Ajai Shukla: Defence (procurement) minister

AVERAGE INDIAN

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An ill-informed public narrative centres on expensive weapons platforms instead of the little things that would improve capability

Going by the public statements made so far by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, one could be forgiven for mistaking him as minister for defence procurement. In practically every statement he promises "transparency and speed in defence procurement". To be fair, he admits it will take him time to grasp issues relating to national defence. Even so, if he continues promising only faster procurement, it might well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would be worrying to have a defence minister who measures his success in capital rupees spent. Instead, Mr Parrikar must focus on adding capability. This can be done at relatively nominal cost.

A striking example has been reported in this newspaper on Tuesday ("Sonar contract provides major boost to navy"). Over the last two decades, the navy has built up a powerful and enormously expensive fleet of capital warships - the aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes that control the seas in war. Yet these warships, each costing several thousand crore rupees and crewed by a couple of hundred sailors, have remained desperately vulnerable to enemy submarines. This is simply because they lack "advanced towed array sonar", or ATAS, which the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had promised to deliver but did not. By now procuring ATAS from the global market - each worth a piffling Rs 50 crore - tens of thousands of crores worth of naval warships have become combat-capable.

Such examples abound within the military. Yet the ill-informed public narrative on defence procurement centres on enormously expensive weapons platforms that, in many cases, are operationally ineffective even after lavishing billions because smaller systemic or structural drawbacks restrict their full employment. In militaries like that of Pakistan, where money is short even after unfairly burdening the national exchequer, there is awareness of the need to obtain bang for the buck. India's relative wealth has not nearly been translated into commensurate capability.

Remaining with the navy (ironically the most cost conscious service), there is constant breast-beating over the submarine shortfall and China's growing lead in submarine numbers. The media constantly harps on how India has just 13 submarines compared to China's 53 conventional and five nuclear attack submarines, though that lead could increase this afternoon, giving how fast China is building more. Everyone's solution, predictably, is to throw more money at the problem, by quickly sanctioning (quickly and transparently, as Mr Parrikar would say!) Project 75I, which envisages building six new submarines for a mind-numbing Rs 50,000 crore.

Yet if one were to scrutinise the ongoing Project 75, under which Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai, is building six Scorpene submarines, a sane planner would be aghast to discover that these submarines - which have been in the works for more than a decade - will be operationally hamstrung when they finally roll off the line. The submarine's key weapon is the heavyweight torpedo and, incredibly, the defence ministry has omitted to buy any for the Scorpene. In 2011, Finmeccanica subsidiary WASS had been selected to supply 98 torpedoes for some Rs 1,850 crore. Since that contract remains unsigned, the Scorpenes will join the fleet without their key weapon.

Yet nobody in the military, the ministry, the government or the media is called to account for allowing a Rs 1,850-crore procurement to stall the battle-readiness of Rs 24,000 crore worth of submarines. One can forgive the ministry, manned as it is by generalists for whom torpedo sounds like a variety of libido. The Prime Minister's Office, with so many ministries to meddle in, can only focus on big-bang procurements - and that means those that are regularly reported on, or those that the military is pressing for. The media, especially top editors, choose not to waste mindspace on the nitty-gritty of defence economics, and instead, focus their collective gaze on high-voltage procurement contracts that can be easily remembered by the billions they cost.

Take the media fanfare over the selection of the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), an apparently fixed match that was won by the French Rafale fighter, the least expensive of the two most expensive fighters on offer, which were predictably ushered into the final selection. Currently, this $20-billion tender remains the single-most reported defence story, with uncounted column inches speculating on the imminent signature of the Rafale contract. This newspaper has been practically alone in carrying cost-benefit analyses on the Rafale proposal, and in debating whether the opportunity cost of buying this fighter is too high.

In contrast, there is little mindspace for the little things that would improve operational capability at little cost. Maintenance, that boring process that can put a hundred additional Sukhoi-30MKIs into the sky just by better inventory control and technician training. Light fighters, especially the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which should be the pride of India, but is sadly the bastard child of the laughably named Indian Air Force. Force multipliers, like airborne refuelling aircraft and airborne early-warning and control systems, can be wisely procured and deployed to make each squadrons as effective as two. But this is humdrum stuff. So are issues like night-blindness that dramatically reduces combat capability across the three services, especially the army.

It is these mundane essentials that Mr Parrikar must focus on. Appointing a tri-service chief would spare him the confusion of having to navigate the tri-service jockeying for funds and resources. He must institute a detailed capability audit, in which each service presents a plan for optimising their existing weapons and platforms rather than just stretching out their palms for newer, better and, of course, more expensive toys. It is militarily prudent to get our existing kit working optimally - the military equivalent of fixing the Indian Railways before building fancy new bullet train lines.

