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Signal of continuity, speed in defence

New Delhi, June 24: The defence establishment led by Arun Jaitley will quicken purchases of weapons and military hardware by cutting red tape but will not seek a “full review” of pending acquisitions.

Jaitely explained today that the relationship with the defence establishment under his predecessor A.K. Antony “is not adversarial”. A policy of continuity of major issues was more likely to be followed.

This means the new Jaitley dispensation will take the work done by the last government as a starting point instead of ordering a re-evaluation from scratch that could delay for months the induction of weapons the armed forces have been saying are urgently needed.

Instead, Jaitley said, he is looking at pruning the layers through which the proposals have to go through in the defence ministry. Typically, in the ministry, proposals for acquisitions emanate from the armed forces but are processed by the civilian bureaucracy before the political leadership takes a call.

“Every file need not move up and down indefinite number of times”, Jaitley said. He was speaking after inaugurating a naval commanders’ conference — his first, though the conference is held twice a year. At the conference, he said, senior officials had told him that “a key subject matter of concern appears to be the slow pace of acquisitions and the navy has highlighted this”.

Jaitley acknowledged the pace of modernisation and induction of hardware concerned the army and the air force as well. He said there were many proposals for acquisitions for the armed forces in the pipeline “and I think there is a good case for these processes to be expedited”.

The proposals have been held up by a combination of factors but largely by an inability to take decisions following charges of corruption in major contracts. In January this year, the UPA-II government cancelled an over $750-million (Rs 4,400cr) contract for VVIP helicopters with Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland.

The army’s demand for heavy artillery guns to replace its outdated guns — which were last inducted in 1987 — 197 helicopters to serve high-altitude locations such as the Siachen Glacier and the navy’s demand for a second line of submarines have been works-in-progress for five years or more.

The Indian Air Force’s selection of the Rafale fighter jet is more than two years old in a deal that could be upwards of $20 billion (Rs 120,000cr). Part of the reason for the delays is an inadequacy of funds for capital expenditure.

Jaitley, who holds the defence portfolio in addition to finance, is now in the middle of formulating the Narendra Modi government’s first budget. He said that instead of making allocations for defence as a percentage of the GDP, he would look at the “quantum” of funds that can be driven into military purchases.

“Our defence forces want their requirements to be fulfilled and the procedure to be speeded up. The government and the ministry will try to proceed further on this issue. Our forces are ready to save the country and all their requirements will be met by the public exchequer,” he said.