Extra Leeway

Extra Leeway
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Meeting defence requirements is a bit easier for the armed forces now

IF THERE ISan Achilles Heel of India’s war machine, it is the snail-paced system of procuring weapons for the Army. Plans to equip the armed forces with cutting-edge defence systems—ranging from big- ticket armaments such as fighter planes to relatively modest items such as specialised guns —often die a slow death in bureaucratic committees.

Some changes may, however, be afoot. The Union Government has delegated financial authority to the Army to make emergency purchases if ammunition and other stocks fall below critical levels—that is, below what is needed to fight a war for 10 days.

While this may not be enough—the constaint being the availability of funds from the Budget—it is better than the committee system where any purchase takes an excruciating length of time. In any case, the new spending power should not be seen as a reform of the procurement system. External developments—the standoff with China and heightened tension with Pakistan—may have forced the Government’s move.

India needs a different system of buying weapons. One reason why it is so slow is the fear of corruption in such purchase deals. Ever since the Bofors scandal, procurement procedures have become ever more bureaucratic. If they are based on the assumption of a trade-off between corruption and efficiency, it is not clear if the former has ended even though the latter has clearly nosedived.

Politically, allegations of corruption in defence purchases are damaging to any ruling party and slow procurement damages our ability to defend the country. Shifting from this terrible equilibrium may not be easy and ‘revolutionary’ changes may backfire.

One option is for the armed forces to have a bigger say in purchase decisions. This could be coupled with oversight by a closed parliamentary committee that has wide political representation. The proceedings of the committee and the decision-making processes of the armed forces in this respect should obviously be kept secret.

What also needs to be given up is the old shibboleth |of ‘self-reliance’ in military equipment. Money should indeed be spent on research and development for indigenous weaponry, but the armed forces should not be made to wait for domestically manufactured equipment.