At best of times, India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is a lumbering giant, slow to stir and act. It not only is entrusted with the defence of India but is also the administrative ministry for India’s nearly 15 lakh military personnel (Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard). It also has one of the largest budgets in the government of India. For 2017-18 for instance, it has been allocated Rs. 3,59,854 crore (US$ 53.5 billion). Critics have quibbled over the comparatively low increase in the defence budget this year.
However, funds are least of the challenges faced by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and his team in the MoD.
Instead, reducing timelines for acquisitions, better and optimum utilisation of available resources, bringing in more accountability and transparency in MoD’s functioning and making sure most critical voids in India’s defence preparedness are made up in quick time, have been the focus areas in South Block, the colonial building that is the headquarters of the Defence Ministry. But above all, the emphasis is on making sure that the Make in India initiative of the Prime Minister gets the necessary impetus in defence production.
Promulgation of Defence of Procurement Policy (DPP)-2016 was the first step towards making fundamental changes in the way weapons platforms are acquired in India. The Buy IDDM (Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured) category introduced in DPP-2016 now gets the topmost priority amongst six categories that constitute new DPP, which is the guiding document for all defence purchases in India. In effect this means all those Indian companies who have the capability of designing and developing their products indigenously will from now on get the first preference in most purchases that the three armed forces undertake.
Under the new category for Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured (IDDM) equipment, it will be mandatory for 40 per cent of the content to be sourced locally.
The new DPP has many fresh ideas designed to accelerate defence acquisitions while encouraging indigenous companies under the flagship programme of Make in India. For instance, in order to cut down delays, the DPP henceforth mandates that all AONs (Acceptance of Necessity) of a particular platform will be valid only for only six months as against the 12 months deadline that it currently provides. Moreover, no AON will be notified until it is accompanied by a finalised RFP (Request for Proposal or detailed tender). In essence, this eliminates one intermediate stage since notifying an RFP after an AON used to be inordinately delayed.
Prioritisation of projects was the first step. Defence acquisitions are expensive and since five years very little was purchased, the backlog just added to the problem. A review of proposed projects made over the previous five years found that the bureaucracy in the ministry — both civil and military — was sitting on some 400-odd big and small projects that were critical to the three armed forces. A thorough review revealed that nearly one-third of the 400-odd projects were now irrelevant. So they were discarded. About 50 projects were accelerated since they were of critical importance.
Next, critical schemes across the three services that needed immediate funding and implementation were identified. The purchase of 50,000 bullet proof jackets, for instance, was sanctioned on a fast track basis once it was realised that troops involved in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency operations were facing a severe shortage. Even helmets, an essential item for protection to jawans have finally been ordered after two decade long gap. An Indian company, the Kanpur-based MKU Industries has been contracted to manufacture 1.58 lakh helmets in a deal worth Rs. 170 and 180 crore.
The figures speak for themselves: The MoD cleared a total of 124 new contracts worth Rs 2,09751 crores since the Modi government came to power. These include artillery guns, attack and medium lift helicopters for the Army (Chinook and Apache helicopters from the US); frigates and mine counter-measure vessels for the navy and Akash missiles for the Air Force.
Post September 2016, when India conducted surgical strikes against Pakistan and it seemed for a while that Pakistan may mobilise for a larger conflict, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) authorised the three forces to make fast-track acquisitions worth nearly Rs 20,000 crores making it one of the most productive years for the MoD.
This had to be done on priority because the previous government had neglected even the basic requirements. The previous Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Report tabled in Parliament made for grim reading. “Stocking of ammunition even at ‘minimum acceptable risk level’ was not ensured, as availability of ammunition as on March 2013 was below this level in respect of 125 out of a total of 170 types of ammunition,” the CAG report pointed out. Also, in 50 per cent of the total types of ammunition, the holding was “critical” — insufficient for even 10 days of fighting, the report added. This has now been corrected by making sure that ammunition for 10 days of intense fighting is always in stock. Once that objective is achieved, the ministry will look at further replenishing the stocks. The delegated financial powers for vice chiefs of the three services and Army Commanders has been enhanced to allow speedier purchases. This is a big change in the notoriously slow and opaque functioning that has historically besieged the MoD.
In another major decision, the Government opened up the defence sector for FDI, allowing 49 percent FDI through the automatic route and up to 100 percent FDI on a case to case basis. Also, the restrictions on what was ‘state-of-the-art technology’ has been reduced to ‘modern technology’. This would increase the number of defence companies investing in India.
Procurement, modernisation of three services apart, the biggest decision by the Modi government was to grant the One Rank One pension—a 40 year old demand of the veterans. This government showed the necessary political will and resolve to give dignity to military veterans.
Clearly, India’s defence ministry is on a mission to shed years of lethargy to ensure that the armed forces remain ready and armed to defend India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
(Nitin Anant Gokhale is an authoritative defence analyst, author and media trainer. After spending 32 years as a mainstream journalist across web, print and broadcast mediums he now runs his own specialised defence website BharatShakti.in, besides delivering talks on topics of national security)