December 22, 2011

Unacceptable delay

( The pioneer ) : Every time the subject of the country’s defence preparedness is raised in Parliament, the Government assures the people that the Armed Forces are well prepared to meet any military aggression from across the borders. While there is no disputing the fact that our Armed Forces personnel are prepared to defend the country with the last drop of their blood — they have done so on more than one occasion in the past — the question that needs to be asked is: Are they adequately equipped to meet the challenges? Wars are no longer fought with swords and lances — even in hand-to-hand combats — but are waged and won with the help of sophisticated weaponry, besides razor-sharp intelligence inputs. But, as a recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General has pointed out, the Indian Army continues to battle with “guns of obsolete technology of 1970s vintage”. The report, which has been tabled in Parliament this week, brings to the fore all that is wrong with our policy when it comes to acquiring arms and ammunition for the Armed Forces. A case in point is the inordinate delay in acquiring modern field guns. Ever since the infamous Bofors scandal broke out in the 1980s, the Indian Army has not been able to purchase a single artillery gun, although it today needs as many as 1,600 of these. While it is true that the outrage over the Bofors bribery scandal, whose beneficiary is known for his proximity to the Congress’s first family, has led to a more stringent procedure for the identification and acquisition of weapons, but now it seems that caution has become a cover for inaction at various levels. For instance, as the CAG has pointed out in its report, the Army brass is yet to precisely define the features required in new field guns. As a result, the Army has had to do without field guns of contemporary technology for over a decade and continues to depend on antiquated weaponry. That’s unconscionable. Nor can the Army brass justify spending five long years on trial evaluation of field guns that are still being developed. Why can’t the Army insist on getting the best field guns with a proven track record that are available in the market? The shameful bribery scandal apart, the Bofors guns were the best available then and rendered enormous service during the Kargil war.
If senior Army officers responsible for selecting the new generation field guns have been dawdling over the choice for inexplicable reasons, the political leadership is not alert to the looming crisis either. Union Minister for Defence AK Antony is a man of unimpeachable integrity and nobody will ever question his intention if he were to actively push for speeding up the acquisition process. Yet, Mr Antony, no doubt wary of fingers being pointed at him by his detractors, has chosen to go slow. He does realise the necessity to make the Armed Forces stronger and fill up the yawning gaps in the hardware inventory of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. To his credit, he has taken praise-worthy initiatives to strengthen India’s line of defence along its border with China. But strangely, there has been little or no movement on the purchase of military hardware. This situation cannot continue any longer. The issue is not one of finances — there are enough funds to pay for new state-of-the-art acquisitions. The delay is purely on account of a reluctance to go ahead and do the right thing. It’s time Mr Antony led from the front.

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