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Cash cloud on arms purchase

New Delhi, Nov. 8: India’s ambitious weapons purchase programme has hit a roadblock with the defence ministry’s coffers yet to be filled by the government.

“I am struggling to get even the budgetary amount,” defence minister A.K. Antony said today when asked if he was seeking an additional allocation of Rs 45,000 crore as planned in July.

In March this year, former army chief Gen. (retired) V.K. Singh had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointing to “critical hollowness” in the military arsenal. Since then, the ministry has tried to hasten arms buying with the defence acquisitions council meeting regularly.

But now austerity measures by the finance ministry are threatening to put the brakes on defence spending. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an internal watchdog on military transactions, lists India among the biggest arms buyers in the world.

Yesterday, Antony began a series of meetings to review major purchase plans by asking the armed forces and supporting agencies to be “more focused” in spending.

Of the total allocation of more than Rs 1.93 lakh crore in the current financial year, about Rs 79,500 crore is earmarked for new acquisitions.

In the pipeline are 126 multi-role combat aircraft (the French Rafale), heavy lift and attack helicopters (Chinook and AH 84D Apache Longbow, both made by Boeing, US) and M777 ultra-light howitzers (BAE Land Systems, US) among other weapons and weapons platforms.

The ministry has been able to spend about Rs 26,000 crore so far.

While the bulk of the expenditure is incurred in the last quarter of the financial year, Antony’s statement today that getting the promised allocation is a “struggle” points to a hefty cut in disbursements by the finance ministry.

But Antony described the budgetary cut as a “rumour”. “Our ministry is trying to speed up (the modernisation process) without compromising procedures. From our ministry’s side, there is no question of slowing down,” he said.