THE REPORT OF the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India on the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighter jets has given plenty of talking points to political parties and pundits alike. On paper, it resolves a key issue—the cost of the aircraft—in favour of the NDA Government. But in reality, the defence acquisition process remains mired in a deadly triad of outdated processes, a highly politicised system and rather weak domestic defence manufacturing capabilities.
All this is a wonder as India’s defence needs are extensive even as its neighbourhood remains one of the most complex and hostile geopolitical regions in the world. If that were not enough, the country has a political system that does not care about the damage inflicted upon the defence equipment acquisition system by the reckless hurling of charges and counter-charges. In all this, it is assumed that India’s defence needs will take care of themselves on their own. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
For the Indian Air Force (IAF) the numbers are grim. In September last year, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the number of fighter aircraft squadrons in the IAF stood at 31 instead of the sanctioned 42. But this number masks an even more grim reality. Of the current squadrons, MiG-21s make up six, and MiG-27s, two. Both aircraft, dating to the 1960s (MiG-21) and 1970s (MiG-27), have long been retired by the Russian defence forces. They are operated by a handful of air forces in the world. But the planes are simply no match for the firepower that Chinese and Pakistani forces can muster in case of a war. Then there are the six squadrons of Jaguars, another 1970s vintage fighter aircraft that has long been retired by the UK’s Royal Air Force. India is now the only country that operates these planes.
It is an illusion that these fighters can be a match even for the 1980s, let alone 1990s vintage planes. In terms of avionics, manoeuvrability, weaponry and sturdiness, these planes are of doubtful utility in a real war. They can fly for sure—that is why they are part of the IAF’s active squadrons; the question is about their usefulness against better enemy fighter aircraft. Viewed thus, of the 31 squadrons, only 17 pack the punch necessary for complex military engagements. This is too low a number for a country that has to keep in mind the possibility of a two-front war, or, at the minimum, a well-coordinated attack on two fronts. This has never happened before in the country’s history, but it cannot be ruled out anymore.
From that perspective, augmenting the number of fighter aircraft is essential for India’s security. The two Rafale squadrons that will be inducted over the next few years will certainly not be sufficient from an India-wide consideration of defence. More—anywhere from upwards of 100 fighters— will be required.
All this is moot at this point. It is highly unlikely that any government will try and speed up the procurement process for vital defence equipment after the Rafale controversy. Just as in the aftermath of the Bofors controversy, when it took more than a quarter century for the Indian Army to get new artillery equipment, it is quite likely that the same fate awaits fighter aircraft. The Narendra Modi Government had a strong mandate in the Lok Sabha and has remained politically coherent right until the end of its tenure. This is not possible in the case of large coalitions where the tasks of day-to-day political management consume virtually all the time and energy of the government. In any case, because of the politically fraught nature of defence contracts, such governments seldom make the effort to push them through. The result is that a key part of national security goes unaddressed during times of politically fractured mandates.
In effect, India finds itself locked into two adverse situations. One, India is located in a hostile neighbourhood. Two, the country’s political system exacerbates the first problem instead of reducing it by finding solutions in better defence preparedness. Even without controversies like Rafale and Bofors, India’s defence procurement system is so outdated that it defies belief. The contrast with China and Pakistan could not be more glaring. In those countries, defence purchases are much quicker, and in China’s case, the amount of absolute military spending is much higher than that of India.
Ideally, the defence purchase system should be kept separate from the rough and tumble of politics. In reality, this has proved unfeasible so far. This may not be possible anymore unless there is a cross-party consensus on the subject. With the degree of political polarisation as seen now, this is unlikely in the near future in any case. The other reason for this state of affairs is the peculiar nature of defence contracts in general. The fight for getting a pie of these lucrative contracts has a dog-eat- dog touch to it. Original equipment manufacturers and their lobbyists spend a fortune not only building their case but also undercutting that of their rivals as well. Some of these echoes are present in the Rafale controversy too.
Finally, there’s another leg to it all: indigenous public sector defence manufacturers. This is perhaps the weakest link in the Indian defence chain. In the Rafale controversy, for example, it has been raked up time and again as to why Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was not made a partner in the fighter-jet deal and instead a private company was invited. The answer can be found in an accident earlier this month of a Mirage 2000 aircraft that had been upgraded by HAL and was undergoing testing. The crash killed two pilots. Within no time a furious controversy erupted over the capabilities of HAL to deliver what the IAF needs. There is some truth to this. HAL’s record in supplying aircraft of the quality needed by the IAF in time is questionable. The LCA-Tejas, the domestic answer to a fighter aircraft, is an example. Plagued by massive time overruns, this plane is still not a ‘fighting weapon’. It is not clear by when the next variant of the aircraft—one which meets the IAF’s technical specifications—will be inducted.
It is next to impossible to sort all these problems in one go and even piece-by-piece reforms will prove politically taxing. But if India gets a government with a mandate similar to the one now, there is one area where it should put some effort: simplifying the defence acquisition process. Currently, it takes anywhere up to a decade to get a major piece of defence hardware. In case the time period is shortened, as in the Rafale deal, then all hell breaks loose at the political end. It will be something worth investing in. In the years and decades ahead, India’s economic security—and not just the aspect of guarding frontiers—will depend a lot on how it manages to untangle the procurement mess. How that can be done is a question in itself, but a key element will be insulating these decisions from noisy party politics.