For the Defence Establishment, Materiel Acquisition Schedules Are Seemingly Timeless

It seems that in a country where the word for today and tomorrow – kal – is paradoxically the same, nobody is concerned with materiel procurement deadlines to modernise the military.

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Chandigarh: Neither the Ministry of Defence (MoD) nor the three armed forces appear, in the slightest, to be concerned with timely materiel procurement deadlines in order to further the military’s continually delayed modernisation and to meet existing and emerging security challenges.

It seems that in a country where the word for today and tomorrow – kal – is paradoxically the same, and where accompanying time limits of parson and tarson – the day after or the third day or thereabouts – remain equally nebulous, both these establishments tended to pursue a seemingly timeless defence equipment acquisition schedule.

Alongside, the MoD had also periodically scrapped innumerable tenders for operationally critical equipment over the past decade, due mostly to the services qualitative requirement (QR) overreach for equipment and allegations of wrongdoing and corruption, most of them unproven. This, in turn, had forced all three services to either continue employing obsolete kit, or simply manage without it.

In 2018, for instance, the Indian Army (IA)’s Vice Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sarath Chand had compellingly informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that 68% of the force’s in-service platforms were in the ‘vintage’ category, compared with 24% considered ‘current’. Merely 8%, he declared, were regarded as ‘state of the art’ for the world’s second-largest army that faced the prospect of a two-front war with belligerent and collusive nuclear-armed neighbours.

Little, however, had changed in the intervening four years, not only for the IA but also for the Indian Navy (IN) and the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Meanwhile, the list of all such equipment procurement delays, essential for all three services to sustain operational efficiency and to deter adventurism by China and Pakistan, is almost endless and beyond the confines of editorial space to variously catalogue. But a handful of glaring, and somewhat embarrassing examples cited below, illustrate this blatant and near-total disregard for equipment acquisition timelines, plagued by the constant see-saw scuffle between the MoD and the respective service headquarters.

More recently, the hype surrounding the atmanirbharta or self-sufficiency route to make good this persistent materiel shortfall remained at an embryonic stage. Other than major technological challenges, it faced bureaucratic ambiguity in pursuing and securing its aims. And though breaking free of import dependency doubtlessly remains the preferred option for India’s military in sourcing diverse equipment, there was little acceptance in official circles that it was, according to industry officials, a timely, costly and arduous endeavour.

“The bleak reality is that almost all military acquisitions are running perilously late,” said Amit Cowshish, former MoD financial advisor on procurements. Complex Defence Acquisition Procedures, lack of clarity by the services in formulating their individual equipment requirements and a hidebound bureaucracy, were collectively responsible for these recurrent postponements, he added.

Also Read: The Game of Snakes and Ladders That Is India’s Defence Acquisition Procedures

However, the most blatant and ongoing instance involves the IN’s long-overdue critical Project 75 I (India) – or P75I – to indigenously build six ‘hunter-killer’ diesel-electric conventional submarines (SSKs), to bolster the forces declining underwater assets. The programme was initially accorded acceptance of necessity (AoN) approval, the first of multiple procurement steps in 2007 by the MoD’s Defence Acquisition Council headed by the defence minister.

It involved one of two shortlisted indigenous shipyards collaborating with an overseas submarine manufacturer to build these boats to supplement the IN’s 15 SSKs, of which 11 were all between 20 and 34 years old, with several due soon for retirement. Years passed and P-75I lingered on, necessitating an AoN recharge several times, with no result. Consequently, the project was rekindled by the MoD through a request for information (RfI) for the proposed boats a decade later, in July 2017. Four years later, in June 2021, a tender or request for proposal (RfP) was dispatched for the SSKs to two domestic submarine builders-Mazagaon Dockyard Limited (MDL) and Larsen & Toubro.

Representative image of Indian Navy officers on board during the commissioning ceremony of P-75 INS Karanj submarine in Mumbai, on March 10, 2021. Photo: PTI/ Shashank Parade

Meanwhile, between the issuance of the RfI and the RfP, several overseas original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) from France, Japan, Spain, Sweden and more recently Russia declined to participate in the P-75I programme for a variety of complicated reasons like ‘unworkable’ IN QRs for the SSKs design and impractical project completion timeline restrictions. Prospective overseas vendors also railed against RfP clauses stipulating near unlimited performance and delivery liability upon the foreign technology partner, without any executive control over the manufacturer.

Consequently, P75-I is presently in limbo, 15 years after it was first mooted; but according to media reports it is ‘under evaluation’, a euphemism that equalled further adjournment in the project.

And even if all these hurdles were to somehow magically disappear imminently, naval veterans said the IN would only receive the first SSK eight-ten years hence, if not later. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), on the other hand – with which the IN is vying to dominate the strategic Indian Ocean Region (IOR) – currently employs 66-odd diesel-electric and nuclear-powered and nuclear-attack submarines, and was on course to exponentially boost these numbers.

