Chandigarh: The Union government’s penchant for notching up diverse records in all spheres can add yet another, albeit dubious, landmark achievement to its swelling inventory of firsts: of never having ever, for decades, procured major military platforms or other notable materiel (the materials and equipment of a military force) within the mandated deadline.
A cross-section of defence and military officials and security analysts declared that not even once, for years, had any regime, including that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led administration – which prides itself on efficiency and being pro-active – effected the acquisition of prime defence kit within the officially prescribed period.
The list of these myriad delays is far too long to tabulate. It involved the purchase of fighters, helicopters, armed and unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles, transport aircraft, submarines and warships. The procurement of main battle tanks, artillery, varied small arms like assault rifles, carbines, sub-machine guns, sniper rifles, assorted ammunition and missiles, among other assorted military gear, too, stood similarly delayed.
For instance, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued a request for information for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) in 2001, followed by a tender or request for proposal for them six years later, in 2007, only to scrap the entire project in 2015. This tender included the licensed manufacture of 108 units of the shortlisted platform – France’s Rafale fighter – locally, via a transfer of technology, but instead, it acquired 36 Rafales in flyaway condition in 2016.
The Indian Air Force has yet another prospective buy of 114 multi-role fighter aircraft, the request for information for which was dispatched in early 2018. Little is known of its progress five years later, even as the number of IAF’s fighter squadrons is down to around 29, from the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons.
The Indian Navy, for its part, is struggling to process Project 75 (India), to locally build six diesel-electric ‘hunter-killer’ submarines, the tender for which was issued in 2019, some 15 years after the programme was approved by the MoD. And, after almost two decades, the MoD, in December 2022, released the tender to local vendors to provide 425,213 close quarter carbines to India’s military.
Alongside, the request for proposal for 4,849 sniper rifles and 7.84 million rounds of .338 Lapua Magnum ammunition, too, came in late 2022, nearly 12 years after repeated efforts to import these precision weapons were initiated and abandoned.
‘Mired in riddles’
“Our (defence) procurement, whether indigenous or foreign, is mired in riddles beyond Harry Potter,” said military analyst Lieutenant General P.R. Shankar (retired). Since most of the in-service equipment is old, and its numbers dwindling, the soldier on the ground simply does not have the best machines to defend the nation, he declared, regrettably, in a 2018 analysis in the Daily O news portal.
On sourcing materiel locally, the Indian Army’s former Director General of Artillery accused the government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the erstwhile state-owned Ordnance Factory Board, the nine defence public sector undertakings and indigenous private defence industry vendors of “smooth talking”. All of them, he claimed, were long on promise, poor in technology and capability, and above all, short on delivery.
Successive parliamentary defence committees, the Comptroller and Auditor General, service veterans, and analysts, too, had repeatedly excoriated these delays, but to no avail. An array of MoD and industry officials admitted that other than hidebound bureaucracy inherent in the system, the slew of tortuous procurement manuals running into hundreds of pages which defied comprehension, even for insiders, were largely behind these enduring delays.
“A mood of insouciance pervades the entire defence procurement process, in which urgency is of little or no consequence, despite serious security challenges emerging in recent years along India’s disputed borders with collusive nuclear-armed neighbours, China and Pakistan,” said Amit Cowshish, former MoD acquisitions financial advisor. Rarely, if at all, had purchases of key platforms and other important defence equipment in recent years ever adhered to authorised schedules, he added.
The recently announced defence budget for the financial year 2023-24 revealed that the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, between them, had surrendered Rs 2,369.01 crore under the capital head intended for purchases as they had been unable to expend it. No reasons were provided for the unused money, but industry sources indicated that ‘lapses’ in the procurement processes were responsible.
Even former Army Chief of Staff General V.K. Singh had jocularly, but accurately, observed that military procurement in India were a “version of snakes and ladders, where there is no ladder, but only snakes”. He warned against these snakes – a malevolent euphemism for officials involved in the defence acquisition system – who jeopardised the entire process by ‘biting’, following which the entire process, like in the ancient board game of chance that originated in India as ‘Moksha Patnam‘, slid right back to the beginning.
“Little has changed since General Singh’s observation in 2012, except that the onus has now shifted to indigenous defence suppliers under the government’s Atmanirbhar or self-reliance initiative to reduce materiel import dependency,” said an industry official. Unfortunately, the continually deferred procurement narrative remains untouched, despite the deafening hype surrounding military modernisation, he added, refusing to be named.
Others involved in the military equipment procurement said that the steady delegation of acquisition powers to the services, too, had not freed the process from these delays. It had rendered it even more prone to deferrals.
