Letters

Letters to the Editor — June 22, 2020

Needed, some answers

Instead of keeping the nation guessing, the government ought to shed light on the occurrences along the India-China border. It is indeed quite strange that news about the state of India’s soldiers has been quite opaque. The Prime Minister’s statement, “Neither has anyone intruded into our frontier, nor is anyone present there, nor are any of our posts under someone else’s occupation”, has only given scope for multiple interpretations (Page 1, “PMO says ‘mischievous’ spin given to Modi’s remark at meet”, June 21.) Many retired defence officers with impeccable credentials have expressed their apprehensions. That the Prime Minister’s statement in a meeting with the Opposition has had to be clarified further reflects badly on the government. An unambiguous statement from the government is needed urgently to put an end to the guessing game.

Manohar Alembath,

Kannur, Kerala

The contradictory statements from the highest levels on the intrusion of China’s PLA into Indian territory indicate the government’s intentions to hide the inept handling of border tensions rather than presenting a true picture of events (Inside pages, “Opposition seeks Centre’s explanation”, June 21). If Chinese troops did not make advances into Indian territory, then why were Indian and Chinese soldiers killed (Inside pages, “China lost over 40 soldiers in Galwan, says Minister”, June 21)?

These are some of the valid questions that have been left unanswered by the government of India and the Indian military. There are also some strong voices seeking ‘measures of revenge’ against China such as boycotting its goods and services. The government should also clarify whether India is capable or not of marching forward without such economic ties and trade relations with China.

Thumati Anuradha,

Hyderabad

Border management

It is hard, no doubt, for our soldiers to keep an eye on India’s vast borders in challenging and varying terrain and in extreme weather conditions, made worse by savage attacks from our various enemies from time to time.

But if an earth-imaging company can take detailed satellite images of the disputed site — Galwan Valley — with such precision and regularity, then one wonders why is it not possible for Indian government agencies to monitor our borders using satellites in real time and making life a little easier for our defence personnel.

From satellite image interpretations, it seems China was constructing roads in the valley and possibly damming water bodies for quite some time (Inside pages,“Satellite images suggest increased Chinese activity at border before clash”, June 20).

A. Venkatasubramanian,

Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu

On medical frontlines

By closing down medical colleges during a pandemic, we are not training medical students to be better prepared during similar emergencies and resource-demanding situations such as the management of the COVID-19 disease. This is the right time to learn more about barrier nursing and disaster triage. In today’s abbreviated curriculum and fast-paced learning, a break will have bad consequences. Students can also learn from mistakes.

Dr. Murugan,

Coimbatore

GOCO is a no go

I write this as a former DGEME, DGIS and Member Armed Forces Tribunal (PVSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC). The latest move of the government to hand over operations of its Army Base Workshop (ABW) at Delhi to private corporates for handling close support and rebuild operations of frontline tanks has left many within the Indian Army flummoxed; it must certainly have amused our adversaries.

The move is one of the recommendations from the Lt. General D.B. Shekatkar panel and the Indian Army has come out with a Request for Information (RFI) seeking responses from interested corporates. Private bidders will be required to carry out the overhaul of T72 and T90 tanks and field replaceable units of the T90 and the T72. The T90 tanks form a significant part of the strike elements.

ABWs are the last port of call for force regeneration of combat equipment such as naval dockyards and base repair depots of the Air Force. An Army with 70% obsolescent inventory needs to empower and modernise ABWs so that its vintage systems can be kept mission capable. The Government Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO) model could become a self-defeating initiative of the Army much against the recommendation of Sheketkar committee to corporatise ABWs . The CAG in Report No. 36 of 2016 on a performance audit of ABWs had recommended creation of base rebuild facilities for the T90 and introduction of a cost accounting system. The Chief of the Army Staff has talked of force preservation during the current crisis; apart from keeping troops fit, he needs to ensure that frontline combat systems are kept mission capable, 24x7, 360 degrees. It appears equipment capability is not on the radar, else the go-ahead for such a specious move, that could drastically diminish mission readiness of the T90 tanks would not have come. Instead of consolidating organic maintainer capability at the ABWs, privatising rebuild operations is a case of tearing down the fences without knowing why they were put up.

How has the Army misconstrued corporatisation as being synonymous with privatisation of core rebuild operations of the ABW? Corporatisation is the process of transforming state assets or municipal organisations into corporations. These state-owned enterprises are organised in the same manner as private corporations. The Finance Minister had also explained this difference very succinctly in her press briefing on May 16 while talking about corporatisation of ordnance factories.

