India’s technology acquisition patterns belie frequent claims of military modernization

Chandīgarh: The Ministry of Defense (MoD) is adept at employing the legendary Indian rope trick by frequently announcing approvals for the acquisition of new military equipment and force modernization, via its periodic meetings of the Defense Acquisition Board or of the DAC, cleverly blurring the chasm between perception and reality.

But, little known to most, all the DAC, currently headed by Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, does is simply grant Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) to hardware purchases and projects related to the defense ; simply translated, it means that the relevant acquisition or program has been “in principle” accepted. Nothing more.

“The AoN is just a formality, although it is mandated by the MoD,” says Amit Cowshish, a former Ministry of Defense financial adviser for procurement. The real accident-prone adventurous journey then begins, as the acquisition or project tender may subsequently fail for countless
reasons, he adds.

In late 2019, the Ministry of Defense informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense (SCoD) that it had approved 218 AoNs worth Rs 4 trillion in the previous five years to promote domestic manufacturing, but n did not provide further details. In response, industry officials said that over the years almost all of these AoN approvals had lapsed, as no Request for Approval (RfP) or RFP was subsequently issued for many.

Most people, however, assume based on AoNs that the relevant equipment has been acquired, or that the project is complete, or at least nearing completion, and that services are upgrading at a breakneck pace. But nothing could be further from the truth, because only then does the heavy lifting begin, broken down into 11 complex steps, to complete the acquisition process, each of which has the potential to delay or make derail the whole project indefinitely.

A long and complicated acquisition process

Therefore, the entire procurement process can take, and often does take, twice, sometimes even three times, as long as 74 to 118 weeks prescribed in successive Defense Procurement Manuals to be completed after award. of the AoN. “A large portion of AoNs routinely fall into oblivion, and only a handful of them are subsequently revived,” said a two-star Indian Army officer, declining to be identified. Securing the AoNs, he adds, is nothing more than a “bureaucratic maneuver” by the Department of Defense to show its intent. The validity of an AoN is 6 to 12 months, depending on the procurement category, and is subject to renewal if an RFP, RFP or RFP has not been published in the procurement category. ‘interval.

The MoD, for its part, is also dishonest, doing little or nothing to dispel this myth of instant gratification towards AoNs. In fact, by his deliberate silence, he seems to perpetuate the fable of military modernization, when in reality the AoNs continue to criss-cross numerous military and civilian departments, entangled in complex bureaucratic procedures. Over the years, these processes have gained infuriating and legendary notoriety in the global arms bazaar for their convolution, rigidity and above all their inexplicability.

Representative image. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh poses for a group photo with troops who participated in airdrops and other military exercises at Stakna, in Leh, Ladakh, Friday, July 17, 2020. Photo: PTI

Even the race for the AoN is not without obstacles and time-consuming hurdles, collectively crafted over decades by the three services themselves. The services initiate the acquisition processes by issuing a national or global request for information (RfI) to obtain the information necessary to formulate any qualitative requirements (QR) or specifications for the equipment or project concerned. Although seemingly simple, it also takes some time, because in their diligent attempt, the service agents gather all the literature and information available on the kit offered, with the aim of including as many features as possible. possible, regardless of their practicality or, at times, even their necessity in India’s operating environment.

The project then goes up the military chain of command, gathering additional parameters; each officer concerned feels obliged to offer additional accompaniments in order to show industry. The ball remains in play until QRs are approved by service-specific Equipment Policy Committees led by the respective Deputy or Vice Chief of Staff after excessive time.

A two-star retired army officer associated with such activity and also responsible for developing the MoD’s now-diluted clearing guidelines in 2005 said deletions were rarely made to QR specifications. In many cases, he claims, what ultimately emerged was a “well-respected wish list of utopian dimensions.” The officer also confesses that poorly designed, worded, and written QRs ended up creating confusion, leading to the entire acquisition being delayed or dropped, or both in some cases.

