As the uneasy standoff between India and China continues post the Galwan clashes, the Indian government has moved to course correct on military capability with a series of ‘emergency procurements’ – acquisitions that have been necessitated by an inefficient defence procurement system where wild cost escalations, slipped project schedules and missed performance parameters in development continue to place servicemen’s lives at risk, and undermine India’s national security.
Dividing Indian military procurement programmes neatly into a list of hits and misses (mostly the latter) is difficult, with a lot of cases falling in between. Some failures result from overly complex acquisition processes, many others from an unrealistic culture of demanding cutting edge technology that either does not exist or simply cannot be afforded, and nearly all share the common thread of poor project management even after being contracted. Above all, most programmes take on average some two decades mired in the procurement process before being fielded – for whatever reason this has become the norm, it is no longer sustainable.
Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA): Starting with the flavour of the month, the Rafales are here and the IAF is relieved to be adding some much needed combat strength, but a tender so torturous that it resulted in 36 jets contracted against a requirement of 126 (with options up to 191) cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered anything but a miss. The fact that the IAF is gearing up to re-run the MMRCA tender under a new name, with an even more diverse list of contenders, is proof that the Rafale induction is only the midway point of a saga that has spanned nearly twenty years thus far.
T-90s and Indian Summers!: Even though the trials team recommended air conditioning, the Army chose to induct T-90 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) without it. Reality dawned in short order, when the all-important thermal imaging sights began failing in large numbers owing to heat and dust ingress. An existing Russian system was tried, but turned out inadequate for Indian conditions, wasting yet more time. Another twenty year saga with no end in sight, as a new environmental control system (ECS) and auxiliary power unit (APU) to run it are being hunted for.
Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1): Such was the Indian Navy’s faith in the maritime variant of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) in the early days of that programme, they designed their new carrier around the diminutive dimensions of the DRDO-developed jet – including the aircraft lifts that bring jets from the hangar to the flight deck. Eventually both the MiG-29K and the LCA ran into rough weather, and upon exploring alternatives to the problematic fighters, it emerged that no western contenders could fit the undersized lifts on the carrier. With the ship too far along to re-do any structural work, various workarounds are now being explored such as detachable wingtips on the Rafale M, and an ultra-precise positioning system that parks the Super Hornet on the lifts so it can just barely clear the edges. Not ideal for a vessel due for commissioning in 2022 and expected to serve forty years or more.
Dhanush 155mm/45 howitzer: After a corruption scandal tainted the Swedish Bofors FH-77B that India contracted in 1986, the Army did not induct new howitzers for another three decades. Even though the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) received a technology transfer for the Swedish guns they sat on the blueprints, even after the Swedish guns proved their worth in the 1999 Kargil conflict. OFB finally dusted off the 1980s documents, updated the gun, and handed over the first lot to the Army for trials in 2016. Although the Indian Army’s artillery modernisation plan spells out the need for ‘1580 towed guns’, the Dhanush order books stands at a comical 114 units to be delivered by March 2022, an urgent pace of approximately 4 guns a month.
Towed Array Sonars: Enough has been written about Indian warships being under-armed relative to their sizes. But at least they are armed. On the other hand, the Indian Navy has been forced to commission these expensive vessels without crucial equipment on board for years now. Not just guided missile destroyers and frigates, but dedicated ASW corvettes (Kamorta class) have been commissioned without towed sonars, essential for improving efficacy and extending the reach of their underwater awareness.
Rudra and Light Combat Helicopter (LCH): For every fully-kitted Apache and Chinook that enters service, there is a flip side – indigenous Rudra and LCH combat helicopters are essentially unarmed. Presently equipped only with a 20mm chin gun and unguided 70mm rockets, these combat helicopters have no precision strike or anti-air capability, even though both were planned since the outset. MBDA Mistral air-to-air missiles have been qualified and tested, but never contracted. Similarly, there has been no movement on fitting these helicopters with anti-tank guided missiles which are central to their battlefield support role. It is cruelly ironic then, that an IAF helicopter unit with the ‘Tankbusters’ appellation cannot in fact destroy tanks with its Rudra helicopters.
Self-propelled Howitzers (SPH): In 2005, India blacklisted South African arms company Denel over alleged irregularities in a Rs 144 crore contract for anti-materiel rifles. Not unusual in and of itself – India has a long and storied tradition of blacklisting arms companies – but for the fact that Denel was also partnered with DRDO to develop a tracked self-propelled 155mm howitzer called Bhim. The project was far enough along in development to have passed a rigorous set of trials in 1999. Despite being a priority for the Indian Army, the programme meandered through the Defence Ministry for five years. It was finally cleared and the file passed on to the cabinet for final approval in December 2004, but the entirely unrelated rifle issue took Denel out of contention in June 2005. The Bhim SPH programme fell apart immediately, and the Army eventually inducted its first tracked howitzer, the Korean K9 Thunder, thirteen years later in 2018. In 2013, all corruption charges against Denel were dropped due to lack of evidence.
