The controversies over arms deals that periodically emerge in India have frequently led to frustration in the Armed Forces as well as the general public over delays in defense preparedness caused due to resolving of the eternal puzzle of who paid whom? The soldiers, sailors and airmen of one of the finest defense forces of the world, know little about arms deals that take place at levels which are perhaps even higher than that of the top most military hierarchy. Born in the rugged hills of Garhwal, Kumaon, Himachal, Nagaland and the Sahyadris, the plains of Punjab and Tamil Nadu or the harsh desert of Rajasthan, these sons of the soil are still willing to lay their lives for the motherland in the spirit of yester years, “theirs not to question why but to do and die”. Regrettably these sincere souls who shed blood and sweat in defense of their motherland have been getting a raw deal in timely provision of the best in arms and military equipment. So much so that action is pending against culprits who reportedly robbed the nation in purchase of coffins in the wake of the Kargil conflict in 1999.
Today the country does not lack resources to fund its defense forces, with a foreign currency reserve of $160 billion plus, the defense budget can be taken care of for a decade or more at current levels of spending. The problem then appears to be two fold, ignorance and corruption. Both are equally harmful to the system and cannot be allowed to prevail.
Taking the issue of corruption first, a review of the many scams that have plagued defense procurement over the years has made it evident that corruption in defense deals prevails at various points and during various stages in the Indian system which can be variously pinned down to middle men, political bosses, bureaucrats and even uniformed personnel. The large size of defense deals running in thousands of Crores and billions of dollars makes even a small percentage as commission fairly attractive, leading to a huge body of hangers on, real and virtual business men making a bee line to the South Block, India’s defense headquarters. These are all, “honest” folks attempting to get the best bang for buck for the Forces. To be fair to some of them, they have not bargained for duds and but for a few exception the quality of procurement as Bofors cannot be faulted. However the procedure is so complicated and lengthy, that at each stage there is enough time and scope for kickbacks. Major defense corporations have large amounts at stake, for instance the Israeli pie in India’s defense market is said to be $600 million per year, which comprises of a large portion of orders for its defense industry. Thus there is always a temptation to cut corners as well as lace pockets. While revised guidelines and additional checks such as Integrity Certificates have been imposed, the situation is not likely to improve due to the second factor that is of a blissful state of ignorance prevailing on the mechanics of defense procurements and the method of operation of large arms dealers.
The uniformed community may be well versed with the qualitative requirement for various arms, but quiz them on the process of procurement and they would be blissfully unaware. The bureaucrat can take you through the procedures but is ignorant of the technical and qualitative parameters for differentiating between the best and the not so best or even the worse. The antagonism between the uniformed community and the defense ministry in India is legend, thus very high levels of mistrust prevail. Under the circumstances it is left to the middle men to act as a link, flaunting real and imaginary political connections as the Tehelka tapes demonstrated. That they also grease a few palms in the process is inevitable in the prevalent atmosphere of permissiveness in India.
Fast tracking the process of indigenous defense research, development and production would also reduce dependence on foreign suppliers, thereby eliminating chances of corruption. The Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is notoriously lethargic providing a window of opportunity to foreign manufacturers. In the latest case of allegations over the Barak deal, it is DRDO’s lack of adherence to the schedule of development of the indigenous Trishul that led the Indian Navy to go for procurements from abroad. The DRDO will also have to be supported by a defense production base in the country which is in a nascent stage. It is thus apparent that the Indian Armed Forces will have to continue to depend on foreign suppliers.
A way around this situation will have to be found out by the Indian defense community shortly, for there is a long line of defense deals worth billions of dollars in the offing. With the arms race in the Sub Continent gathering momentum as Pakistan has been released long promised F 16’s, any delays will be definitely detrimental to India’s defense preparedness. In the age of the internet, transparency is the key for avoidance of corruption, the earlier the Indian defense establishment opens its arms procurement process to public scrutiny the better will be India’s defense preparedness.