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Why India can't afford to delay in developing its own defence equipment

Two recent incidents evoked emotions which I felt I should share with everyone. We recently lost a dynamic Air Commodore in a tragic crash flying a 30-year-old aircraft and numerous articles indicate that the US is trying to block the purchase of the S400 air defence system from Russia.

These are umbilically linked. Most of our defence equipment is old and the numbers are fast dwindling. This is not a state secret. Replacements do not seem to be on the horizon. Our procurement whether indigenous or foreign is mired in riddles beyond Harry Potter. With each passing day, our strategic strength and independence are weakening. India is punching far below its potential. The man on ground does not have the best machines to defend the nation.

It is clear that there is a price tag on the strategic partnership with the US. They will not allow us to buy anything significant from any other country or give an equivalent to us. Anything even remotely the same, which USA can offer us, will be a few generations old and exorbitant. We will be kept on a leash.

On the other hand, the Russians, proclaimed old and trusted friends, sell equipment which is highly overpriced. In addition, they milk us on lifetime costs. Russians have no love lost. They are busy strengthening ties with China and mending fences with Pakistan. A new strategic triangle involving Pakistan, China and Russia is evolving. Russia has recently stopped bailing us out even at a cost. We seem to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

So, where do we go with our shopping list of arms? Israel and other European countries?

Though these countries can meet our requirements they will come with a heavy price like the Rafale deal which has been delayed inordinately. The major sticking point has been the price. There are similar stories in almost every other sphere of defence procurement - rifles, tanks, ammunition et al. The import route is getting tougher.

The Sino-Pak alignment is only getting stronger. When Pakistan, a failed state with a depleting war waging potential, says that the space for conventional conflict is nonexistent, they must have factored in our capability limitation due to procurement misses.

China is busy in strategic expansion. New systems being inducted into the PLA based on cutting edge technologies - AI, robotics, space tech, GIS, stealth, cyber. Traditional systems are now almost indigenous. Where they don't have the technology, it is acquired by a combination of outright purchase or coercion. The gap is widening.

Our military leaders should be careful when they talk of two-front wars. That talk is a World War 2 hangover. We have been fighting an undefined hybrid front for more than three decades now. A huge front has already opened in the Indian Ocean.

Future conflicts /war will be totally different. Unrestricted, nonlinear, undefined, localised, prolonged, nibbling actions with time and space interconnect and huge strategic dimensions will be the order of the day. They will be waged simultaneously on multiple fronts. The windows of top end Deterrence (conventional and nuclear) and low-end Hybrid Conflict have enlarged.

The middle window of the conflict continuum - conventional war has drastically reduced. We are well behind the curve. Most importantly we must understand that we must help ourselves. Dependence on imports will take us nowhere. Indigenisation is the only answer on any count.

So, what is the indigenous scene? It is does not inspire confidence. Our Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) and indigenous private defence industry have been smooth talking, visible and voluble - long on promise, poor in technology or capability and short on delivery. Their manipulations and machinations over decades seem to be seeking static goal posts to get their products of inferior technology into the system. These weapons and technologies will mostly be rendered useless in future conflicts. Just think, when did the last tank fire in anger in our context? So, investing in tanks needs debated judiciousness.

However, when we are yet to develop our first successful tank - debate is far away!

Most of the bureaucrats in the MOD are good people by nature but lack knowledge about the professional requirement of their desks simply because they have never been trained for it. These bureaucrats, who are responsible for ensuring that the services are well-equipped are bound by procedure and have no accountability. If accountability was a criterion, many of them would have been sacked without pension.

Services know what they need. They are men of action. They personify the importance of the man behind the machine. That's fine. But the man must have a machine! They do not seem to know how to get that machine. Their biggest failing is lack of knowledge to procure what they need. It is topped by internecine inter-service rivalries to get hold of limited candies at the expense of each other. Soon they will be men without machines. Very funnily, they get driven by the system which they are supposed to drive.

The political elite at the helm of government to my mind are responsible and accountable to the nation and should ensure that our defence forces are well kitted. But the opposite has been happening. Over a period, while our economy has been growing robustly, defence budgets have been dwindling. Defence affairs are being mishandled. The political thought process behind this paradox is well beyond me.

All these actors, who consider themselves to be responsible for the defence of the nation - politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists, scientists and service personnel seem to be working in their silos for their own goals and not for national goals. They stand guilty of having contributed immensely to India's erosion of its strategic independence and worse; unless things turn around. More importantly, there is a feeling in the air among thinking public that we are revisiting pre-1962 days. It is time that those in power heed to this and do something about it. More than ever we need to reform of our system. Mere talk and bluster will not do. Action under public scrutiny is the need of the hour.

Am I depressed over the way things are panning out? Of course, I am depressed because Indians have the potential and capability to do things much better. Our history suggests so. Our space and missile programmes suggest so. There is a turnaround in artillery which is underway. Why can't we replicate these successes in other spheres of defence preparedness? Technology resident in our country must be tapped and unleashed.

Very importantly we must maintain the balance between the man and the machine. Today, we are paying more for men and are not left with enough even for the old machines, leave alone new ones. Only when we cut our flab can we get the man his best machine. I am strongly of the opinion that we must get back to the drawing board.

Lastly, we need good leaders. We can then achieve a lot. The turnaround in artillery was facilitated and pushed in 2015-2016 by the then Raksha Mantri overriding vested interests. Unfortunately, regional political interests trumped national defence interests and we lost direction. Things can be put in place before the trapdoor opens under our feet, if we get our Ps and Qs right, if we have the desire to do things, if we have the integrity and guts to face the situation squarely in a nonpartisan manner. We must soul search in Rudyard Kipling's If; which has always inspired me since my National Defence Academy days:

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