If anyone ever wanted a patron saint for incompetence, they need look no further than India’s defence minister, AK Antony. Ostensibly given the portfolio by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in October 2006 because of his clean image, the country’s defence preparedness has plummeted to rock bottom during Antony’s tenure. By presiding over an era marked by policy inertia, procurement paralysis, and administrative fumbling, the UPA has brought India’s defence preparedness to its lowest point since October 1962.
In the past five years, the Indian military has emerged as the largest importer of weapons. The failure to develop indigenous manufacturing and research is partly due to little support by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to private firms wishing to enter the defence sector, low research and development budgets, and the inability to recruit the best talent.
The heavy reliance on imports has left defence procurements at the mercy of the exchange rate. Several of India’s acquisitions have had to be put on hold due to the sudden spike in the rupee-dollar rate last year, and the uncertainty has wreaked havoc on budgets as well as preparedness. As a result, the modernisation of India’s armed forces is also lagging behind; the Indian Air Force (IAF) is still flying MiG-21s, the Tejas is yet to be produced in significant numbers, the contract for France’s Rafale has not yet been signed after two years of negotiations, and half of India’s Sukhois and undergoing repairs at any given time.
The Indian Navy has had its own share of modernisation problems, including delays in the deployment of the indigenously built nuclear submarine INS Arihant, troubles with the boilers of the newly inducted aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, and the loss of the recently refurbished diesel submarine INS Sindhurakshak.
The crash of the IAF’s latest acquisition, the Rs 1,000 crore C-130J Super Hercules raises questions about training and maintenance in Antony’s army. The IAF’s pilot-to-cockpit ratio is already the lowest among India’s foes and India has had trouble with training aircraft as well as flight time given to each pilot.
In addition to indigenisation, modernisation, and training, Antony’s MoD has done little to develop a military of the future. Fewer states engage in large-scale warfare with tanks and infantry across open plains as they used to even 50 years ago. The Indian Army has done little to develop new doctrines for fighting low-intensity conflict, insurgencies, or terrorism. Coordination between what exists in the name of cyber operations, intelligence gathering, and special operations remains weak.
The most visible failure of the UPA government has been in procurement. The AgustaWestland helicopter scandal may have garnered the most media attention because of the high profile of its list of suspects, but several other scandals have also rocked the UPA government: the Tatra trucks scam, the Ordnance Factory Board scandal, and the Rolls Royce scam, to name the most recent. Antony’s policy to immediately freeze any transaction at the slightest hint of corruption has denied the military much needed equipment and ammunition. The blacklisting of any firm involved has turned away some of India’s major partners such as Israel Military Industries and Rheinmetall.
The UPA’s policy of blacklisting firms also has ripple effects in India’s suppliers network: for instance, putting all contracts with Rolls Royce on hold will have implications on India’s purchase of the US-2i ShinMaywa from Japan as the aircraft relies on four Rolls Royce engines.
A more obvious problem with the UPA’s strategy is that it leaves the military desperately short of munitions, as was the case with the Barak missile. Worse, some of the accusations have been found to be false or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) could not find any evidence of wrongdoing after a thorough investigation, such as in the Scorpene deal allegations. These procedures add years to the procurement timeline, during which time the armed forces are vulnerable and costs go up.
One might argue that structural changes in defence take time. Yet that does not answer for the UPA’s lethargy in implementing administrative reforms in the armed services designed to improve chain of command, efficiency, and flow of information. Despite 10 years at the helm, the UPA has made little movement on the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee, and Antony has effectively ignored the Naresh Chandra Review Committee’s report.
Furthermore, proposals to streamline the bureaucracy and involve the military in decision-making, such as the creation of a Joint Chief of Staff or the integration of the service headquarters with the MoD, have been resisted. As a result, the military is not just under the civilian control of the minister but also the poorly informed civil service bureaucracy.
A critical improvement Antony could have pursued is the simplification, transparency, and swiftness of the defence procurement process. Even without scandals, the laborious and labyrinthine procurement process can take years, be it assault rifles or aircraft carriers. Over $100 billion of hardware purchases have been stalled for a decade and resulted in the degradation of the military’s fighting capability. As one naval officer described the situation aboard some of India’s seafaring vessels, “it is like treading in a minefield.”
Although India’s defence budget has technically risen under the UPA, factoring in inflation and exchange rates – since over 70% of the equipment is imported – the rise is barely enough for salaries, pensions, and other fixed costs, leaving little for modernisation or R&D. The army’s desperate appeals for artillery have gone unanswered as has the navy’s urging to acquire six more submarines.
The relations between the military and their civilian masters have reached a nadir under the UPA. Delhi’s fear in January 2012 that a coup was taking place just before the Republic Day parade indicates the gravity of this problem. While the loss of three senior men in uniform – General VK Singh, Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, and Admiral DP Joshi – was not entirely of the UPA’s doing, one wonders if the defence minister could not have done more to handle matters in-house, at least in the case of the general and admiral. Antony’s excessive reliance on the civil service and his personal indecisiveness has endeared him to the military either.
Admittedly, India’s defence woes stem from decades of negligence and a lack of strategic thinking. To expect that to be overturned overnight is too big an ask. However, the UPA has been in power for a decade, long enough to start implementing a chain of reforms that could move the country in the right direction. Despite the umpteen signs of trouble brewing in the Indian armed forces, the UPA retained its defence minister, who by the way, is the longest to have held the post. The price of this step-motherly treatment was seen upon the Chinese incursion into India in April 2013 and in the many wasted opportunities when India could not field a military option even if desired. Given the force levels and combat readiness the UPA has brought the Indian military to, its only hope of victory is that India’s neighbours are in a greater state of disrepair.
The supreme irony is that it is in a corruption-saturated UPA decade that AK Antony showed us honesty alone is not enough.
Jaideep spends most of his time avoiding work; when not married to his books, he likes to cook, sail, and scuba. A great admirer of Hatshepsut, Jaideep refuses to live in the 21st century. He grew up in the Middle East and Europe. When forced into wage slavery, he is a doctoral student in History at Vanderbilt University. He tweets at @orsoraggiante.