The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Unthinking modernization is bad for national security

How the air force was blessed with a multi-billion-dollar Su 30 aircraft programme for which no air staff requirement apparently existed has intrigued security observers. More so when its plea for a more modest advanced jet trainer had been languishing in ministerial files for some 12 years at the time. Recent articles in the media and more specifically the Justice Phukan commission report, while throwing welcome light on the subject, raise some issues of concern.

During the 1993 air show, the then air chief publicly stated that the Su 27 class of aircraft was irrelevant to India's air doctrine. Yet by early 1995, the service was evaluating the Su 27. The short intervening period neither saw any change on the national security scene nor indeed was it adequate to evolve an air staff requirement for such a major weapon system. Clearly a conscious breach of institutionalized planning norms was resorted to, the reasons for which remain obscure.

We learn that on the eve of Russian elections in 1996, President Boris Yelstin asked the Indian prime minister to accept the Russian offer of Su 30 and make advance payments. He sought help as workers in the factory within his constituency had not been paid. Elections had been announced in India as well, and contrary to practiced wisdom, the cabinet approved release of $142.268 million to the Russian manufacturer. While such a major procurement decision by a lame-duck government may be termed an indiscretion, making payments in anticipation of a formal contract must certainly rank as a gross violation of financial regulations.

In pre-election posturing, the opposition in India made political noises and even met the president, but after some behind-the- scenes activity the matter subsided. There appears to have been a consensus that larger national interests justified such means. While this may well be true from a purely diplomatic perspective, one wonders whether damage to our own security institutions featured in the government's calculations. Did the service leadership play its part by cautioning on the adverse impact of adopting a re-equipment methodology that violated the very essence of institutionalized military procurement' Did the service study what impact such an out-of-turn induction will have on its overall re equipment plans' These questions become relevant in an environment where corruption in high places is no more an exception, where senior promotions in the armed forces are no more determined singularly on merit and a continuing systemic weakness within the armed forces headquarters remains that of planning decisions being command-oriented rather than collegiate.

This event raises serious concern about the cavalier approach to planning institutions built painstakingly over decades. Since the early Sixties, air headquarters have laid considerable stress on long-term planning. Early leaders recognized that the air force was both a technology and capital-intensive service with re-equipment planning requiring long lead times. Planners therefore needed to think of time horizons of twenty years or more.

The crucial process of air staff requirements formulation itself was one of evolution from bottom upwards with considerable interaction between all branches of staff ' operational, planning, technical, financial and personnel ' and involved external agencies like defence research and production, ensuring wide consultation and expertise. The process being progressive and collegiate would, in its life cycle, see frequent changes of personalities in various key positions, but its institutionalization itself militated against non-professional course corrections.

An unwritten, but well understood, benefit of this institutionalized mechanism was that it shielded service leadership from undue external pressures. To those who may term such a fear as exaggerated, this writer can recall many such instances from the vantage point of both a mid-level planner and later as a deputy chief. It is to the credit of this institutionalized system that the air force was spared the trauma of getting mired in purchase scandals. That is, until the unholy saga of the Su 30.

Had the government chosen a contemporary aircraft in the light combat class (or even more of Mirage 2000, since they were already in service), this would have been in keeping with the air force's long-term re-equipment needs. But opting for one of the heaviest fighters in the world with strategic reach makes light of the entire planning process. One has heard justifications that the Su 30 is a very good aircraft. This is true, but is it their case to say that we buy every good aircraft in the world, detached from our operational requirements and divorced from its cost of ownership implications' Indeed, the complex jigsaw that modern-day operational planning is, every weapon system, big or small, must integrate to provide a pre-planned composite operational capability.

A valuable lesson imbibed by air force planners at great cost from the Gnat aircraft was never to commit the service to a combat aircraft until it had been fully developed and evaluated. By evaluating a Su 27 in lieu of Su 30 weapon system, which did not exist, this lesson was ignored. Considering that during a joint IAF-CII seminar in February 1994, the air chief was extremely critical of the poor product-support from Russia, another casualty was product-support assurance over the system's life cycle. This was compounded by common knowledge in international aviation circles (and by President Yeltsin's request) that this company was in dire financial straits. Subsequent reports have implied contractual differences, delays and even claims that old components have been used. One wonders what were the pressures that led to such a huge gamble at service and national costs. Indeed one wonders which nation's larger interests were better served'

Professional service leaderships are honour-bound to safeguard the services' long-term operational interests and more particularly its institutions. In the early Nineties, the air force had no requirement for a fighter aircraft with strategic reach. Indeed, it was short of fighter pilots and had no known concepts to induct a new two-crew combat aircraft. Were crucial questions having a bearing on the overall long term re-equipment plans of the air force thought through' Were the strategic implications of inducting such a weapon system adequately debated within the services and the government' What changes necessitated such a reversal in its planning process and what roll-on effect would it have in all other areas of re-equipment' What would be the impact on the fighter pilot training requirements, leave alone on the fact that the AJT procurement would be further delayed (as subsequent events proved)' Were the budgetary implications of this project on future plans, including the Mig 21 replacement, made a factor in the decision' The most generous interpretation is that the government wanted the aircraft and the air force acquiesced.

Today the air force is short of its sanctioned combat aircraft force levels and wants to induct 126 new combat aircraft. It must perforce continue to support the indigenous LCA programme. News reports talk of serious gaps in air defence surveillance capability, itself a serious concern in the present nuclear environment. There are replacement needs like tactical transport aircraft, helicopters, air defence systems, space systems, unmanned vehicles and a host of other capabilities so essential for wielding air power effectively in the modern battlefield. Many capital-intensive programmes are ongoing and will need continued funding. Past budgetary allocations for air force capital schemes are inadequate to support even these ongoing schemes, leave alone meet the desire for more combat aircraft and other vital systems.

Now that we know that individual perceptions prevailed over institutional wisdom, it would appear that the air force finds itself into a planning trap of its own making. Those responsible for this sleight of hand have moved on and those in harness are left holding the baby! Modernization of all the services has suffered greatly since the Bofors scandal erupted. On their part the services would do well to remember that indiscriminate modernization is as detrimental to national security as is the lack of it. Merely striving for more may only result in unproductive modernization.

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