A complex materiel procurement system
India’s 12-stage materiel procurement system, as detailed in the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020, the latest edition, in a series of similar voluminous manuals since 2002, is cumbersome and clumsy and liable to be derailed at multiple stages, as General Singh warned.
It kicks off with the respective services issuing a request for information to vendors – local or overseas, or at times, even both – for assorted items, following which the service qualitative requirements or SQRs for them are formulated and an Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) is accorded for their purchase by the MoD’s Defence Acquisition Council.
The AoN, which, in effect is merely a procedural move by the MoD, invariably receives excessive official and media attention, creating a mirage that the particular acquisitions are well underway.
Nothing, however, could be further from reality, as the interminable heavy lifting is yet to begin. This commences with the issuance of a request for proposal, succeeded by a technical evaluation of the responses. Field trials follow and a technical oversight committee then assesses their outcome, shortlisting the participants, after which the commercial bids submitted at the time of tendering for the contract are opened and negotiations launched with the L1, or the lowest priced of the selected bidders.
Thereafter, the contract approval by the Competent Financial Authority is secured, and for purchases of Rs 3,000 crore and above, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by the prime minister sanctions the buy, after which the deal is formally signed.
The matter, however, does not end even then, as the purchase is monitored by the respective service headquarters, albeit without adequate authority to iron out any difficulties or anomalies arising from the contract, leading yet to further delays. The involvement of several associated departments like the Director General of Quality Assurance (DGQA) only adds to the prevailing miasma, perpetuating postponements in equipment delivery.
According to the DAP 2020, which has superintended all military buys since that year, multi-vendor purchases are required to be completed between 62 to 86 weeks of their tenders being dispatched, while those involving a single vendor need to be processed between 74 and 106 weeks. An additional 12-week extension is permissible if the concerned equipment under purchase involves winter trials.
Erring on the side of procrastination
“Considering the number of officials and sundry departments involved, the possibility of slippages in these convoluted processes is real and occurs habitually,” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle of the New Delhi-based Security Risks consultancy group. This reality has become increasingly stark in recent years, as the majority of officials involved in military procurements erred on the side of procrastination, fearful of things going wrong, he added.
The deadline in the DAP 2020 for awarding contracts via the eponymous fast-track procedure, from the time the acquisition proposal was initiated, was 122 to 216 days (four to seven months), followed by deliveries, which needed to be completed between three to 12 months of the deal being signed.
But even under the fast track procedure, schedules were rarely, if at all, adhered to, with none of the officials responsible for the continual postponements in this, or any other category, ever being held accountable. Several recent fast-track procedure tenders, being processed as ‘emergency procurements’ to meet immediate operational requirements, also remained in ‘animated suspension’ for extended periods, before being arbitrarily terminated.
In March 2018, the $110 million tender to procure 93,895 close-quarter battle carbines for the army from UAE’s Caracal International was one such potential buy that was finally scrapped four years later, in late 2022, amid great confusion and ambiguity.
Ironically, domestic and overseas military equipment vendors, though utterly frustrated by the interminable deferments in India’s acquisition practices, continued to persevere, as the potential volume of the under-acquisition materiel ensured adequate financial incentive. “The MoD and the services are well aware of this latter phenomenon and exploited it to the hilt,” said a European small arms manufacturer.
Their high-handedness with vendors was legion in the global arms bazaar and did the MoD no favours in enhancing its reputation as a professionally sound organisation capable of realising procurements efficiently, he added, declining to be named for the fear of repercussions.
Acquisitions were further hamstrung by a lack of professionalism in all three services in drawing up their qualitative requirements (QRs) for equipment.
On this aspect, the late defence minister Manohar Parrikar had mockingly referred to these QRs for equipment as being ‘straight out of Marvel comic books’, as the technologies and capabilities demanded were simply non-existent anywhere. But Parrikar’s admonishment has fallen on deaf ears, as the military’s affinity for ‘Marvel-esque’ weaponry has persisted.
The number of such instances is too numerous to recount, but the recent glaring instance of this was the aforementioned Indian Navy’s continually postponed Project 75 (India) tender, issued in 2019, some 15 years after the programme received its AoN to locally build six diesel-electric submarines via a transfer of technology from overseas.
Andrey Baranov, deputy director general of Russia’s Rubin Design Bureau, one of his country’s three main submarine designers, summed up P-75(I) in August 2022 succinctly by observing that nobody in the world had a boat that matched the Indian Navy’s overambitious – Marvel-esque – QRs. Other submarine original equipment manufacturers from France, Japan, and Sweden, too, had voiced similar concerns and opted against bidding for the tender, thereby sinking P-75(I) somewhat irretrievably into even deeper waters than the prospective platforms were capable of navigating, even with independent air propulsion systems.