No De­fence for the MoD

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Seema Sirohi

The de­fence re­la­tion­ship is said to be the strong­est link in the In­dia-US strate­gic part­ner­ship, bol­stered by an­nual mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, grow­ing arms sales and win­some rhetoric. Last year, the US de­clared In­dia a ‘ma­jor de­fence part­ner’ to quicken the pace of co­op­er­a­tion and tech­nol­ogy trans­fer.

A land­mark de­vel­op­ment, no doubt. But are new dec­la­ra­tions, frame­works, work­ing groups or task forces the an­swer to the prob­lem of bu­reau­cratic in­er­tia and po­lit­i­cal fuzzi­ness around the whole en­ter­prise? The short an­swer is no, since when the ground is full of rocks, it’s harder to grow things.

Frus­tra­tion in the Pen­tagon is high be­cause In­dia is be­ing, well, In­dia. The in­er­tia, the missed op­por­tu­ni­ties, the con­stant road­blocks, the pro­ce­dural rig­ma­role, the con­trol freak babus, the para­noia around civil-mil­i­tary sep­a­ra­tion and, above all, the lack of ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship have brought In­dia’s friends in Wash­ing­ton close to ex­haus­tion. A de­gree of ‘In­dia fa­tigue’ ap­pears to be set­ting in among US of­fi­cials.

In­dia’s min­istry of de­fence (MoD) has spawned a bank of sto­ries in Wash­ing­ton, each more ap­palling than the last and all re­counted with a tinge of sad­ness. The lat­est in­stall­ment of sorry tales — the MoD missed the dead­line for five free cour­ses for In­dian mil­i­tary of­fi­cers at the US Na­tional War Col­lege.

All three ser­vices wanted the cour­ses. But mys­te­ri­ous pro­cesses at the MoD re­sulted in the for­fei­ture of more than $225,000 in US gov­ern­ment funds al­lo­cated for In­dia. The one-year fel­low­ship is the most sought af­ter by de­fence per­son­nel from around the world, in­clud­ing In­dia’s neigh­bours.

Yes, the bu­reau­cratic prob­lems are not of to­day but of 5,000 years. But the BJP-led gov­ern­ment was ex­pected to en­force a greater de­gree of ef­fi­ciency, look at the is­sues with fresh eyes and move smartly to the fin­ish line. Yet, we seem to be re­peat­ing old mis­takes, look­ing gift horses in the mouth and miss­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to deepen in­ter­ac­tion, even as the In­dian mil­i­tary craves more back and forth with their US coun­ter­parts to up­date their skills in ev­ery area, from cy­ber­se­cu­rity to elec­tronic war­fare, from satel­lite im­agery to sig­nal in­tel­li­gence.

Per­haps, the MoD thinks in­ter­ac­tion leads to ide­o­log­i­cal in­fec­tion. Why else would bu­reau­crats limit bi­lat­eral vis­its to ‘2 in, 2 out’ — two in­com­ing and two out­go­ing vis­its a year per ser­vice? If the In­dian Navy wants to host a third US del­e­ga­tion in a cal­en­dar year, it can’t even if the Naval chief sees a press­ing need to dis­cuss mat­ters.

In­dian mil­i­tary of­fi­cers have em­bar­rass­ingly lim­ited pow­ers to make de­ci­sions. They can’t even de­cide if they can at­tend a sem­i­nar or a con­fer­ence with­out MoD clear­ance. US of­fi­cials have told me count­less sto­ries over the years about how three-star US gen­er­als have not been al­lowed to meet their In­dian coun­ter­parts. In­stead, an MoD or for­eign of­fice man­darin takes a seat. This is just stupid.

Even the De­fence Tech­nolocy and Trade Ini­tia­tive (DTTI), the ful­crum on which every­thing was sup­posed to spin and fly into the fu­ture, has, so far, been more a talk shop than a pro­ducer of tan­gi­ble equip­ment. When the ille­quipped In­dian sol­dier lacks both bul­lets and bul­let-proof jack­ets, the DTTI is fo­cused on jet en­gines and fancy elec­tro­mag­netic air­craft launch sys­tems (EMALS) even though US re­luc­tance to part with these ‘crown jew­els’ is well es­tab­lished.

The overly fu­tur­is­tic as­pi­ra­tions un­der the DTTI have worked to the detri­ment of ful­fill­ing In­dian mil­i­tary’s ur­gent needs. And be­cause we are nowhere close to delivery on any front, DTTI is at the risk of los­ing mo­men­tum.

Per­haps, it’s time to turn the DTTI up­side down, se­lect a prod­uct that both sides need, and set a time­line for code­vel­op­ment and co-pro­duc­tion.

Strangely enough there is no DTTI work­ing group for the Army, even though both the US and In­dian armies have sim­i­lar needs and could more eas­ily work to­gether. Both need new as­sault ri­fles, mine clear­ance plat­forms, even anti-tank mis­siles.

The US may be more will­ing to share tech­nol­ogy and know-how for these sys­tems. Both armies also want a new battle tank — the story of In­dia’s Ar­jun is a se­ries of har­row­ing fail­ures. The Army sent Ar­jun Mark 2 back to the draw­ing board last year.

Pro­duc­ing ba­sic weapons quickly and well with US tech­nol­ogy trans­fer will do more for In­dia’s in­dus­trial base than nur­tur­ing fu­tur­is­tic dreams. As Lt. Gen. Sarath Chand, In­dia’s Vice Chief of Army Staff, starkly re­minded us, Pak­istan has a bet­ter mil­i­tary in­dus­trial base and ex­ports more de­fence equip­ment than In­dia. He be­moaned the lack of R&D in ord­nance fac­to­ries where they couldn’t even as­sem­ble prod­ucts im­ported from abroad. Nepal has even re­fused free In­dian ri­fles.

If Chand’s pub­lic com­ment and the re­cent CAG re­port don’t light a fire un­der the de­ci­sion-mak­ers, noth­ing will.

Still out of sight, out of mind

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