Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

After an unnecessary and unseemly age row, the Army Chief casually informs the country though the media that he had a year or more back been offered a Rs14 crore bribe by a just-retired Lt-General to facilitate purchase of what he considered sub-standard and overly priced trucks

Deep Systemic Defence Rot

A retiring general's age row and bribe disclosure add to confusion as gaping holes in military procurement become evident.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 1 April, 2012

The disgraceful military-civil crisis the country has witnessed denotes complete failure of leadership on the part of the Army Chief and Defence Minister. Rather than try and paper the cracks once more, both should go. The honour and security of the nation is far more important than small egos, “goodness”, petty party and civil-military infighting and a frightening public tendency to suspect conspiracy and corruption at anybody’s prompting. The larger and far more important issue that must be addressed is the dismaying exhibition of deep systemic and structural rot for which successive governments, across parties, must take responsibility. The fact is that indecision, drift and factionalism, not only on defence issues, has become the hallmark of governance and politics in key areas. The role of sections of the media in all of this has been less than glorious.

After a wholly unnecessary and unseemly age row, the Army Chief casually informs the country though the media that he had a year or more back been offered a Rs14 crore bribe by a just-retired Lt-General to facilitate purchase of what he considered sub-standard and overly priced Tatra trucks manufactured by Bharat Heavy Earthmovers Ltd. This was an extraordinary and even irresponsible stance. Why make that disclosure now? The Chief had, however, properly reported the matter immediately to the Defence Minister who asked him to reduce the matter to writing and initiate action. The Chief did not wish to pursue the matter while RM demurred as there was nothing in writing!

Here was a duet of folly and farce when the house was on fire. The RM appears not to have kept the Prime Minister in the loop,nor the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, the National Security Council, the NSA or perhaps even the Defence Secretary. The entire national security apparatus was seemingly by-passed. National Secrecy trumped National Security for a whole year until the bubble was burst by the General for collateral reasons – suggestively to stymie a military-civil arms dealer cabal conspiring to defame him and subvert honest and effective Army procurement.

A very recent letter from the Chief to the PM was next leaked by persons unknown and has added to public consternation for the not so secret revelation that the Army is ill equipped, even unprepared, to fight a war today for failure to procure critical equipment such as artillery, armour piercing tank shells and so forth.
Instead of addressing the fundamental rot, debate has revolved around the second order of irrelevance, with a gleeful media and bemused panellists dancing round the mulberry bush. The current tamasha, no less, has the whole world laughing at India – and has done great harm to the image and morale of the armed forces, one of the country’s proudest assets and a great fighting force. Two issues that emergecry for immediate attention. Civil-military mistrust within the Ministry of Defence and Defence production and procurement policy.

The Armed forces are not integrated with MOD but constitute a parallel though subordinate echelon. The three Services too are not integrated but are under separate commands, and lack increasingly required coordination despite a weakly structured chiefs of staff committee. Both are hangovers of our colonial inheritance and should have been removed long ago. Nehru, fed by Krishna Menon, was for civil, not just political, supremacy fearing a military coup. It was for this reason that the Kargil Review Committee and subsequent committee recommendations favouring a chief of defence staffand an integrated MOD Defence Ministry failed to pass muster, with inter-service rivalries reinforcing the case for civilian control. This obsolete structure has exacerbated civil-military mistrust, caused endless delays in processing matters and allowed many emerging matters to fall between the cracks.

The absurd age controversy – fed on conspiracy theories to pave a line of succession by seniority for chosen favourites – also points to the need for urgent reform. The highest military commands must be based on merit and efficiency, not gerontocracy. The decision taken years ago to elevate battalion commanders to the rank of full Colonel has again put a premium on age. Merit must count. Some civilians rise to the highest ranks not on the basis of competence but because they are survivors, having done no “wrong” in hindsight only because they did nothing and merely marked time. Achievers take risks and most likely make mistakes. So to equate bona fide error or less than optimal outcomes or additional costs with malfeasance – a virulent disease of epidemic proportions in India – is toinvite paralysis. Few realise that non-decisions constitutedecisions and can be extravagantly costly.

And so the gaping gaps in military procurement. No artillery acquisitions have been made since Bofors. Vendors who lose out turn “whistle-blower”, allege faulty or unfair trials, and hint of corrupt practice. Disgruntled officials indulge in selective,motivated leaks and find eager media partners looking for “breaking news”, howsoever uncorroborated, shallow politicians anxious to score a point, any point, and nervous officials and ministers afraid to decide. The result is to put procurement on hold, order re-tendering, and blacklist (all) vendors. Middlemen are seen as dangerous characters seeking a cut whereas many play a most useful role and need merely be licensed under rigorous rules. With the cost and limited market for cutting-edge defence research and production being what it is, not just vendors but governments woo India, the largest arms importer in the world. Big money goes with large defence contracts. But not to procure entails multiple jeopardy - shrinking or ageing inventories , unpreparedness, lack of training and, ultimately, higher costs, sometimes on account of emergency purchases as during Kargil where the CAG’s quaint mode of accounting possibly constituted the real scam.

We are import-dependant because indigenous defence production and research have been scorned. More exciting to visit France or the US and demand fancy qualitative requirements based on annual brochure upgrades than to invest time and money in our own ordnance factories and PSUs. The Indian private sector was ridiculously shut out for years on grounds of secrecy, competence and inexperience while foreign vendors were patronised to learn at our expense! The military is as much at fault here as MOD. The Navy has done better than the other services in indigenisation. This is because the warship is a complete platform in itself and the Navy started building warships early on and had its own officers and specialists, commanding and manning the naval dockyards.

There are clear lessons to be learnt from the current crisis. Defence communication and information systems remain hopelessly inadequate. The DRDO, Ordnance factories and PSUs as domestic vendors must havea close interface with those they are intended to serve. They cannot function on a cost-plus basis without sound timelines and quality control. The private sector must not be kept at arm's length. Structural reorganisation at the top with a CDS, a truly integrated MOD, and merit can wait no longer. Parliament must insist on quick discussion and implementation of the Naresh Chandra Committee’s forthcoming report on preparedness and higher defence management – the nth in the series.

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