Global aerospace giants and arms trading firms were in India's information technology and aero industry capital Bengaluru (Bangalore) last week for the biggest exhibition of combat aircraft in Asia, Aero India 2009. India has not bought a single artillery piece in the past two decades, defence acquisition processes takes decades rather than years and corruption in defence deals is proverbial. Yet the likes of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, EADS and Rosoboronexport along with many large and small aerospace firms numbering almost 600 from 25 countries were at the air show which had driven hotel prices in the city to an astronomical high. Incidentally Bengaluru is a few hours drive from Mangalore made famous by Mr Mutalik and Sri Ram Sene with their condemnable attack on girls in a pub which inspired one of the most successful online advocacy campaigns in India.
The gloom of a global economic slow down was no where in sight at the numerous stalls at the Exhibition as CEOs jostled for the eyes of Indian Air Force top brass and Ministry of Defence bureaucrats alike. Their pied piper was the unlikely Mr A K Antony, India's Defence Minister, known for his squeaky clean image, he cooed sweet music into their ears, "There is no question of scaling down our defence expenditure... or compromising with our acquisition programmes despite the economic recession. India has emerged as an attractive market and a key outsourcing hub for global aerospace firms due to low-cost, skilled engineers, good organizations, software and technology."
His colleague, the peripatetic part time Finance Minister and Ms Sonia Gandhi's man for all seasons, from tackling Mr Karunanidhi in the South to shaking up Mr Gillani and General Kiyani in Islamabad, Mr Pranab Mukherjee did not let him down. He announced a Defence Budget of Rs 1,41,703 Crore ($ 31.5 billion) an increase of 23 percent over Revised Estimates for financial year 2008-09 at Rs 1,14,600 Crore ($25.5 billion). Rs 54824 Crore ($ 12.2 billion), a jump of 33.7 percent from the revised estimates of the previous year is allotted for acquisition of weapons and equipment for the services.
The main international participants in Aero India are from Germany and France with 31 firms each, these were closely followed by the UK 26, Russia 24 and the United States 22 which made up for the 303 companies which came from abroad. Israel which already has a firm foothold in the Indian defence market having replaced France recently as the second largest supplier to New Delhi was represented by 10 defence firms. Prominent amongst the other countries was Omnipol of the Czech Republic.
The main attraction of the Aero India 2009 as it appears would also be in subsequent years till India finally signs the contract for the 126 Medium Multi Role Combat aircraft, acronymed as MMRCA are the six fighter jets, four of which were on display and flown during the show, MiG 35, F 18, F 16 and Euro fighter with Rafale and Swedish Gripen noticeable by their absence. Other major platforms in the pipeline are 700 helicopters and almost 1000 artillery pieces.
So why do we call India's defence procurement, 'bankrupt'. There are principally three reasons for the same; poor financial management, acquisition inadequacies and research and development shortcomings.
Consistently over the past many years, the countries defence ministry has been surrendering sums allotted for new acquisitions. In the current financial year April 2008-March 2009, this amount reached Rs 7007 Crore ($1.55 Billion) or 16 percent of the allotted amount. This when the media and the public in India is crying hoarse after Mumbai 26/11 for lack of preparedness to respond to Pakistan's belligerent posturing in kind rather than words. Critical deficiencies have been highlighted in ships, submarines, aircraft, artillery, bullet proof jackets and even assault rifles amongst others. With so many shortfalls surrendering money is inexcusable. So obviously there is bankruptcy of financial and expenditure efficiency.
The bankruptcy in acquisition capability is evident with the country's artillery failing to carry out a much needed up gradation to 155 mm guns planned over the past 20 years. This is when it is in one of the hottest conflict zones on the trip wire of the Line of Control. At one stage it was even short of artillery ammunition resulting in emergency buying during which reportedly duds were sold off by some foreign companies which are the subject of some inquiries. The air defence is even weaker making do with second world war guns as the L70.
To acquire an Advanced Trainer Jet (AJT) the Indian Air Force took over twenty years, this when a number of pilots lost their lives due to lack of adequate advanced training. Curiously MiG 21 an excellent aircraft as certified by many pilots was being called a, 'flying coffin', as pilots simply had to graduate to the fighter directly from the intermediate trainer and learn advanced flying on the job, a highly risky exercise.
The bankruptcy in research and development has reached phenomenal proportions. India's Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) comprises some of the most dedicated scientists in the country. They have developed strategic missile systems and a nuclear weapon without following clandestine path like A Q Khan of Pakistan when the country was under sanctions. The Agni, Prithvi, BrahMos are testimony to the capabilities of these scientists who would be lapped up for their talent by any global multi national. Yet the organization is notorious for delays, dithering and incomplete project termination.
The Arjun tank delivered by the DRDO after protracted delays is not wanted by the Army. The Trishul surface to air missile is found inadequate by the Air Force while the Navy through sheer exasperation has formed its own designing, architecture and integration outfit with the DRDO restricted to development of materials, sonars and other peripheral items. The key areas of failure of the DRDO are of project management, a perennial war with the services over qualitative requirements and delayed supplies and a brain drain of talent. On its part the organization has been relatively short of funds.
Hopefully things are changing for India's defence acquisitions. The DRDO is now willing to take up joint projects starting with the Russian BrahMos, similarly joint development of a Fifth generation fighter, transport aircraft and air defence system is in the pipe line. The Defence Ministry has devised a new procurement procedure and is stringently following it in the MMRCA program. Defence Finance is giving impetus to expenditure management. Things should look up. That is the hope with which global majors lined up in Bengaluru.