Procurement: India Confronts The Curse

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November 19, 2013: As Indian military analysts, especially those working for the media, switch their attention from Pakistan to China, they are being forced to face some unpleasant facts. The most unpleasant of all is that the Chinese forces are better equipped and that the situation is getting worse for India. This is a bitter new reality for Indians to deal with. For decades, when Pakistan was the main foe, India always had the technological edge, in addition to spending more than five times as much on defense and having nearly twice as many troops. But in the last decade the Pakistani threat has declined and China has become the main antagonist. China has about as many troops but spends more than three times as much as India on defense. Increasingly, Chinese forces are equipped with more modern gear and more of it than their Indian counterparts. Now India knows how Pakistan has felt for so many years and it is not pleasant.

Although the Indian government has provided more money to upgrade equipment, actually getting the new stuff to the troops has proven difficult. This is due to the culture of sloth and corruption in the Indian procurement bureaucracy. Thus, even when foreign suppliers wade through all the Indian red tape and make a deal, they then have to cope with demands for bribes to actually get the procurement contracts signed. This sort of bad behavior is no secret in India and some intrepid Internet based journalists actually recorded and put out on the Internet video of Indian procurement officials discussing their readiness to accept bribes. The indignation (including threats to arrest the journalists) and public outrage that followed led to a policy of banning firms that were caught paying these bribes. That has developed into a major problem for India, since in the last two decades there has been a major consolidation of defense firms in the West. So that if you blacklist a few firms, which India has already done, you cut off access to a large number of items the Indian military wants. The solution is to ease up on the blacklist restrictions, but that has been difficult to get through the Indian parliament because of demands that there also be an easing of the punishments inflicted on Indian officials caught taking bribes.

This situation is tragic and a growing number of Indians realize it. India, a regional superpower and the world’s largest democracy (with a population of over a billion), lives in a very rough neighborhood and military efficiency is becoming a necessity, not just a worthy goal. To deal with that, India has always maintained large armed forces and one of the largest armies (a million troops) on the planet. But keeping these troops equipped, for what is expected of them, has proved to be very difficult. The army keeps falling behind in replacing aging weapons (like artillery) and obtaining new technology (missiles, smart munitions, night vision). Getting the money from the government has been the least of their problems. The biggest hassles are with corruption and failed efforts to develop local weapons production.

Efforts to create domestic defense industries has been crippled by corruption. Several major weapons development projects have failed because bad ideas kept getting funded, and those efforts rarely produced anything the military found acceptable. For example, the 5.5 ton Dhruv helicopter was in development for two decades before the first one was delivered in 2002. Since then domestic and foreign users have expressed dissatisfaction. A series of crashes indicated some basic design flaws, which the manufacturer insists do not exist.

Then there is the effort to develop and build a tank. Many of the problems with the Arjun tank project had to do with nothing more than government ineptitude. The Ministry of Defense was more interested in putting out press releases about how India was becoming self-sufficient in tanks than in attending to the technical details needed to make this happen. The Ministry of Defense crowd has done this sort of thing many times. Moreover, if it isn't incompetence screwing things up, then it's corruption. Cleaning up the Ministry of Defense, and all the politicians that get involved with it, so far, is a problem without a solution.

Efforts to develop missile systems has also been a long running failure. Work on indigenous missile designs, under the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP), managed by the Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO), India's equivalent to the U.S. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), has gone on for decades, with no useful weapons to show for it. The most common problems were apparently caused by inept software development. While India has a lot of local talent in this department, creating this kind of specialized military software is very difficult and the best programmers tend to join the growing number of new companies that sell their services to foreigners. But India is determined to develop the capability of designing and building high-tech weapons, something few countries can do. India is following in the footsteps of China and Russia, two nations that still had most of their population living in poverty, while the state concentrated resources to create the technological base needed to build modern weapons.

Finally, there's the reliance on foreign suppliers for new weapons. Over half of new weapons and equipment come from foreign firms. When Russia was the only supplier, there was less opportunity for extorting money from multiple suppliers because most of these Russian weapons were built under license in India. There was still corruption but it involved Indians and not an international blacklist. Once the Cold War, and the Soviet Union, went away in 1991, India began to seek better quality weapons from the more numerous Western suppliers. Demanding bribes from foreign suppliers became a major draw for senior government officials. It was big money, easily obtained. This was so widespread that it became widely known and eventually the media was able to expose a lot of it. In the last decade it's become much more difficult to score a bribe. But this has resulted in many suppliers being blacklisted or, for purchasing of new weapons, getting bogged down in investigations of whether or not the suppliers had bribed someone.

There have been some new ideas and opportunities. One of the most alluring is the growing number of private firms in India that can handle defense work. Currently non-government Indian firms get only 20 percent of the contracts. Foreign defense firms can make deals with these private firms who can then go after Indian defense contracts. But standing in the way are the Indian defense officials. The Indian government bureaucrats have a well-deserved reputation of gumming up the works and preventing needful things from getting done. For the military, this has meant an aging stock of increasingly obsolete weapons that they cannot get replaced or even updated.

 

 


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