India retained its position as the second biggest importer of arms for the period 2015-19 according to the SIPRI Report released on 28 April 2020. On 8 May, Gen Bipin Rawat, India’s Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) seemed to have publicly reprimanded the Armed Forces for contributing to arms import dependence. Amongst other issues, the General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs) also figured.
The GSQRs issue is not new and there is a definite need to examine what can be done about them. The CDS has highlighted a pathology that afflicts the demand side in the India’s defence Industrial ecosystem. However, the problems on the supply side that are operated by civilians, are in scale, much more substantial. But the CDS seems to suggest that the arms import problem can be attenuated to some extent, by tinkering with the demand side, which is the heart of the issue that is sought to be examined.
The demand generated for arms and equipment is encapsulated in the GSQRs which converts operational requirements into technical parameters. From its original formulation, to its final acceptance, it travels through many levels of military bureaucracy. The main complaint of the civilians has been that the Armed Forces want products based only on cutting edge technology and that has forced the country to resort to imports in the name of ‘operational imperatives.’ The CDS seems to agree with this argument and therefore suggests that to promote indigenisation, the Services could accept some products, after trials, when only 70% of their requirements are met. This is an exceptionable argument.
There is truth in the contention that hoisting the operational requirements to the highest global standards is common practice. But this merely reveals that at the operational and tactical level, technology plays a major role in combat. The truism has perhaps greater relevance to the Air Force and Navy than the Army. The challenges of operating in the environments of Air, Space and Sea, make demands on technology that cannot be easily be offset by human and operational virtuosity. In the Indian context, with China and Pakistan as the likely adversaries, the contestation in air and maritime domains has hardly any room for compromise with lower levels of technology. But the Army, could, in some instances, accept less than their demand and try to make up through the human factor which is their predominant strength. But the solution of solving the unreasonable demands through the GSQRs should not be attempted through acceptance of lower satisfaction levels. For the cure, could be worse than the disease.
The problem definition by the CDS seems to assume that the Armed Forces will always ask for the moon and therefore the solution must lie in accepting products indigenously developed but is found below par after trials. Such acceptance being premised on future development that will not only promote indigenisation but can also be improved to meet the standards at a later date. This is a formulation that can significantly debilitate India’s defence capability. This is so, because of two erroneous assumptions.
First, it presumes that the GSQRs problem cannot be resolved at the Services end and worse, all GSQRs whose demands cannot be met indigenously would amount to asking for the moon. There is no reason why the military, which he heads, cannot be influenced to resolve the issue. Also, even if they do, and it finally reaches the stage where the product has deviations from the GSQRs, there are provisions to accept the deviations and such discretionary powers are now being amplified in the Defence Procurement Procedure 2020 and the powers to waive rest in the multi-disciplinary bodies at the highest levels. So, where is the need to suggest that the Services should be compromising on standards in the name of self-reliance.
Second, to expect that once lower standards are accepted after field trials, it will lead to future development of products with higher standards, rests on the thin ice of unrealistic expectations. For once accepted and inducted, the incentive for product improvement is prisoner to commercial considerations; it is very difficult to replace an item before its shelf life with an item that has become available with better functions. This will involve additional financial outlay and is a no go. It is also possible that an improved product can be overtaken by the relentless march of technology.
While there is no doubt, that every case is unique and in some cases compromises are acceptable, to adopt a policy of relaxed acceptance in the name of self-reliance could be suicidal for military effectiveness especially for those items that are primary platforms like aircraft, ships and tanks. Each of these platforms and others not mentioned here are all in a differentiated state of indigenous capability development. Aero-engines are still a long way to go when compared to our ability to produce long range artillery, tanks and missiles. The Navy has certainly made the maximum progress in self-reliance but they still have a long journey ahead in propulsion, sensor and firepower domains. All these external dependencies are tied to the lack of indigenous technology which is a supply side problem.
The solution to indigenisation lies much more in the realm of technology. The supply side of the problem, as already alluded to, is represented by the DRDO, Department of Defence Production, Defence PSUs, Ordnance Factory Board apart from India’s national scientific and industrial capability that resides in the public and private sectors. The supply side shortcomings are well known but remain unresolved. Therefore, if the Armed Forces start accepting lower standards because of financial constraints without concurrent reforms on the supply side, it is disquieting.
More importantly, in this equation, the CDS represents the demand side. There is definite space for reform of GSQRS crystallisation and the trials system, as also, on a case by case basis, acceptance of certain lower standards. But such a determination is purely a military specific issue which is to be dealt by the CDS either at the level of PC-COSC or as the head of DMA. The need for a public statement that appears to castigate the military is unnecessary and avoidable.
The major role of the CDS is to provide military advice to the political leadership. But it however appears, that in this case, the CDS is providing advice on behalf of the civilian bureaucracy and the political leadership to the military. The complaint regarding GSQRs and the trials system has echoed in the corridors of the South Block for several decades. Its ownership lies squarely with the CDS who is now empowered as PC-COSC and head of DMA. The solution should not be based on seeking needless compromises, with the civilian ecosystem that has consistently failed to deliver.
Source: This article first appeared in Strategic Perspectives, Apr-June 2020, of the United Services Institution of India