Defence Scams Stink Spreads
THE stench of sizeable scams in military purchases, arising from the Tehelka expose during the NDA regime and the inquiry into spurious dealings during the Kargil conflict, has come back with a bang. The CBI has registered FIRs against NDA convenor and the then defence minister George Fernandes, his friend and Samta Party general secretary Jaya Jaitly, the then party treasurer R K Jain and others for allegedly having accepted kickbacks while pushing through various defence purchases, notably of Israeli Barak missile systems, for the navy (whose then chief, Sushil Kumar, has also been named in the FIR) and in other deals for armoured recovery vehicles (ARVs) and anti-tank terminally guided munitions.
The usual cans of worms have also been opened up once again. Up for debate are the role of middlemen in defence deals, the performance of the DRDO and other indigenous defence production agencies, defence procurement processes, corruption in the Indian bureaucracy and even in the military, and whether the CBI is just a tool used by the ruling party for political vendetta. The same questions have been raging in public discourse for over two decades since the Bofors scandal dramatically surfaced and, unfortunately, except for episodic responses, the people of India are none the wiser, nor has anything been done to clean these Aegean stables.
The Barak deal struck in the year 2000 brings all these issues to the fore. The deal figures prominently in the Tehelka tapes in which R K Jain boasts of having swung the deal with “the boss,” meaning “Raksha Mantri Fernandes,” with the help of his confidante Jaya Jaitly and slush funds provided by well-known arms dealer Suresh Nanda, son of retired Admiral S M Nanda. The CBI alleges that it has good evidence on kickbacks of at least Rs 2 crore although around Rs 170 crore may have actually been involved. The Barak deal and its implications were analysed in considerable detail in a CPI(M) publication titled Indefensible Dealings, brought out in April 2001 in the wake of the Tehelka expose, and that analysis remains valid.
The Barak is a missile defence system, the need for which was felt urgently by the Indian Navy at the time of Kargil when the Pakistan Navy acquired US-made Harpoon and the deadly French sea-skimming Exocet ship-to-ship missiles for which India did not have an effective counter. This deal worth US 270 million dollars (about Rs 1,300 crore) is for 7 ship-mounted systems or missile batteries worth Rs 1,160 crore and 200 of the actual missiles worth Rs 350 crore. The Baraks are made by Rafael Systems and the Israeli Aircraft Industries, which are also in line for the US 1.1 billion dollars (Rs 5,200 crore) Phalcon AWACS or airborne early warning systems for the India Air Force and agreements for upgrading its Mig-21 and Mig-27 fighter aircraft.
The IAI is in fact among several Israeli armaments manufacturers who are striking it rich in India. India has become the largest and fastest growing market for Israeli weapons export, already worth over US 3 billion dollars (Rs 16,000 crore). Israeli armaments firms have, over the past decade and more, established firm roots within the Indian defence establishment and have obviously become very familiar with its byzantine workings, including how to grease its machinery!
In this case, as the story unfolds in the Tehelka tapes and now in the CBI’s FIR, the then defence minister George Fernandes went out of his way to push for the Barak deal, overriding the objections of the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and the then scientific advisor to the PM, A P J Abdul Kalam on the grounds that the indigenously developed Trishul system would “soon” be available. Fingers have also been pointed at objections by the then defence secretary and at the single-vendor nature of the deal. While Fernandes allegedly pushed for installation of Baraks on India’s only aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, the then navy chief was allegedly “persuaded” to urge such installation on six other battleships as well, giving the necessary “push from below” as recounted by Jain.
The CBI claims to have found some hard evidence during simultaneous raids on the offices and residences of over 40 persons involved in one way or another. Going by past experience of cases involving corruption especially in defence deals, hopefully the CBI has better evidence than merely the statements recorded in the Tehelka sting operation and can bring the offenders to book. Hopefully also, the defence ministry’s new defence procurement procedure will bring about both transparency and efficiency in defence procurement. But the general problem of corruption and rent seeking by officialdom will require structural changes of a different kind.
QUESTIONS ABOUT BARAK
None of this necessarily means, however, that the Barak is a bad system or that inferior equipment were acquired for the Indian defence forces, although this has indeed been suggested by some former navy commanders. The charge of corruption does not automatically imply or require that the deal itself, or the weapons system in question, compromises national security. The case of the Bofors gun, which more than proved its mettle during the Kargil conflict, is a case in point.
The way the system works in India, and not only in defence matters, kickbacks and bribes are sought by both administrative and political officials even in the most straightforward cases, for simply putting the final signature on the file, for moving the file from one processing stage to another, and so on. Any opportunity is good enough for rent seeking. And if something out of the ordinary has to be done, like leaking information about rival bids or “redefining” specifications to fit one supplier, then clearly much higher amounts are called for. Especially after the Bofors case, when military officers saw the huge sums of money involved in securing defence contracts, many serving officers “in the right place at the right time” also seem to have become caught up in seeking remuneration for “smoothening” the process.
