Delays in defence procurements and the resultant lack of preparedness have received much attention ever since the Army Chief’s secret letter to the Prime Minister was leaked to the media recently. The alarming status of induction of desperately required weapons and equipment have been topics of discussion in print and electronic media, Internet forums, and more importantly, in the parliament itself. The MoD and the Army Headquarters hold each other responsible for the delays. The MoD feels that lacunae in preparation of the Qualitative Requirements (QRs – or specs), delays or inconsistencies in trials, and frequent shifting of goalposts by the users are the prime causes. The Army Headquarters, on the other hand, feels that bureaucratic delays in the ministry bottleneck the entire procedure.
To some extent both the points of view are true, as delays are caused at both ends. Flawed QRs result in none of the vendors meeting specified requirements. And bureaucratic indecision, probably stemming out of a fear of taking a decision post the Bofors – Tehalka episodes, mange to stymie the few cases that manage to cross the hurdle of meeting QRs and successful trials. In this backdrop, it is interesting to read about how such matters were dealt with in the early stages of the British Empire in India. The following extract from “The Earl of Mayo” by Sir William Hunter makes interesting reading in this context.
A Commander-in-Chief’s business is to make the success of an expedition an absolute certainty, and to that end he is supported by two strongly-officered Departments—the Adjutant-General’s and the Quartermaster-General’s. The business of the Government of India is to take care that no expenditure, not required to ensure success, shall be permitted. To this end the Commander-in-Chief’s plans and estimates are scrutinised first by the Viceroy and his Military Member of Council, with the aid of the Military Secretariat, and are then considered in Council. The Commander-in-Chief is not necessarily an officer with a keen regard for financial considerations. The Military Member of Council and his Secretaries are invariably selected for their administrative and Indian experience. They are distinguished soldiers, but soldiers whose duty it is for the time being to deal also with the financial aspects of war. Thus, it might possibly happen that a Commander-in-Chief demanded a costly equipment of elephants or camels for a service which, as ascertained from the local facts, could be as efficiently and more economically performed by river-transport or bullock-train. Such a divergence of opinion would probably disappear when each side had stated its case in the papers during circulation; or at any rate a line of approach to agreement would have been indicated.
If the question actually came up for discussion in Council, the Viceroy and the Military Member would be as one man, and they would in all likelihood have the Financial Member on their side. The Commander-in-Chief would have such of the other Members as had been convinced by his written arguments, or who deemed it right in a military matter to yield to the weight of his military knowledge, and to the fact that the direct responsibility for the operations rested with him. And that weight would tell very heavily. For the experience of Indian officials leads them to believe that the man whose business it is to know what is needed, does, as a matter of fact, know it best. If the Viceroy saw that, after his side of the case was clearly stated, an opinion still remained in the minds of the Council in favour of the Commander-in-Chief’s plan, he would probably yield. On the other hand, if the arguments left no doubt as to the sufficiency of the counter-proposals by the Viceroy and the Military Member, the Commander-in-Chief would either withdraw his original scheme, or strike out some compromise.
Lord Mayo took over as the Viceroy in 1869, more than a decade after transfer of rule from the Company to the Crown – ample time for the governance system mentioned above to have overcome the teething troubles. And this was more or less the system followed till early twentieth century, when the standoff between Curzon and Kitchener led to some modifications. And if we look carefully at the basic premises of the system outlined above, we can probably trace the DNA of the current impasse in procurements. The basic contradictions remain the same.
- The armed forces of today, like the Commander –in – Chief in the 19th Century, want the very best equipment to carry out the task in hand – Elephants or Howitzers. This probably accounts for the overly ambitious QRs being framed.
- The government (as represented by the bureaucracy today) continues to desire that “no expenditure, not required to ensure success, shall be permitted”
- The onus of ascertaining what is actually required for success continues to lie on people who lack the expertise to make such evaluations.
- The responsibility for rendering expert advice to these decision makers, which lay on the ‘military member’, is now performed by the Defence Secretary and others in the Ministry of Defence – career bureaucrats who lack even the limited military experience that the military member of yore had.
Complexities and complications of the day have further compounded the problems. The high stakes and resultant widespread corruption in defence deals leads to decisions motivated by vested interests, or more commonly, no decisions at all. Additional stakeholders like DRDO and Ordnance Factories Board have entered the fray in view of the need for indigenization of equipment. These organizations provide vital inputs to the decision makers, and tend to stall procurement of equipment ex import while projects for indigenous manufacture continue to get delayed by decades.
In a nutshell, we inherited a system with inherent contradictions, and have added enough of our own to make matters worse. Perhaps time has come to take a de novo look at the system and design one from scratch – one which learns from the mistakes of the past and takes present complexities into account. Till then, the soldier’s wait for his weapon to be upgraded will continue to be a long one.