Friday, April 17, 2015

A Bold Political Decision for a Crucial Defence Need

Nitin A Gokhale, 
Editor & Senior Fellow, VIF

The saga for procurement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF) actually began in 2001, gathered steam in 2007 and was stuck in price negotiations for the past three years. Meanwhile, the IAF's combat fighter jet strength was depleting fast. Over the past couple of years, the Air Force top brass was alarmed enough to tell the government that its conventional combat edge even against Pakistan was in danger of being lost.

So last week, hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on his three-nation tour, a political decision was taken to explore the option of buying Rafale jets through a government-to-government (G-to-G) contract with France. The breakthrough will now allow the IAF to induct Rafale fighter jets in a two year time frame and at least partially make up for its depleting combat jet strength.

However, it is the next step in aircraft procurement that will be watched intently. Will this decision of going for G-to-G mean that all future purchases of this magnitude will be handled in this manner? If so, what happens to the much-touted Make in India programme? The roadmap is not clear but Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar gave enough hints about what the government is thinking in an interview that this writer co-hosted on Monday for Doordarshan (https://t.co/jktB9j7EYI).

Not surprisingly, skeptics have hit out at the decision. The criticism has ranged from "it's too little too late," to "it goes against the Make in India concept." But both Modi and Parrikar were clear that they had to put the interest of the IAF above everything else and which what they have done. Mind you, procuring 36 Rafales is just a stop-gap arrangement to arrest the rapidly falling numbers in IAF's combat fleet.

Lauding the Prime Minister for taking a bold decision in breaking the Rafale deadlock, Parrikar said future large procurements for the IAF and indeed for the armed forces at large, will have to be G-2-G but Make in India will also get a look in for other projects. For instance, IF more Rafales, were to be bought--over and above 36 decided now--Dassault could be asked to manufacture them in India. Even if any other lighter aircraft was to be selected, the pre-condition will be a tie-up with an Indian company or consortium.

It is to Parrikar's credit that he decided to think differently on a knotty issue and suggested a way out to the Prime Minister. In fact, in less than six months after taking over, Parrikar has studied various complex issues dogging the defence ministry and has come to his own conclusions on what needs to be done. By his own admission, Parrikar spent the first four months as defence minister in taking inputs from a range of experts both within and outside the MoD before making up his mind.

In his review, Parrikar also found that the bureaucracy in the ministry—both civil and military--was sitting on some 400-odd big and small projects that are critical to the three armed forces. Without getting into details, he said: “The first thing I did was to look at projects that are stuck at various stages of clearances since the most common complaint across the board was ‘nothing moves’ in the MoD.” 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.

A decade-long impasse in defence acquisitions has been broken with the decision on Rafale, raising renewed hope in the sector. Parrikar has brought in a sense of purpose in the notoriously obdurate MoD bureaucracy. “There was no control over the system. There were no reviews, no feedback and there was no fear of punishment for non-performance. An important ministry like Defence cannot run like this,” Parrikar said in an interview. So he has now instututed a time-bound performance review system aimed at speedy clearances and implementation of projects.

Hopefully, the new measures will revitalise the functioning of the crucial arm of the government in coming months.

Published Date: 17th April 2015, Image Source: http://www.worldwide-military.com

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