Freeze fear after defence scams

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By SUJAN DUTTA
  • Published 16.02.11
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New Delhi, Feb. 15: An environment of suspicion in and around the government after a string of scams is threatening to freeze crucial purchases that the armed forces say are urgent and essential.

Despite defence minister A.K. Antony’s clean image and promises of transparency, frequent corruption charges — and even those made by anonymous sources — are sticking to the UPA government.

At the very least this is a crisis of credibility. Antony has said that major purchases are in the pipeline.

The latest in the series is an army investigation into a complaint from the blue that two former chiefs manipulated the system to favour a BAE Land Systems’ ultra-light howitzer despite Antony stating today: “I assure you nobody will be able to manipulate our procurement process.”

BAE Land Systems, based in the US, is also the current owner of the erstwhile Bofors AB that supplied the 155mm shoot-and-scoot howitzers in 1987, in a deal that snowballed into the biggest scandal to confront the then Rajiv Gandhi government.

Asked if the defence ministry was investigating the alleged leak of the technical trials’ report of the howitzer, Antony replied: “The army has ordered inquiry at the highest level.” That would mean that the chief, General V.K. Singh, is himself monitoring the investigation.

General V.K. Singh took the helm last year after a probe he ordered in the eastern command into an attempt to transfer land in Sukna in north Bengal led to the court martial of a serving Lt Gen. (P.K. Rath) for the first time.

That scam was followed by the Adarsh allotment scandal.

General V.K. Singh’s predecessor, General (now retired) Deepak Kapoor had to meet Antony to clear his name. Kapoor is now also alleged to have got an out-of-turn discretionary allotment of land in Haryana from the chief minister’s quota.

Even as these scandals were being investigated, the 2G spectrum issue unseated former telecom minister A. Raja.

“The problem really is one of the environment,” a senior army officer said today.

Antony and the defence establishment he leads have been looking to make 2010 and 2011 a take-off year for defence purchases after concluding that modernisation of the armed forces have been tardy for too long. The artillery regiments of the army, for instance, have not procured any howitzers in 22 years.

“The main thing is that, nowadays, we have lot of competition. We have to be very careful,” Antony said today. Though he said he was not wanting to pre-empt the investigation, within the army, senior officers suspect that BAE Land Systems’ competitor, Singapore Technologies Kinetics was miffed after the government decided to procure the ultra light howitzer through a direct deal with the Pentagon.

Last week, the chairperson of the chiefs of staff committee, Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik, also indicated that losing bidders for multi-million-dollar major military contracts from India, orchestrate corruption charges. The upshot is that procurement is held up and military modernisation gets frozen.

Asked when he expected that the contract for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force would be signed, Naik said: “The (losing) competitors try to put a spoke in the wheel — and then the usual process of a transaction being vetted by the Central Vigilance Commissioner and others starts all over again and acquisitions get delayed. If nothing of that sort happens I expect a contract latest by September this year.”

Six aircraft from the US, Russia, France, Sweden and a European consortium are competing for the estimated $12-billion IAF order that is one of largest military contracts in the world today.