Sunday, January 31, 2010

We need private firms in defence

We need private firms in defence
By M J Akbar

In theory the Republic Day parade is an exposition of our military strength. In practice it might have become an exposure of military fragility. If it were merely a question of poor display, it would not have mattered. The crisis lies in the degradation of our armed capability, arising from years of political indifference, bureaucratic ego and military frustration.

Defence, appropriately, is a word with a double-edge. Its obverse, offense, is a complementary necessity. An army does not have to be offensive in order to maintain the capacity to offend. A purely defensive force will always be in psychological retreat during peacetime, and physical retreat in war. You don’t have to be Clausewitz to understand that; common sense should be sufficient. A few years ago a Chinese general famously told the world that his country had the capability to put a nuclear missile into California. This did not lead to a collapse of Sino-American relations; China’s ambassador to Washington was not summoned for a dressing down. Nor was the general cashiered by Beijing. It is useful to remind even friends of the strength of the arm at the other end of a handshake. And it is essential to tell an actual or potential enemy the weight of the iron beneath the glove.

The dilemma is compounded by the fact that the concept of peacetime has been blurred beyond recognition by terrorism. The formality of conflict – official declaration, set-piece battles on fields, truce, peace treaty – has been overtaken by continual, sudden havoc. The unpredictability of violence has become a crucial nerve-test for defence services, which include, obviously, the police. If terrorists realize that the paramount armed institution of a nation is a guard dog that has lost its teeth, then it will increase levels of infiltration and assault.

The state of night-vision devices, essential to border-watch, is, to stretch a pun into irony, illuminating. We have 3,000 tanks, enough to overwhelm the western front. The trouble is that 75% of the tanks are daytime warriors; they go blind at night, while Pakistan has just received the latest, third generation devices from the US as an ally in the “war on terror”. Night sights on infantry light machine guns have batteries that drain in two hours. Everyone knows what to do, but not how to get it done. Government wants the Army to buy India-made devices from a particular public sector undertaking. This undertaking cannot find a foreign supplier that will transfer technology. Foreign companies are reluctant to part with knowledge that could affect their business; and if they had to collaborate, they would prefer to do so with private companies. Indian private sector companies are not allowed to manufacture weapons.

This is inexplicable and unforgivable, but, paradoxically, comprehensible. The official reason is that defence is “sensitive”. In other words, India’s government does not trust Indian businessmen. The same government trusts Russians, Europeans, Israelis and is eager to trust Americans to supply the most critical weapons, but finds Indians untrustworthy. This is the inexplicable part. Why is this comprehensible? An interlocked system of demand-supply-lubrication has been set up in defence. The international arms industry supplies quality goods, but at hugely inflated prices. It is loathe to permit any domestic competitor in one of the world’s largest markets, and the Indian political-bureaucrat class listens to this lobby because a safe system of percentages and lifestyle protection keeps it satisfied.

In 1947 India had a defence production capability, inherited from the British, that was infinitely superior to China’s. It would take many pages, rather than a mere column, to report the pinnacles that China has scaled in six decades while we cannot even produce enough Ichapur rifles. Where necessary, China adapted foreign technology to create superior products, including warplanes. The difference is not in human ability, but in commitment to a term that was a hallmark of the Nehru era but has been abandoned in the last two decades: self-sufficiency. Nehru, alas, is a poor example for self-sufficiency in defence, because his minister, V Krishna Menon, thought politics could protect the nation. But this Nehruvian principle would have served us best in the sector he and his successors ignored.

Our model was a mixed economy, but we refused to mix the economics of defence production. If Indian entrepreneurs had been permitted space in weaponry they would have been supplying the world by now, enriching themselves and the nation in the process. China believed in, and delivered, self-sufficiency. We chose the easy, and buttered, road to a dead-end.

If it is any consolation, Pakistan is an even worse situation. Maybe that is why doves are cooing in Delhi and Islamabad, while terrorists check their options and opportunities in both countries.

We need Private firms in Defence

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