Even as armed forces are being called on to prepare for a two-front war, they're short of everything from tanks to helmets

Less than two years ago, Defence Minister A.K. Anthony directed the armed forces to prepare themselves for a nightmare scenario: a two-front war with nuclear-armed Pakistan and China. In the years since, two new mountain divisions and a third artillery division have been raised; an air assault division, two mountain divisions, and an entire new corps are being assembled.

In a leaked March 12 letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chief of the Army Staff General V.K. Singh has revealed a somewhat darker reality: the artillery and tanks that make up the backbone of these formations are near-defunct and the air-defence systems protecting them obsolescent.

Gen. Singh's letters have provoked outrage and alarm — but reveal little that Indian military experts haven't written about for years. Gen Singh made similar points in an earlier letter to Mr. Antony, which made it to newspaper front pages on March 4. In public speeches, both Gen. Singh and Mr. Antony have pointed to the need for change — and yet, little has happened.

Case of missing howitzer

India's search for a 155-millimetre howitzer to replace its ageing arsenal of Swedish-made FH-77B Bofors guns helps demonstrate multiple factors that have contributed to the making of the mess. First, the Army sought weapons with characteristics that are now widely acknowledged to have been unrealistic: tenders were issued, withdrawn, and reissued after multiple rounds of tests.

Then, in March, the government blacklisted leading contenders Singapore Technologies Kinetics and Rheinmetall Air Defence, for their alleged role in a 2009 corruption scandal at the government-run Ordnance Factory Board.

The Delhi High Court, meanwhile, blocked plans to spend $647 million on purchasing 145 M777 155-mm howitzers manufactured by the United Kingdom's BAE Systems, and laser pointing systems built by Selex.

The end result has been the Army's artillery wing being degraded to a point of near-helplessness. Less than half of the 400-odd Bofors howitzers purchased in the 1980s are now in use. The 180 Soviet Union-made 130mm M-46 field guns used by India's artillery regiments were upgraded in the hope of giving them characteristics similar to 155mm howitzers, but insiders say their performance is far from satisfactory. For the most part, India's regiments are dependent on unmodified M-46 guns, D-30 122mm guns, and 105mm field guns — all designs dating back decades.

Widespread malaise

In case after case, the story is much the same. The Army had planned to equip its 59 armoured regiments with 1,657 T-90S main battle tanks — 1,000 of which were to be Indian-made. Production of T-90S tanks has been slow — the consequence, the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) says, of piecemeal orders from the Army and delayed technology transfers.

The 100-odd Indian-designed Arjun tanks delivered to the Army, meanwhile, didn't function as marketed. The CVRDE then set about making 93 improvements — several of them major, such as giving the tank a new engine and the ability to fire Israeli-made 120mm anti-tank missiles.

Efforts to plug the gap by upgrading India's T-72 tanks in the interim also ran into trouble. Indian-made 125mm smooth bore barrels blew up during field use, forcing the Army to seek emergency imports which haven't materialised. Imports of equipment which would have given them critical night-fighting capabilities are running years behind schedule.

Efforts to replace the obsolete Aerospatiale SA316 and 315B helicopters — known locally as Chetak and Cheetah — have run into similar problems.

In 2007, the Ministry of Defence scrapped an $800 million deal to acquire 197 Eurocopter A550 C3 light helicopters, after it emerged that there were irregularities in trials that ran for four years. The Ministry is now assessing the claims of Russian-made Kamov Ka-226 and Eurocopter's AS 550, after fresh tests.

In early 2010, the Army reported it was short of 3,90,000 ballistic helmets, 30,000 third-generation night vision devices, 1,80,000 lightweight bullet-proof jackets, 15,000 general purpose machine guns and 1,100 anti-materiel rifles. Later this year, the Army is expected to begin the process of testing the 66,000 5.56mm assault rifle it needs to replace substandard but Indian-made weapons it was arm-twisted into accepting in the late-1990s.

Big plans, small progress

Part of the problem is this: procurement programmes that were to be completed in 48 months routinely take twice as long to come to fruition. Even equipment ordered under the Ministry of Defence Fast Track programme, which envisages deliveries in a year, have often taken three times as long to materialise.

The Army complains, with reason, that the Ministry is often obstructive, and that defence production facilities are sub-standard. The P. Rama Rao and Vijay Kelkar committees, which investigated these issues, have never been discussed in Parliament.

It is also true that institutions, other than the Army, have negotiated the bureaucratic system with success. Last year, a report published by the Confederation of Indian Industry and international financial consultants KPMG said that the Army had acquired just $420 million of equipment since 2007, compared with $6.16 billion by the Navy and $17.46 billion by the Air Force. Even the Coast Guard had made acquisitions worth $616 million.

Factionalism within the Army, legal manoeuvres by defence firms, and dysfunction in the defence production system have all thus contributed to the mess — along, of course, with outright corruption. Fixing the crisis needs sustained commitment to reforming India's defence acquisition system from root up — not just outrage or alarm.

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