Implausible quality checks delay supply

Several reports from successive parliamentary committees and from the Comptroller and Auditor General had also castigated the withdrawal or termination of various tenders due to implausible QRs. Even the late Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar mocked the services at a public reception in Delhi in 2015 for fabricating fanciful and implausible QRs which he claimed were based on “Marvel comics”.

Once the QRs have been finalized and the RfPs based on them issued, the technical evaluation of the responses from the sellers is followed up by the department concerned. This is followed by field evaluation trials of the equipment on a “no cost, no obligation” basis in which rival vendors invariably end up spending considerable sums to transport their equipment and accompanying personnel to and from inside India, often at different locations, where the trials are carried out by a multidisciplinary team.

The six competitors, for example, which deployed their platforms to meet the Indian Air Force (IAF) requirement for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) in 2007-2008 would have spent more than $300 million each for trials in varied terrain. lasting almost two years, during which the platforms were tested on some 600 operational parameters.

All equipment trials by the Indian Army are time-consuming, sometimes taking several years. This is especially the case for the army which tests most of its kits like small arms and howitzers on varied terrains and environments like the plains of northern Punjab, the desert regions of western Rajasthan and the Himalayan heights in Kashmir and Ladakh.

Personnel evaluation by the respective departments comes next, after which in some cases the technical surveillance committee presents its report to ensure that all equipment parameters comply with the stipulated RQs. That, too, is arduous and can be time-consuming because the scope of “subjective” assessment is wide, industry officials said. It’s also sparking a flurry of objections from rival competitors complaining of “unduly favoring” rival systems.

Once the equipment clears all these hurdles, a Contract Negotiating Committee or CNC is formed to discuss costs and delivery times, after which the proposal must be approved by the “Competent Financial Authority”, or CFA. which, depending on its value, could either be the respective Deputy or Vice-Head of Service, Minister of Defense or Minister of Finance. However, all purchases exceeding Rs 3,000 crore must be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security or CCS headed by the Prime Minister. Only then is the contract finally signed.

Nascent steps towards an overhaul

Meanwhile, the 681-page DAP-2020 magnum opus doesn’t make those arduous processes simpler or less cumbersome. It also completely ignores one of its own committees that submitted its report in early 2016 on fast-track purchases. This report had recommended the creation of a semi-independent body to rationalize and speed up the purchase of equipment outside the security zone of New Delhi, where access to officials is tightly controlled.

He had advocated the creation of a Defense Capabilities Acquisition Authority (DCAA) to manage all aspects of defense equipment procurement with around 900 members working outside the MoD – but under its overall control – in order to mitigate cumbersome and time-consuming procurement procedures. , internal rivalries and corruption scandals. Led by Dr. Pritam Singh, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, the eight-member committee included serving and retired two- and three-star service officers, financial and technical experts.

Movement of the Brahmos Weapon System during the dress rehearsal for the Republic Day Parade at Rajpath in New Delhi on January 23, 2015. Credit: PTI/Atul Yadav

For seven months, the committee interacted with defense procurement officials from France, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as with the Indian army, the defense staff Integrated Headquarters and the Indian Coast Guard. Specialists from local think tanks, industry associations and the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) were also consulted.

His eventual and practical suggestions included dividing the DCAA into seven “vertical” units dealing with land, air, sea, science and technology, industrial collaborations, and commercial and legal matters. He further underscored the importance of instituting Integrated Project Management Teams (IPMTs) for various programs with strict financial and completion deadlines, in order to reduce reliance on imported material and increase autonomy or Atamnirbhar.

In short, the Authority was designed as an independent body comprised of a cadre of technical and military professionals with domain knowledge, as well as the accountability and flexibility to augment India’s military capabilities. More importantly, the DCAA was also to have overall responsibility for formulating equipment QRs, issuing RfIs and RfPs overseeing trials, conducting price negotiations, and even managing offset obligations, but to no avail. .

The MoD, it seems, remains determined to grossly underestimate its ignorance and perpetuate its existing inefficiencies.

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