Scorpene: In another breathtaking example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, the already fraught saga of the French Scorpene-class submarines being built at Mazagon Dock in Mumbai took a turn for the worse when the contract for its principal weapon had to be cancelled. The corruption investigation into a 2010 contract for VIP helicopters from AgustaWestland scuttled several ongoing and planned contracts in India, but none as high-profile as the Scorpene torpedoes. Any company linked with AgustaWestland was targeted, putting paid to the idea of commissioning a brand new class of submarines with anything resembling cutting-edge weaponry – the were to be provided by sister firm Whitehead Alenia Sistemi Subacquei (WASS). By a stroke of luck, the Scorpene class shares the same NATO standard torpedo tube dimensions as the 1990s-vintage German Type 209 submarines also operated by the Indian Navy, so they can share obsolescent torpedoes and the new submarines do not patrol the seas unarmed.
Assault Rifles: While a modern assault rifle might strike most people as a fairly mundane piece of military equipment, the Indian Army’s imagination in framing requirements has resulted in a ponderous saga worth a novel by itself. Long story short, the DRDO developed Indian Small Arms Systems (INSAS) assault rifle in service since the 1990s has been troublesome since induction, forcing the Army to search for alternatives. What should have been a straightforward replacement resulted in General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs) for a rifle able to fire completely different cartridges, the 5.56mm INSAS and the 7.62mm AK-47 round. No weapon ever met these requirements and eventually the tender was terminated in 2015. The Army eventually abandoned the intermediate cartridges entirely and contracted for 72,000 SIG716 battle rifles, with another 72,000 on the way.
BrahMos: The BrahMos missile was jointly developed by India’s Defense Research Development Organization and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyeniya and quickly became the standard ground- and sea-launched missile for the Indian military. India’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) has allowed the range of the Brahmos increase to 450km, from their previous limit of 290 km, and further development to 800km is planned. The missile has seen increasing indigenization over the years and was recently cleared for air-launch as well.
P-8I Poseidon: The P-8 multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft were acquired through the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme to address gaps in India’s airborne anti-submarine warfare capability. As of 2019, only six years after they arrived in-country, the Navy’s P-8Is had crossed an incredible 25,000 flying hours – almost as many as the Soviet Tu-142s that had served for nearly thirty years. Four more jets are already on order, and Navy is planning on at least six additional P-8Is for a fleet size of 18. In addition to their traditional maritime role, the aircraft have been deployed during the recent border crisis in Ladakh and during the 2017 Doklam face off.
C-17 Globemaster III: Airlift is a key mandate of the IAF, and is particularly critical in the far-flung mountain frontiers with China and Paksitan. The Boeing C-17, another FMS acquisition, granted the IAF a world-class strategic transport capability. The 11 airframes have lived up to all expectations of being able to carry out ‘strategic missions in tactical conditions’ – and with performance-based logistics support in place, have done so reliably and affordably.
Mi-17V-5: Inducted in 2012, the Mi-17V-5 constitutes the backbone of the IAF’s medium-lift helicopter fleet. The acquisition process was painless and quick by any standards, and more so by the Indian yardstick. Periodic top-ups saw a total of 151 helicopters assembled at an IAF facility in Chandigarh. Pressed into action for relief operations during the 2013 Himalayan floods a year after induction, the IAF’s Mi-17V-5s have since been at the forefront of almost every Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) effort in the past decade from the 2015 Nepal earthquake to the 2018 Kerala floods.
If the past is any guide, a slew of high profile upcoming programmes could go either way. The IAF’s Avro replacement programme selected a winner in the form of the Airbus C295 and would have kicked off the first major private sector aerospace acquisition in the country – a combined Airbus-Tata effort. Instead, it has languished since it was first cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in May 2015.
The upcoming Project 75 (India) submarine tender is critical to the Navy, but has been hanging fire since the RFI was issued in 2010. If it stalls for fiscal reasons, the Navy might have to cut their losses and pursue a more realistic alternative such as extending Scorpene production to another six boats, or procuring a few submarines off the shelf the same way the Rafale imbroglio was resolved. Similarly, the MoD has to be realistic decision on the whether or not the Navy’s Naval Utility Helicopter requirement can be met indigenously. Even though all indications are to the contrary, a battle between HAL and the Navy over the NUH has been played out in the media, casting serious doubt over the entire process.
Armour and mobility will remain critical to future warfighting, the Indian Army’s Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) programme has gone round in circles since it started off in 2009. Every few years a slew of positive commentary emerges before things fall silent again. A similar programme for a next-generation battle tank, the Future Ready Combat Vehicle, appears equally troubled but is distant enough that the Army can take corrective measures to ensure it does not spiral like FICV and so many other big-ticket defence projects before it.
The MoD publishes new Defence Procurement Procedures at regular intervals, ostensibly to improve the acquisition system, but has nonetheless been unable to streamline defence contracting. This has led to a number of government-to-government (G2G) negotiations over the years, some controversial, others not. These by definition bypass the cumbersome procurement cycle, rendering it all but irrelevant and standing as testimony to its failure. Meanwhile, successive governments of varying political hues have unsuccessfully wooed greater domestic and foreign investment in defence industry, all the while failing to understand the most glaringly obvious path to doing so – solving India’s crisis of credibility in contracting is the only way to move past lip service and toward a serious industrial capability.
Angad Singh is a Project Coordinator with Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) Strategic Studies Programme. Pushan Das is a Head of Forums at ORF. Views are personal.
This article was first published on ORF.