Posted by: John Elliott | March 22, 2018

India’s defence forces blighted by lack of political will and finance

Army and air force ill-equipped for action

Government avoids urgent fighter contract yet again

New draft production policy sets unreal self-reliance targets for 2025

India’s armed forces are seriously under-equipped with out-dated armaments ranging from guns and tanks to fighter jets, but the government seems to lack both the political will and the financial and bureaucratic capability to remedy the situation.

This has become clear in the past month with a serious of statements and reports about under-preparedness at a time when there is an active debate on the country’s ability to fight simultaneous border wars on the two fronts with Pakistan and China, improbable though such a double confrontation may seem.

The government has today published a draft of the latest of a series of production policies that were first issued in 2011, but have led to little change. It plans to raise foreign direct investment limits and, with scant chance of success, make India self-reliant by 2025 for 13 manufacturing areas ranging from fighter aircraft and warships to land combat vehicles and gun systems.

The Indian Air Force has only 32 squadrons of fighter jets when it should have 42, and many of these are seriously out-dated Russian MiGs, plagued with frequent crashes, yet new orders are constantly delayed. The Indian navy does not have the submarines and other ships needed to police its home ground of the Indian Ocean at a time of increased Chinese adventurism, nor other equipment such as torpedoes, nor adequate maintenance and safety measures. The army’s guns and some armoured vehicles are seriously out of date and ammunition supplies are grossly inadequate. 

Much of the public comments and reporting on these shortages focuses on the Ministry of Defence’s frequent prevarication over placing orders that can last for many years. The reality however is that so much of the annual $63.2bn defence budget goes on salaries, pensions and other routine costs that less than 25% is available for new weaponry, and much of that is committed to existing orders.

“The government can promise all it likes. It doesn’t have the money,” says Ajai Shukla, a former army officer and a leading defence journalist and analyst. “It doesn’t have the expertise, intelligence and political will to shape priorities in a coherent manner”.

Corruption, rivalry and blacklists

The result is a complex mixture of reluctance by officials to sign off on orders (fearing later allegations of corruption), foreign suppliers being blacklisted for alleged payment of bribes, disruption of tenders by competing interests, public sector corporations resisting private sector involvement, rivalry between government departments, the shortage of funds, and a Ministry of Finance refusal (just re-confirmed) to allow the armed forces to roll over unspent funds for use in later years.

Make in India lion

The Make in India clunky lion icon

For close observers of India’s defence scene, there is little new in this, but the key point now is that little has changed since Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister. He focussed his Make in India manufacturing policy, launched in September 2014, on defence, which looked an easy target for a boom in foreign investment and jobs.

It has however been a dismal failure with no major projects despite frequent re-packaged policies, including the latest “strategic partnership” plan for foreign involvement that has not taken off. 

As a result, there has been an astonishingly small inflow of only Rs1.17 crore ($180,000) foreign direct investment (FDI) since 2014, according to a parliamentary answer given earlier this month. Alongside that, plans for manufacturing companies to become involved in a substantial way are repeatedly stalled.

India has been the world’s biggest arms importer for more than a decade, buying in 60-65% of its equipment which accounts for nearly 12% of global sales according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s latest annual report. Russia, the US and Israel are the main suppliers, with France bidding to become a leading player.

The precise levels of out-datedness of equipment has been spelt out to a parliamentary committee by the army’s vice chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, who said that any modern armed force should have “one-third of its equipment in the vintage category, one-third in the current category and one-third in the state of the art”, according to a parliamentary report of the Standing Committee on Defence which was tabled in Lok Sabha on March 14.

Two-thirds vintage equipment

”As far as we are concerned, the state today is 68 per cent of our equipment is in the vintage category, with just about 24 per cent in the current, and eight per cent in the state of the art category”, Chand told the Committee.

Even worse, he warned that the army did not have enough funds to buy ammunition needed for “ten days of intense war” – a scary admission at a time when there is regular firing crises the Line of Control with Pakistan and when India should be prepared for a confrontation with China in the Himalayas.

rafale-fighter-jet-2Chand said the army’s financial allocation this year “is insufficient even to cater for committed payment of Rs 29,033 crore ($4.48bn) for 125 on-going schemes, emergency procurements, or the urgent procurement of ammunition for 10 days of intense war) and other DGOF (director general ordnance factory) requirements.”

