The Indian Army inducted its first batch of artillery guns on November 9 in Deolali and it is expected that over the next two years, a total of 245 guns will be progressively acquired.
These guns are 145 in number M 777 (from the US) and 100 in number K 9 Vajra (with South Korean cooperation) and will cost a little under Rs 10,000 crores.
It may be recalled that after India acquired the Bofors artillery gun from Sweden in 1986, this is the first induction of fresh inventory and is an indicator of the many constraints that bedevil the military procurement process in India.
Both the Bofors gun and the HDW submarine acquired from then West Germany in the later 1980s have become synonymous with financial transgressions and corruption cum bribery charges were levelled against then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
It also merits note that after more than 30 years of investigation, the Bofors case has been more or less closed for extended delays by the CBI and lack of substantive evidence–though a window has been kept open on technical grounds.
However, it would be valid to infer that then PM Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party were placed on the defensive by the opposition parties and the electoral defeat of the Congress party in late 1989 was shaped by the perception among the electorate that the government of the day was ‘corrupt’ and hence voted out.
These elements are indicative of the multi-layered significance of the induction in Deolali on Friday where the Defence Minister and the Army Chief were both present.
In her remarks, Minister Nirmala Sitharaman provided the political context when she noted: “These guns are being inducted almost 30 years after the Bofors guns were inducted” and added that though the process to acquire these guns began in 2006, there was no tangible progress.
In the pre-election phase that India is now in, the Minister further added: “In contrast, our government shrunk the process in the last four years and not only initiated the procurement process, but ensured its induction.”
While the M 777 is a case of a direct government to government (G2G) purchase from the USA, thereby avoiding the kind of Rafale fiasco, the Vajra has the potential for contributing to the Make In India initiative prioritized by the Modi government.
The Indian army has been in dire need of acquiring greater fire-power by way of the artillery and this was evidenced during the Kargil war of 1999. Yet, the higher defence decision-making apparatus in India during NDA-I led by PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the UPA decade led by PM Manmohan Singh were unable to redress a major inventory gap for the army and these 15 years did not lead to any meaningful policy decision by way of direct import, technology transfer and assemble in India, as well as provide encouragement to the private sector.
Much the same paradigm applies to the Indian Air Force and the induction of a fighter aircraft now symbolized by the Rafale controversy.
Thus the policy cues from the Deolali induction of artillery guns can be reviewed along three tracks. The first is that the armed forces of India must not be denied critical equipment/ platform due to political mud-slinging between the major parties and the Bofors-HDW cross ought to be an internalised for lessons learnt and pitfalls to be avoided by the legislature and the PMO in an appropriate manner.
This is easier said than done given the current ethos in India, which is a relentless zero-sum approach towards national security and seeking political mileage for electoral benefit.
The second is that whether UPA or NDA, the military inventory procurement procedures in India have to be made more time and cost efficient. The submarine saga of India is one of precious time and resources – both fiscal and HR being squandered due to faulty policy making and an indifferent/impulsive higher defence management approach.
The Rafale fighter aircraft experience and the Scorpene submarine now being built in India as the new Kalveri class, are illustrative.
The third policy strand that merits some deep introspection is the Indian inability to nurture a national eco-system for encouraging Make in India in the defence sector in a meaningful manner.
The Vajra K 9 guns inducted in Deolali are the result of cooperation between a South Korean technology major and an Indian company — Larsen & Toubro. This is a commendable initiative in relation to domestic manufacture of conventional military equipment for the army, which despite being the largest service in India, does not have a significant track-record in design and manufacture of equipment/platforms.
India needs to nurture the private sector –both major and medium - to become stakeholders in the path towards some degree of self-sufficiency.
Defence R&D and manufacture in India has been zealously guarded by the DRDO and the defence PSUs, including the Ordnance factories.
While there have been notable successes in the strategic domain due to the perseverance of these institutions, for example, the missile and nuclear weapon programme– the conventional arms spectrum is disappointing.
While the DRDO has been accused of being a ‘dog-in-the-manger’, in certain instances the faith and trust placed in the private sector has been misplaced leading to bitter acrimony between the principal stakeholders.
India is planning a manned mission to the moon but is unable to design and manufacture a personal weapon for its one million-plus army and a para-military that is as large. Irrigating the defence design and manufacturing eco-system towards this end for the long term is a national imperative.