In any case, retired senior navy commanders have pointed out that the Barak is relatively untested, that it was surprisingly the only system selected from out of 11 considered, and that there were indeed other options such as the Trishul itself or rival Russian systems. Yet there are good counter arguments too. Despite the fact that the Barak is in service with only a limited number of navies, in Israel itself and in Singapore, even serving Indian navy officers attest to the Barak’s effectiveness. Critics argue that the Barak failed even in its first field trials and should therefore have been ruled out. On the other hand, not only has this initial failure been recorded and discussed on the IAI website, the Barak system has succeeded in 12 out of 14 field trials.
There were also other considerations too which went in favour of the Barak. The anti-missile systems were to be mounted on existing ships which required that the physical size, weight, orientation etc of the system should be such as would facilitate installation on serving battleships without much modification. This apparently worked against many rival systems which simply did not fit with the navy’s specifications.
Without access to all the facts and inside story, the one true surprise, which has received scant attention in the press even from defence commentators, is the exclusion from consideration of the Russian Klab missiles. These longer-range missiles, originally designed for submarine based operations, also have supersonic capability enabling them to engage sea-skimming missiles such as the Exocet. The Klab missiles are in fact coming to India along with several Kilo-class Russian submarines bought by India. Modified versions have also been fitted on to the reconditioned Russian aircraft carrier Gorshkov and on several stealth technology frigates being built in Russia for the Indian Navy. The modified frigate-mounted versions of the Klab are also vertically mounted systems like the Barak (and unlike the Trishul), making it easier to mount and operate on existing vessels. The booklet Indefensible Dealings had therefore asked: Whether there had been a comparative evaluation of the two systems or had subjective pro-Israeli biases or undue pressures been brought to bear in favour of the Israeli systems? And the question is relevant even today.
DRDO AND SELF-RELIANCE
The Barak story and the CBI case has also brought with it a storm of criticism against the Trishul system and against its designer and manufacturer, the DRDO, which also runs the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme and is charged with developing many other systems vital for self-reliance in defence.
First the Trishul itself.
In rebuttal of the CBI charges, George Fernandes has claimed that as defence minister he only endorsed the requests of the navy chief and the scientific advisor Abdul Kalam for immediate acquisition of the Barak. A P J Abdul Kalam had headed not only the DRDO but also the missile programme specifically and is widely credited with having given it a business-like “mission orientation,” something he is now fond of recommending in numerous circumstances. The CBI’s FIR makes clear that Abdul Kalam had in fact objected to the Barak deal in 2000 and other information suggests that he had been consistently and understandably objecting to the missile system imports since the mid-90s. Mr Abdul Kalam needs to clear the air on this aspect.
However, the DRDO’s faith in Trishul is clearly not shared by the navy. Despite the numerous promises and calls to expect the delivery of the Trishul “soon,” the hard reality is that the Trishul is far from ready for induction into active service. Besides the delay and performance failures, the Trishul system is extremely heavy, weighing over 15 tonnes compared to the Barak’s one tonne, is not vertically mounted and also needs to be “pointed” in the rough direction of the target missile, further reducing its reaction time and accuracy. The defence minister, after days of statements from various sources that the Trishul project had been scrapped, has only saved Trishul some face by giving it a one-year extension and describing it as a “technology demonstrator.”
Trishul has been under development since 1985, that is for over 20 years, at a cost of around Rs 250 crore (US 53 million dollars), admittedly a relatively low investment compared to similar projects elsewhere. Nevertheless, Trishul has undergone as many as 80 field tests and still has an unacceptable failure rate of over 25 percent. The DRDO itself has acknowledged that Trishul has problems in its guidance and control systems, the very heart of a guided missile. In unusually frank terms, the defence ministry has even informed the parliament’s standing committee on defence that “the Trishul system… has not met with success… resulting in critical voids” in defence preparedness.
The controversy hungry media has now begun a dissection of the DRDO’s record and it does make sorry reading indeed. In case after case, huge time delays and poor performance, not matching the user service’s requirements, have resulted in defence forces being pushed into importing defence equipment at a huge cost to the nation and loss of self-reliance. The Arjun main battle tank (MBT) is proving so unwieldy and bulky, providing a sizeable target profile to opposing forces, that the army is having to keep even the small numbers ordered of 125 tanks away from potential frontline action, and has ordered over 800 Russian T-90s. The much vaunted light combat aircraft (LCA) is so far off-schedule, now not expected to join service before 2010, from the original 1995 date, that its very usefulness is in serious doubt, and the air force is having to repeatedly import expensive fighters to overcome the rapid obsolescence of its mainstay Mig-21 fleet. Due to inordinate delays in the indigenous missile programme, the services have ordered huge quantities of Israeli missile systems costing over Rs 4,000 crore. After the Barak acquisition, it has been decided to go in for joint development and production of the longer-range (90 km) Barak New Generation (NG) or Barak-II missiles, with India and Israel each contributing US 350 million dollars. The same story repeats itself ad nauseam.
The entire defence research and production set-up in India, comprising numerous institutions and agencies, operates in highly secretive and protected environments with little or no accountability, all in the name of self-reliance in the crucial area of defence. India cannot indefinitely claim to be a scientific and technological power without delivering on this claim, at least to its own satisfaction. The biggest blow to corruption in defence imports would be an effective and efficient indigenous defence production system which the nation sorely needs.