Saturday, January 30, 2010

A wimpish Republic Day show reveals a failure of the UPA

The media reactions to our 61st Republic Day parade have been purblind: “The nation once again displayed its armed might” has been their theme. You would have had to look really hard to see any “armed might”, and that was not just because of the fog. Never in recent memory has there been a parade as wimpish as the one we witnessed on Tuesday. A light fighter and a missile system still in the development stage, two Arjun tanks of somewhat questionable ability, two Russian-origin multiple rocket launching systems, a couple of infantry combat vehicles and an invisible flypast of two fighters and a tanker about summed up the armed might on display, if you discount the ceremonial marchers.

Other countries also have military parades—France, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and China to name a few. Since they are about the military, they do them well. The French combined the ceremonial and the practical in the parade last July where an Indian contingent also featured. The Chinese celebration of their 60th anniversary was designed for shock and awe and it did achieve its purpose.

In its essence, the Republic Day parade is meant to be a military show. The floats and the marching children are meant to be an adjunct to it. The show of military might is meant to evoke awe in adversaries and provide reassurance to the citizens of the country who look on. Tuesday’s parade, admittedly washed out by the fog, did neither. The news that the tricolour was not hoisted at Lal Chowk in Srinagar only underscored that image.
What would it have cost the country to have put a squadron of T-90S tanks, some towed artillery (because the mighty Indian Army has yet to acquire a real self-propelled gun) and a few more BMPs ?


Actually, the de-rating of the military component of the parade is only a metaphor for the larger message coming from the Congress-led UPA government: The armed forces are an inconvenient necessity, a financial encumbrance on the nation. This is the message that has resonated since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru and its central theme has been that government policy is aimed at conflict avoidance, not deterrence through strength.
At another level, it is not surprising that there was little displayed, because the country has not acquired anything new in recent years to display. The last artillery guns bought were 20 years ago, the self-propelled guns are yet to be bought, as is the case with new attack helicopters, light-weight howitzers and so on. It is also significant that it was the DRDO which displayed the Agni and Shaurya missiles and the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft; because these are still products under development. It would have been significant if this equipment had been paraded by the services. In all likelihood, the missiles in question were probably full-scale models, rather than the real thing that Pakistan and China are wont to parade.
A great deal of blame for this state of affairs must fall on Union Defence Minister A.K. Antony. His leadership of the department since 2005 has been uninspiring, if not downright disastrous. His sole aim, critics say, is to preserve his image as “St Antony”, the honest. So, no major defence acquisition has been finalised in his term as yet.
Antony’s two big failures have been, first, his inability to carry out the much needed deep reforms in the organisation of the armed forces; and second, to set in place a proper defence acquisition policy. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) came up with one policy in 2005, revised it in 2006, 2008 and again revised it last October. The problem with any policy is the bureaucratic culture of the MoD and the stranglehold that the DRDO and the Defence ordnance and public sector units have on it. The result is the strange contortions that occur when Tata and Ashok Leyland trucks are bought as knocked down kits and assembled in overstaffed ordnance factories.
The offset policy—where a foreign vendor is committed to invest or spend 30 per cent of the value of the contract in India—sounds nice, but is not easy to implement.
For example, the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, the only defence public sector unit in aviation, will receive offsets worth $0.5 billion per annum for ten years from the MMRCA fighter programme. But can a company whose annual turnover is $1.5 billion absorb that sum?
The task of channeling offsets in the desired direction of promoting the indigenous defence industry is challenging and complex and requires the kind of skill and flexibility that the MoD lacks.
As it is, its cavalier treatment of foreign vendors is leading to a great deal of heartburn. Take the case of Singapore Technologies Kinetic (STK). The MoD imposed a ban on it and seven companies after the May 2009 arrest of Ordnance Factory Board Chairman Sudipta Ghosh on corruption charges. The company was the only bidder left for the new generation towed howitzer. This month the MoD lifted the ban to allow the gun to participate in trials, but it has refused to lift the ban on STK’s Pegasus 155mm ultralight howitzer needed by our mountain divisions. The result is that there is only one vendor left—the American BAE Systems M777. STK has actually had the ignominy of having its Pegasus gun sent for trials in 2008 seized and put in army “custody.”
Another instance, this time the fault of the Finance Ministry, relates to the Indian Air Force. The MoD approved the IAF’s choice of the Airbus 330 to replace the Russian Il-78 as flight refueling aircraft. But the Finance Ministry deemed the choice inappropriate because of the cost. The argument that the Airbus had lower life-cycle costs because of its more sophisticated engine and systems did not wash.


The Mumbai attack brought home to the UPA the need to strengthen the internal security mechanism of the country. Indeed, till the shock of the attack, the UPA government was carrying on with business-as-usual despite a mounting crescendo of attacks. Since then, a tough Home Minister has begun the process of overhauling the internal security mechanism.
Will it take another Kargil-like shock to do the same with regard to external threats ? There is nothing that the UPA has done in the past five years to suggest that it is taking serious note of the rising challenge, especially from China. Yes, there are plans and projects in the pipeline, but there is no sense of the needed urgency. No effort has been made to reform the armed forces organisation, recommendations of the NDA government on creating a Chief of Defence Staff to begin the process of integration of the armed forces have been ignored.


Acquisitions remain on a slow track. The situation is not dissimilar to the manner in which the Congress-led government handled the pre-1962 situation. Then, as now, there were important plans to establish a domestic arms industry, many plans and projects that fructified only after the war.
There are people who will argue that the Republic Day military parade is an anachronism for a peaceable, democratic republic like ours. In that case, it would be a good idea to drop the military portion of the parade altogether and celebrate the occasion like July 4 in the US, with citizen parades and fireworks. But keep in mind that India does not live in the peaceful neck of woods that the Americans do.
This republic confronts multiple threats from enemies within and without. One major military parade in a year has the value of saluting our armed forces who lose hundreds of lives every year in defending the country. It also has the not inconsiderable purpose of warning adversaries and reassuring citizens. The US does not really need to demonstrate its power. We do, at least, on occasion.
This appeared first in Mail Today January 28, 2010

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