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) last year said that there was only ten days’ supply of 61 types of ammunition, a little over 20 days for 26 types, and 30 to 40 days for another 33 types. It found “no significantly improvement” in its 2015 report’s findings that only 10% of stockpiled ammunition met war wastage reserve requirements.

The most widely reported example of procrastination and indecision concerns India’s urgent need for 126 fighter jets known as the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), which were first sought with a formal “request for information” to companies in the US, Russia and Europe in 2001. 

Estimated over the years at $10bn-20bn, the bids involved four twin-engine fighters – America’s Boeing F-18, Russia’s MiG-29/35, the four-nation Eurofighter, and the French Dassault company’s Rafale – and two single-engine, US Lockheed’s F-16 and the Swedish Saab Gripen.

Eventually the French Rafale (above) was chosen in 2012, but that became bogged down in contract details, including arrangements for substantial parts to be made in India, plus a lack of finance. 

Modi junked the order and personally ordered 36 Rafales “in fly-away condition as quickly as possible under government-to-government deal” when he was visiting Paris in April 2015, without informing the then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar. That deal also became bogged down in negotiations.

Saab Gripen

An over-optimistic headline!

It took 18 months to finalise at Euro 7.87bn (Rs 59,000 crore) and is now the subject of corruption allegations mounted by the Congress Party against Modi because he bypassed established procurement procedures and because the cost was significantly higher than the original 126 fighter price.

Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa acknowledged that this was a cost-cutting option last November. “Right now, we are concentrating on the single-engine so as to make up the numbers with lower cost”, he said, adding there was a requirement for twin-engine fighters later. 

In the past few weeks however, the defence ministry has indicated to all the companies involved that it wants to include twin-engine options, thus side-lining the F-16 and Gripen. Some 17 years after launching the initial inquiry, this will inevitably delay a decision for several more years, though the government could have gone ahead with the order now and looked later for a twin-engine option. France is pushing for a second batch of 36 Rafales but India is resisting that for now, which is s scarcely surprising given the corruption allegations.

No accountability

An internal defence ministry report leaked by the NDTV television station earlier this month condemned “multiple and diffused structures with no single point accountability, multiple decision-heads, duplication of processes, delayed comments, delayed execution, no real-time monitoring, no project-based approach and a tendency to fault-find rather than to facilitate”.

Prepared late last year by defence minister of state, Subhash Bhamre, the report said that of 144 deals in the last three financial years, “only 8%-10% fructified within the stipulated time period”. Delays exceeded deadlines by up to 15 times. 

The report pointed to the well-known problem of a “lack of synergy between the three services” plus the Coast Guard which “put greater strain on the limited defence budget and as a result, we are unable to meet the critical capability requirements.” Various departments in the ministry “appear to be working in independent silos” driven by their interpretation of policy and procedures, and the armed forces viewed the ministry’s acquisition wing “as an obstacle rather than a facilitator”. 

Special problems were found with a technical oversight committee that caused delays and rarely produced anything relevant, while a cost negotiation committee did not have access to international benchmarks. Finally, the finance ministry and cabinet committee on security would cancel purchases because, the report said, they were “not aware” of the defence ministry’s plans and needs.

Defexpo among the temples

Meanwhile politics trumps everything, even the siting of the bienniel international Defexpo exhibition which, till 2014, was always held in Delhi. In 2016 Parrikar, then the defence minister, moved it to his home state of Goa, which led to some from exhibitors.

In January however the current defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced that this year’s event will be held next month at Mahabalipuram in her home state of Tamil Nadu. Mahabalipuram is a famous temple town more than an hour’s drive from Chennai, the state capital, with none of the infrastructure or accessibility needed for a big international exhibition.

But, hey, if you are not going to place orders, does it matter if your biennial showcase is in a difficult location and visitors and exhibitors stay away?


  1. How extraordinary; I was staying for a week in Mahabalipuram at New Year till 4th January. A great place to holiday but as you say without logistical support. I have been there often. Still, the Chennai international airport is only 45 minutes up a very good highway.

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