Base reset capability supports field formations by providing sub-systems and field replaceable units (FRUs) to keep weapons in Ready to Fight (RTF) condition. During war, technicians move to battle areas to return damaged and dysfunctional systems back into action. During Kargil, maintainers from ABWs supported missiles and Bofors in forward areas. Maintainer capability may not appear to be of operational relevance in times of low-intensity conflicts, though even after 30 years, Bofors continues to remain the Indian Army’s principal fire power provider at the Line of Control due to ingenious maintenance support by ABWs.. The future is certain to bring into sharp focus consequences of decision making that places a heavy emphasis on cost efficiency, when the risk appears low. The GOCO model in ABWs is akin to privatisation of core functions of research and referral and command hospitals, and no amount of studies on cost effectiveness can provide the raison d’etre to privatise specialist medical treatment and surgeries of soldiers. The Employees Contributory Health Scheme is under stress as mounting bills of private hospitals cannot be cleared. So why the tearing hurry to privatise technical support of weapons and equipment? After all, soldier and equipment readiness still remain the principal battlefield operating systems of 21st century.

What is intriguing is the sheer velocity at which the GOCO initiative is being driven without even a Plan B, riding rough shod over reservations by many to look before the leap. The report by PWC has identified spares support as a vital production hold-up issue, and, logically, spares supply should first be put on the block. Examples the world over have repeatedly reaffirmed the futility of GOCO experiments for privatisation of organic national security assets. There is an inherent convergence of objectives in the private sector to maximise profits and this could be at the cost of equipment readiness. Hollowness will set in silently. Also, the livelihood of 13,000 civilian employees will be affected by this move, a fallout which may not have been appropriately conveyed to the government.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has amply demonstrated the importance of organic infrastructure in times of a catastrophe. During the current contagion, it has been the public sector’s organic capabilities that have displayed rapid response abilities. The performance of the country’s organic infrastructure during the novel coronavirus crisis has shown that it can provide goods and services in its stride and adjust to work surges by collaborating closely with the private industry to meet demands. Keeping our security landscape in view, future wars cannot be ruled out and organic capabilities will become indispensible. One significant pitfall of privatisation is that private owners could raise costs manifold, miss timelines and decline moving to combat areas once Army skills wither away. Capability gaps were experienced by the United States during the Gulf war, constrained them to recreate organic capabilities at the Anniston Army Depot and others. Privatisation of core rebuild operations for an Army faced with the prospect of a two-front war cannot be justified on costs. Unreliable and dysfunctional weapon systems could end up putting the country in a position of extreme disadvantage and loss of esteem.

It would therefore be prudent to focus on the root cause of sub-optimal performance by ABWs, analysed in detail in the CAG report No. 36 — i.e. spares supply. The upcoming T90 rebuild facilities at an ABW is an effort to create maintainer capabilities so that T90s can be supported through life, till 2050 and beyond like Bofors. The T90 is not in service in any country in such large numbers; hence an indigenous maintainer capability and supply chain is sine qua non for keeping it mission capable till 2050 and beyond. Across the border, our adversaries have created impressive rebuild capabilities to support the T80, Al Khalid, howitzers, etc. (even ordnance factories are under army control) while the Indian Army is attempting fancy footwork such as the GOCO model.

The private sector has developed very effective capabilities in supply chain management. It is these capabilities that need to be tapped by the Indian Army. It makes sense to associate private sector in logistic functions of ABWs as a first step, rather than core engineering operations. Supply chain management is a core competence of the private sector — supply of spare parts, localisation and scaling up manufacture can be done on the fly. This step alone can generate business worth ₹2,500 crore annually for the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, or MSMEs. Once the logistics of ABWs become contractor operated, general reset operations may be given to the private sector. But handing over rebuild operations of tanks, guns and missiles at this juncture may result in a seismic shock. The fact is that most of Indian Army’s equipment is of imported origin and the private sector does not possess the know-how to take on rebuild operations. A collaborative approach of public-private partnership that ensures that operational capability gaps are fixed is the way forward, in view of the uncertain situation at India’s borders.

In conclusion, I will end on the note that privatisation of rebuild operations at ABWs is a certain no go from both from angle of cost and effectiveness. This experimentation, besides squandering public money, will severely erode the overall equipment readiness of the Indian Army. Maintainer capability plays an important role in keeping weapons fit for combat and ABWs are an integral part of this capability. Putting this organic industrial base in a tailspin will only degrade the Indian Army’s ability to come out with all guns blazing whenever the contingency arises. With humankind facing a global crisis, organic capabilities need to be preserved, and livelihoods sustained.

Lt. Gen. N.B. Singh,

New Delhi

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 10:01:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/letters/letters-to-the-editor-june-22-2020/article31884180.ece

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