome is the bureaucrats’ unwillingness to make the hard choices of defence. George Fernandes, one of the more outspoken defence ministers in recent years, had openly bemoaned his babus’ unwillingness to put signature to paper without first building bulwarks of noting sheets against any possible investigation by one of the Three Cs: the CAG, the CVC and the CBI. In the MRCA procurement, this MoD tendency shines forth from Friday’s press release on the RFP: “MoD officials have confirmed that great care has been taken to ensure that only determinable factors, which do not lend themselves to any subjectivity, are included in the commercial selection model.”
National defence, unfortunately, cannot be reduced to a mathematical model. Nor can the selection of a particular weapons platform like a MRCA, which is inherently a subjective process where one advantage, say high engine performance, is bought by compromising on attributes like fuel consumption and range. Security-related decisions are inherently subjective, which is why there is still hope that the decision-making over the MRCA could take so long that the ill-conceived project is superseded by full-scale production from other fighter lines, like the Su-30MKI, and the 5th generation Indo-Russian fighter, that exist amongst India’s options.