Weapons ban and their side effects

This fact is fairly well known: Asia is the biggest importer of arms and India leads the world in weapons imports. Arms procurement in India follows a complex, torturous, long winded procedure. The pulls and pressures at each step of this process are manifold. There have been frequent bans on weapon suppliers; and the nation; especially the defence forces suffer as they do not get the right weapon at the right time. To ban or black list a company is unarguably the ethically correct thing to do. There can be no dispute on that account, but a contrary alternate view is also direly needed, “what impact have the various bans had on defence preparedness?” The top brass in the forces have every right to ban a company for using unethical means to influence or better its prospects. This however raises a set of pertinent questions: Does the problem end there? What happens to the requirements of the weapon systems? Is there another means to get the same weapons in a stipulated time frame? How is the investigation being carried out? Is there a need to have fast track courts in cases like these?

Convictions in defence procurement deals have been rare. On the rare occasion, when convictions took place, the process led to no deterrence. The entire procurement process has so far lacked vision; it’s been forever mired in red-tape and bureaucratic bungling. Most importantly the possible impact of decisions made has not been thought through. In short, application of rigorous thought to the procurement process has been lacking. What has come about, as a result, is a moral high ground of keeping ones desk clean, while, the users of these weapons-which are the jawans-continue to languish with acute shortages.

By imposing a ban, the requirement of the weapons system does not vanish. In fact, the process only gets delayed. Bans are required, but it should be followed up rigorously and the process must be fast tracked. It should evoke a set of circumstances, such that the company being banned pays a higher cost, than the defence forces. The various bans have hit all the three services hard. This is why it’s important to emphasise that the “Make in India” idea should have been vigorously followed decades ago. There were scams earlier as well. But the first weapon system to catch the nation’s imagination, to burn up TV time as well as reams of newsprint was the Bofors gun. A time tested weapon, the gun proved its worth in Kargil. Twenty five years later it seems the investigation agency has more to answer than those being investigated. Once banned the ammunition and transfer of technology suffered, thus the artillery is still stuck with a gun bought in mid eighties.
The ammunition had to be procured from Denel of South Africa at a prohibitive cost. All of this affects training. This further affects preparedness and the nation’s soldiers silently pay the price for the intransigence of various politicians and the twists and turns that the bureaucracy imposes. Talking of Denel of South Africa, the company too came under the banned list. The ban was lifted recently in August 2014 after nine years of investigation, as nothing untoward was found in the purchase of the anti-material rifle supplied by Denel. Only 400 of these could be procured out of an order for one thousand. This rifle gives a distinct advantage, while targeting vehicles, semi-hard and high-value equipment at long range. It’s especially useful in an eye to eye deployment.

The ban on Tatra was again recently lifted on January 31 2015. Probably due to the media’s preoccupation with the Delhi elections, it hardly made any news. The Tatra is an excellent prime mover, all artillery and missiles are mounted on it. It will not be out of place to mention that all future DRDO mobility projects are also based on the Tatra. Both the Bofors gun and the Tatras have proved their worth. The Tatra have other issues like pricing, it being a left hand drive vehicle; this aspect needed a change, and that unfortunately has not been done. The government it seems has put in place a confusing system of checks and balances regarding Tatra.

The emphasis of this article is not legalist or moralist. The issues that need to be addressed are two-fold. Has the Indian state created a robust system to ensure weapon procurement so they are not held up? Secondly, the ban once applied, has to be done intelligently such that arms supplier pay a higher price and not the end user of the weapon. This hopefully will force the supplier to clean up his act. Weapons procurement has a long gestation period and one or two years pass by while files are doing the customary circuit on various desks in New Delhi.

The Air defence gun got into problems because Rheinmetall Air Defense is banned from doing business in India. Today a lot of companies are also banned in addition to the above mentioned company. Nine companies of Singapore Technologies Kinetic (STK), which in 2010 had the MoD and the Army in conflict over trails. This company had a 155mm towed gun, a light weight assault rifle and an ultra light howitzer, something which the Army direly needed for use in the mountains. This company, however, was also banned. The ban was imposed on account of arrest of former Ordinance Factory Board Chairman in 2009. Is this not a case of lack of planning; zero accountability at any level? As far as helicopters are concerned, the Agusta Westland helicopters case is again making news.

The government has decided to scrap the order of 197 light utility helicopters and stated that these will be made in India. Will this put the entire deal back by a couple of years? The requirement of helicopters is around a thousand for all three services combined, and India lacks production facilities. The current Defence Minister has lifted two bans, a bold decision indeed. However, by the time the cycle is complete it will take at least a year and the effect of the decision will be seen only two to three years from today. Thus arms, which have a long procurement period, the impact of the decision made now will be felt after a couple of years. In the mean time, the services continue to suffer with shortages of all types of ammunition.

The author is a retired brigadier
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