On the defensive

Air chief marshal P V Naik’s statement at an Indian Air Force function this week that 50 per cent of the equipment used by the force is either obsolete or obsolescent raises serious questions about the country’s defence preparedness. According to the air chief most of the hardware, including fighters, radars, transport aircraft and air defence weapons are not in the best and operational condition, though he maintained that the force is quite capable of carrying out its defensive role. He also mentioned the shortage of officers in the force, which is already known. Though the material and personnel inadequacies of the forces have frequently been pointed out, it is perhaps the first time that the top leadership of the forces is stating it in public. What is true of the air force may be true of other services also. Therefore it is a matter of serious concern.

There have been frequent public statements about upgradation of equipment and modernisation of the forces. But these have a hollow ring in the light of the air chief’s statement. It is well-known that India’s indigenous defence production industry is grossly inadequate and much of the needed equipment has to be procured through foreign contracts. The process is often caught in bureaucratic hazzles, corruption and other problems. The purchase of an aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, from Russia is a case in point. The cautious policy on procurement of weapons adopted by governments after the Bofors scandal broke out is also a reason. Modern defence hardware is very expensive and  allocation needs to keep pace with the requirements. This calls for political will and initiative. But why the defence ministry is not able to utilise its allocation also needs to be investigated.

India’s defence profile should match its growing economic strength and the challenges in its neighbourhood. China and even the financially deprived Pakistan have constantly improved their capabilities and it will be suicidal if India is found lagging. Many of the defence items that are needed cannot be readily bought and have to be ordered years ahead of actual procurement. While the main responsibility for action lies with the government, the propriety of making a public admission of a such a serious handicap of the forces, as made by the air force chief, is also questionable.

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