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Political slugfest over defence contracts hampering modernization efforts

Political slugfest over defence contracts hampering modernization efforts
The efforts, however, were marred by the political firestorm over the Rafale deal. (Image Credit: Twitter)

The bitter Doklam episode, as well as the evolving regional security matrix, forced India's defence brass in 2018 to hasten work on long-pending reforms and modernisation of the armed forces, resulting in a plethora of strategically key initiatives aimed at boosting India's military prowess. The efforts, however, were marred by the political firestorm over the Rafale deal with the defence ministry and the Indian Air Force having to focus on rebutting charges of graft in the Rs 58,000- crore contract.

As concerns mounted over Chinese infrastructure build-up in Tibet Autonomous Region and near Doklam tri-junction, the government expedited implementation of pending projects like laying of roads, construction of bridges, strengthening of key military airfields and enhancing surveillance along the nearly 3,600-km Sino-India border. Another key move post-Doklam crisis was the setting up of an institutional mechanism called the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) under the chairmanship of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and having the foreign secretary, chairman of chiefs of staff committee and chiefs of the Army, Navy and the Air Force as its members.

The DPC has been tasked to make an "action plan" to effectively deal with various security challenges facing the nation and prepare drafts of national security strategy and doctrines. However, the most talked about the initiative of 2018 was the Indian Army's decision to carry out extensive and far-reaching reforms with an aim to enhance its war-fighting capabilities and effectively deal with all possible challenges facing India along with its borders with China and Pakistan.

The reform measures, seen as most significant in decades, will include downsizing of the second largest standing Army in the world and make it "leaner and meaner", besides equipping the force with modern platforms and weapons. The year also saw the Army finalising one of its biggest procurement plans for infantry modernisation under which a large number of light machine guns, battle carbines and assault rifles are being purchased at a cost of nearly Rs 40,000 crore to replace its ageing and obsolete weapons.

However, the shortage of funds impacted the Army's modernisation drive. The Army told a Parliamentary Standing Committee in March that it was reeling under severe fund crunch and struggling to even make emergency procurement when China and Pakistan were enhancing their military capability. According to official figures, the Army, Navy and the Air Force had demanded Rs 1.60 lakh crore as capital outlay in the 2018-19 budget but were granted only Rs 83,434 crore. In the year gone by, the Army procured M777 howitzers and K9 Vajra, in first major induction of artillery guns since Bofors guns were inducted in the mid-1980s.

However, a 10-year-old plan to acquire 2,600 future infantry combat vehicles for the Army at a cost of around Rs 60,000 crore stared at an uncertain future due to divergent views among the stakeholders on its implementation. Another ambitious programme to indigenously manufacture a fleet of modern battle tanks, christened as a future-ready combat vehicle, is also not moving forward due to procedural delays. The Army pursued an aggressive anti-terror policy in Jammu and Kashmir and dealt firmly with almost all incidents of unprovoked firing by Pakistani forces along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.

Indian and Chinese troops also held their seventh round of military exercise which was suspended in 2018 following the Doklam standoff. On the maritime front, the Navy significantly strengthened its presence of warships in the Indian Ocean region and carried out a total of 35 multilateral and bilateral maritime exercise in the year. According to official figures, 33 Indian Navy ships are on deployment every day on an average.

The government is also eyeing to set up a naval base at Assumption Island in Seychelles. As part of the Navy's modernisation drive, the government has approved induction of 56 new ships besides the 32 vessels which are being built. "By 2050, we will also have 200 ships, 500 aircraft and be a world-class navy," Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba said last month. At present, the Navy has around 130 vessels. The launch of nuclear submarine INS Arihant was also another highlight for the Navy.

Reflecting their growing military ties, India and the US inked a key pact -- Communications, Compatibility, Security Agreement (COMCASA) - under which will facilitate Indian armed forces to obtain critical military technologies from the US, and access communication network. The IAF too undertook a series of measures to take on any challenges facing the country. It held a 13-day long pan-India military exercise in April to check its readiness to deal with a hostile Pakistan and China simultaneously, in case such a scenario arises.

In good news for the force, the government also inked a Rs 40,000 crore deal with Russia to procure a batch of S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia. The IAF, besides trying to douse the Rafale row fire, also started the process to procure a batch of 114 fighter jets as part of its long-pending modernisation drive.

Though the defence ministry was seriously looking at implementing the ambitious Strategic Partnership model for defence production, it could not firm up any major deal under it. Under the policy, the government had planned rope in foreign defence majors to build key military platforms like submarines and fighter jets in India in partnership with Indian companies.

(With inputs from agencies.)

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