Chandigarh: The enduring military challenge India faces from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh has led to fast-tracking of importing varied material, especially assorted ammunition, missiles and ordnance worth over Rs 10,000 crore, to meet long-term deficiencies in its military’s armoury.
To execute a large proportion of these buys, primarily from France, Israel, Russia and the United States, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has invoked its Fast Track Procedure (FTP) for military procurements. The increase, in June, of the respective service vice-chief’s financial powers to undertake acquisitions worth Rs 300 crore – with no limit to the number of such procurements – with minimal MoD approval has further effected swifter buys via the FTP route. So has the earlier upping, in late 2018, of the vice-chief’s fiscal threshold to Rs 500 crore of similarly acquiring stores, ammunition and ordnance under their respective revenue allocations.
Initiated after the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, when emergency 155 mm ammunition imports from Israel and South Africa were hastily executed at great cost to make good the army’s depleted stocks, the FTP is aimed at meeting the military’s critical operational needs in a compressed time frame. The MoD mandates the entire FTP acquisition process, including requests for proposal (RfPs), trials, cost negotiations and equipment deliveries have to be completed within 18-19 months.
Over years, the FTP was intermittently invoked for numerous tenders, mostly for the army procurement worth Rs 11,500 crore between January 2014 and late 2016 that mostly included ammunition, radars and mines. Much like now, the FTP was forcefully resorted to in the run up to, and after, the army’s cross-border raid into Pakistan-administered Kashmir across the LoC in September 2016. And, once again for Israeli Smart, Precise, Impact, Cost-Effective (SPICE)-2000 bomb guidance kits and other munitions in February 2019 following the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) strike inside Pakistan’s northwest Pakhtunkhwa province on an Islamist militant training camp in the mountains.
Procedural delays and fast track procurement
But the FTP has also been plagued with failure, due largely to procedural delays by both the services, especially the army, and the MoD. The import of some 1,000 sniper rifles for the army’s special forces in 2009-10, for instance, dragged on for several years before it was scrapped, whilst the more recent purchase of 93,895 carbines, initiated under the FTP in March 2018, too is in the process of being revoked.
“The MoD activates itself only when faced with calamity of the kind presented by the PLA in Ladakh,” says former Major General Sheru Thapliyal, who served in the area. Once the crisis abates, the situation, going by past precedence, is likely to slide back to inertia and inactivity, he cautions.
Official sources say the immediate FTP purchases under process for the army after the PLA challenge came up in early May, and mostly includes a range of missiles — antitank and shoulder fired— GPS-enabled M982 Excalibur rounds for the army’s newly acquired 155 mm M777 lightweight howitzers, loitering munition systems, 40 mm grenades and 7.62 mm small arms rounds.
Brisk buying for a range of ammunition
From Russia the army is looking to urgently acquire Igla-S very shortrange air defence systems (VSHORADS), rockets for SMERCH multi-barrel rocket launchers and 125 mm Mango armour-piercing fin-stablised discarding sabot (APFSDS) ammunition for T72M T90S tanks, deployed in large numbers across Ladakh. The MoD is also in advanced talks with Moscow to import an unspecified number of Sprut SDM1 light tanks to supplement its fleet of T72M and T90S manin battle tanks or MBTs to counter the PLA’s Type 15 armoured assets. These Sprut tanks too are likely to be procured via the FTP route.
And in the recent weeks the MoD has approved a repeat order, once more through the FTP channel for 72,400 7.62×45 mm assault rifles from USA’s SIG Sauer, in addition to signing a long-pending deal with Indian Telephone Industries Limited to upgrade the army’s communication network along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the Line of Control (LOC), with Pakistan in Kashmir. The ministry has also ordered 1 million multi-mode hand grenades from a local private manufacturer for Rs 409 crore to replace the World War II HE-36Mk1 time fused ‘Mills’ hand and rifle grenades that are still being produced by the state-run Ordnance Factory Board (OFB).
The army has also been shopping briskly for winter clothing and associated high altitude survival equipment, like Arctic tents, to equip and house some 40,000 troops who will be deployed some 300-400 km along Ladakh’s LAC, till April 2021 to prevent the PLA from infiltrating further into the Indian territory, than it has already since May.
A large proportion of these kits have been acquired off-the-shelf from Europe at great cost, as winter is fast approaching. Temperatures in the upper reaches of Ladakh, above 13,000 feet, had already dipped below zero degrees Celsius, and over the next few weeks, the mercury is expected to plummet further to around minus 20 degrees Celsius. This will decrease even more to minus 40 degrees Celsius, December onwards, worsened by the daunting wind chill factor in Ladakh’s desolate desert region.
Thrust on indigenous capacity building
The Indian Air Force (IAF), for its part, is in extended negotiations under the FTP with Israel for Derby extended range missiles to arm its Sukhoi Su-30MKI multi-role fighter fleet and supplementary SPICE- 2000 bomb guidance kits for its Mirage-2000Hs, Spike anti-tank guided missiles for its light combat helicopter and SPYDER air-defence missiles. Furthermore, the IAF is in the process of acquiring HAMMER precision guided munitions from Frances’ Safran Electronics and Defence for its 36 under-induction Rafale medium multi-role fighters and additional MICA anti-air, multi target missiles, amongst other munitions and missile systems.
Separately, the MoD is in advanced negotiations to acquire major platforms like 21 Russian MiG-29 and 12 Su-30MKI fighters, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) and high endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance for all three services. It is also waiting to finalise the long-deferred deal for 200 Russian Kamov Ka-226T light utility helicopters, 140 of which will be licence-built by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited at Tumkur near Bangalore, to replace the legacy Chetak and Cheetah models inducted into IAF service in the 1960s and 1970s.
And, early last month, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is believed to have finalised a contract with Russia to licence-build some 750,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles for the army, the deal for which is likely to be signed imminently. Official sources say the Indo-Russian Private Limited joint venture will import some 100,000 AK-203 7.62x39mm rifles for $ 1,100 apiece to meet the army’s urgent operational needs. Thereafter, it would series build the remaining 650,000-odd units, with collapsible stocks, under a transfer of technology at an ordnance factory board (OFB) facility at Korwa, near Amethi that was inaugurated in early 2019 in anticipation of the rifle contract.
Meanwhile, in the recent weeks Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has fast-tracked trials for several missile systems, including the nuclear-capable Shaurya with a 750 – 1,000 km strike range, and extended the operational range of the BrahMos cruise missile from 292 to 400 km. Also successfully tested twice in a fortnight was the indigenously developed laser-guided anti-tank missile from the 120 mm rifled gun of the locally developed Arjun MBT. These missiles are likely to eventually arm the army’s T90’s.
In short, India’s military is following Sun Tzu’s dictum of not relying on the enemy not coming, but on its own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but the fact that it has made its own position somewhat unassailable.