No Defence for the MoD
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