INDIAN DEFENCE CONTRACTS are notoriously slow moving or, more darkly, subject to charges of corruption. Either way, the main sufferers are the country’s armed forces that are have the task of defending a very large mass of land and water. Not having the right equipment makes the job doubly difficult. So it was no surprise that when the Government reportedly enlarged the scope of buying new fighter jets for the Air Force and Navy to twin-engine options, there were sighs of disbelief.
The two forces need a large number of fighter aircraft. By one count, together they require 400 combat planes. The cost for such a big purchase is estimated at $25-$30 billion. These sums are sufficiently lucrative to attract the best of global equipment manufacturers; a single order can keep their assembly lines chugging along for years on end. In reality, however, such announcements rarely enthuse suppliers. The Indian procurement system is so slow that few big companies want to devote energy to it. The fate of India’s last planned big-ticket purchase, the proposal to buy 126 jet Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, is a cautionary tale. From the original ‘request for information’ in 2001 to the final official end of the competition in 2015, all the motions were undergone and Rafale’s fighter was selected. But in the end, a severely truncated contract for 36 aircraft in a direct government- to-government deal was made. Suppliers and the Indian Government have been singed by that experience.
If the plan to purchase planes for the Air Force and Navy is to go ahead, it will require political guidance at the highest levels. Even then, the fate of the final contract could remain uncertain. The process of trials, evaluation and negotiation for planes takes longer than the tenure of an elected government. Then, the record of controversies around such deals means that only a supremely confident leader dares put his or her reputation at stake.
Finally, there’s also the issue of buying planes that are appropriate to meet the actual challenges of the future. India needs fighters that pack a technological punch to rival China’s stealth jets and can take on threats posed by weapons that use artificial intelligence. All this is a tall order. Some pessimism, in the interest of being realistic, is in order here. But it is equally true that India’s defence depends on acquiring armaments quickly.