Furthermore, the IN had floated a RfI for 57 multi-role carrier-borne fighters (MRCBF) in flyaway condition over five years ago, in January 2017, to operate off INS Vikrant, the indigenous carrier that was commissioned into service earlier this month, as the existing Russian MiG-29K/KUB combat fleet had proven operationally inadequate. Subsequently, the MRCBF requirement was pared down to 26 naval fighters, including eight twin-seat trainers, reportedly due to financial considerations, and the platform choice was narrowed down to France’s Dassault Rafale-M’s and US’s Boeing F/A-18 Block III Super Hornets, following ‘demonstration trials’ recently by both manufacturers.

Thereafter, no RfP has been issued, despite Vikrant’s commissioning, further delaying the crucial MRCBF purchase, despite ample lead time of several years for this purchase. Former IN Chief of Staff Admiral Arun Prakash told Reuters on the eve of Vikrant’s September 2 commissioning that due to India’s ‘typically disjointed decision-making process’ the selection of carrier-based fighters had gotten ‘de-linked’ from the carrier project, and that a decision on it was yet to be taken. “We knew the ship (Vikrant) was likely to be commissioned this year, hence the selection process, as well as negotiations for the fighter should have started well in time, perhaps three to four years earlier,” the former naval aviator argued.

And even in this instance, if wondrously the IN and the MoD did somehow manage to fast-track the MRCBF acquisition, it would take 3-4 years before deliveries of the shortlisted fighter would begin, by 2026-27 or perhaps even later. However, till then Vikrant would have to ‘make do’ with the inefficient MiG-29K/KUBs.

In comparison, once more, the PLAN, currently operates three aircraft carriers with a complement of some 40 fighters and helicopters each. Eventually, it aims on deploying at least two, or even three additional carriers by 2030, with each platform and its combat air arm an improvement on the ones commissioned earlier.

IAF, Army procurements also meet similar fate

In the meantime, the IAF had issued a RfI in April 2019 for 114 fighters medium multi-role fighters (MMRF) to make good its fast-depleting combat squadrons, whose numbers had dropped to a perilous 28-29, from a sanctioned strength of 42. Over the next two to three years, these are expected to decrease even further to around 25 squadrons, as the IAF retired four squadrons of its 70-odd legacy MiG2 ‘BIS’ ground-attack fighters, sharply reducing the force’s numerical platform superiority over Pakistan, leave alone China. Some of the IAFs six-odd Jaguar SEPECAT squadrons, comprising around 120 platforms, too were nearing the end of their Total Technical Life and also scheduled for superannuation.

Of the 114 MMRF, 18 of the shortlisted fighter type would be imported directly, and the remainder built locally under a transfer of technology. Last October, Air Chief Marshal V.K. Chaudhuri declared that several vendors had responded to the IAFs RfI and that the entire acquisition process was being progressed. Little had occurred since, akin to the IAFs 2008-09 proposal, amongst several other unrequited acquisitions, to procure multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) to extend its fighters’ operational reach. Talk of leasing MRTT, as a cost-saving measure, too remains stillborn.

The IA, on the other hand, which has been operating without close quarter battle (CQB) carbines since the mid-1980s, has still not made good this deficiency. Repeated, ineffectual and stop-go attempts over years by the IA and the MoD, especially since 2008 to procure a replacement for the licence-built 9mm Sterling 1A1 sub-machine gun variant dating back to 1944, had all failed. Consequently, this had pushed the army’s overall requirement for CQB carbines which the force desperately needed for counter-insurgency operations, to over 450,000 units.

The IA’s recently announced emergency procurement of light, air-transportable tanks to augment its firepower in Himalayan regions like Ladakh, was first mooted 13 years ago, in 2009, soon after military planners shifted their strategic focus from Pakistan, to the security threat posed by China.

An Indian Army convoy moves along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir’s Ganderbal district June 18, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Consequently, the army had, at the time received several responses to its global RfI for 200 wheeled and 100 tracked light tanks, weighing 22 tons each, but thereafter no formal tender was issued. The entire proposal, like several others, was shelved because of the army’s indifference and competing financial claims by existing T-72, T-90 and Arjun main battle tank ventures. Once again, the IA’s and the MoD’s inability in the timely prioritisation of acquiring and inducting such a platform had adversely impacted the ongoing military face-off with China along the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh.

A similar unresponsive fate had greeted the army’s Battlefield Management System and the interfacing Tactical Communication System, as well as the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) programme, all launched between 2005-09. The former two projects lapsed through disinterest, while the latter has seen a peripheral revival in recent days under the atmanirbhar scheme, but remains countless years away from fruition.

As stated earlier, the list of missed deadlines and overall lackadaisical approach to equipment buys is never-ending, and unfortunately in inverse proportion to the Indian military’s operational need for it. It also evokes a ditty by Gloria Pitzer, a US-based attorney that sums up the country’s defence and military establishment’s overarching attitudinal approach to acquisitions:

Procrastination is my sin.
It brings me naught but sorrow.
I know that I should stop it.
In fact, I will – tomorrow!”