Ajai Shukla: Defence (procurement) minister | Business Standard Column
 

Hari Sud

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As usual Ajai Shukla is displeased in new Defence Ministers role and performance.

Somebody knock some sense into him that the most urgent need of the hour was to get on with the procurement process which had been delayed for years. Once that is done then other roles and needs of the defence minister is taken up.
 

sgarg

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The first priority is Army. It is the army that is going to save India from external aggression. Army has been ignored for a very long time. The government is making all out effort to address the needs of the army.

The ammunition and equipment needs of operational platforms has already been addressed. The Su-30 maintenance issue has already been addressed.
 

sgarg

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It is good that Parikkar is a "procurement" minister. India needs a Procurement Minister as nothing has been done under 10 years of Congressi rule. Too many projects are stuck.
 

hit&run

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Readers must know all those rats who have been derailing and creating obstacles in procurement process of critical weapon systems will now slowly come out in open. Ajai Shula is one of them. He lobbied for f-35 when US himself wasn't offering it, and he was doing it to create confusion with best of his capabilities.
 

Kharavela

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As a newbie to this forum as well as a civilian, I couldn't grasp the logic of criticism to above mentioned article of Mr Ajay Shukla.
As far as I understand, the article simply states the need for optimal usage & combat ready ness of existing weapons instead of creating hullabaloo for newer ones.
Forgetting Mr Shukla's bias for F-35 for a moment, isn't it be prudent to optimally maintain existing fighters & even order more Su-30 MKIs from HAL rather spending $ 20 billion for Rafale ?
 

sgarg

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The style of writing is propagandistic. Commenting on a DM who is just settling in a new job is totally illogical. Yes there are many issues but we need to give time to government.
 

sgarg

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Several steps have been taken for Su.30 which author has not listed. HAL has created a spares warehouse and an overhaul facility at Nashik.
 

sgarg

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IAF needs to look at in house maintenance if IAF is following the instructions.
 

sgarg

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The in house maintenance in army and air force needs to improve and these things are being looked at. The author is wrong that GOI does not know. DM will not comment on sensitive operational matters.
 

Ray

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As a newbie to this forum as well as a civilian, I couldn't grasp the logic of criticism to above mentioned article of Mr Ajay Shukla.
As far as I understand, the article simply states the need for optimal usage & combat ready ness of existing weapons instead of creating hullabaloo for newer ones.
Forgetting Mr Shukla's bias for F-35 for a moment, isn't it be prudent to optimally maintain existing fighters & even order more Su-30 MKIs from HAL rather spending $ 20 billion for Rafale ?
What is is trying to say is that while weapon platforms have been bought, but the additionals that makes it a whole 'system' which makes it formidable has not been thought of or bought.

But the Shukla is Shukla. This is how he keeps his home fires burning.
 

sgarg

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@Ray, the only valid point in the article is heavy torpedo. This one is shot down due to problems with Italian suppliers. GOI may be working on alternatives. None of the Scorpenes is ready. Why this obscene hurry??
 
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Ray

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@Ray, the only valid point in the article is heavy torpedo. This one is shot down due to problems with Italian suppliers. GOI may be working on alternatives. None of the Scorpenes is ready. Why this obscene hurry??
I was merely answering the query raised as to what Shukla was trying to state.

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India has placed an order for 36 MBDA SM-39 Exocet anti-ship missiles to arm the submarines.

The Scorpene attack submarine can carry 18 torpedoes and missiles or 30 mines. It is equipped with six bow-located 21in torpedo tubes providing salvo launch capability. Positive discharge launching is by an air turbine pump.

The submarine's weapons include anti-ship and anti-submarine torpedoes and anti-surface missiles. The handling and loading of weapons is automated.

The sub is AM-2000 which is equipped with air independent propulsion. The AM-2000 is capable of remaining submerged on underwater patrol for three times longer than the CM-2000. The DRDO-developed AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) system is being used on 02 subs.

There is hope that the current Govt will rise above the stupor of the UPA govt

The Indian Navy (IN) is expectant that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which assumes office on 26 May, will approve the purchase of urgently needed equipment such as heavyweight torpedoes for its under-construction Scorpene submarines and advanced towed array sonars (ATAS) for its warships.

"The navy anticipates that prime minister-designate, Narendra Modi's, new administration will be more receptive to the many gaps in its equipment profile," a three-star IN officer told IHS Jane's .

Naval headquarters, he added, is readying its list of long-delayed procurements to present to the new defence minister.

Following 2010 trials the IN opted to acquire 98 Whitehead Alenia Sistemi Subacquei (WASS) Black Shark heavyweight torpedoes over Atlas Elektroniks' Sea Hake for its six Scorpene submarines.
Indian Navy hopeful BJP will move on delayed procurements - IHS Jane's 360
 
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