In the famous words of Ian Fleming’s creation, Goldfinger, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action”. Given the serial abortion (or sabotage) of every significant Indian defence hardware contract, starting with the Bofors 155 mm gun and HDW submarine contracts in the 1980s, it is, perhaps, time to get a bit paranoid and consider the likelihood of “enemy action” being at the root of such occurrences. After all, what better way could there be for adversaries to disarm and neutralise India’s armed forces than by arranging to scuttle their modernisation plans for three decades running. This would be entirely in consonance with Master Sun Tzu’s adage that, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill”.
Hardly had the Augusta-Westland “scandal” receded to the back pages of newspapers when the dramatic revelation, in Australian media, about massive haemorrhaging of data related to the Indian Scorpene submarine project hit the headlines last week. It would appear that the huge “data dump” of over 22,000 document pages, belonging to French shipbuilder DCNS, contains information relating not only to Indian Scorpenes, but also a Russian amphibious ship and a Brazilian stealth frigate. Opinion in the media is divided between those who consider the leaked data to be “sensitive” and potentially damaging to India’s Scorpene submarine force and others, who point out that the “Restricted” stamp carried on each page indicates the commercial nature of what seem to be marketing presentations and generic operating data released as a volley in some corporate war.
At this stage, apart from deploring the laxity of the French custodians of leaked Scorpene documents, and suggesting stringent penalties against them, “armchair experts” need to exercise restraint in their comments. At the tactical and operational levels, it is the navy’s submariners and anti-submarine warfare experts who must evaluate the nature of data that has been leaked, and the likely implications of its falling into wrong hands. Since five out of our six Scorpenes are still under construction, it may be possible to either replace some equipment or make software changes to protect the parameters supposedly compromised. In any case, the standard operating procedures and doctrines that will be evolved by our submariners for this class of boat will be Indian Navy specific and will contain adequate defensive and offensive counter-measures to ensure that the subs are not “sitting ducks”.
Moving on to the strategic level, my reference, above, to “enemy action” was rhetorical, because the actual “enemy” resides within. The lesson hammered home — yet again — by the “Scorpene leak” is that as long as India remains so abjectly dependent on foreign sources for military hardware, it will continue to be vulnerable to sleaze, scandals and scams that not only bring a bad name to the country but have effectively halted the process of military re-equipment and upgradation. That this should be happening when our northern and western neighbours are re-arming and re-organising their militaries is worrisome. Four issues need to be highlighted because they call for the urgent attention of our decision-making elite.
First, as an industrialised nation and a maritime power, the lack of submarine design and building competence had been a critical lacuna in India’s maritime capability. China has been building subs since the 1960s and Pakistan since 2002. It was in pursuit of this “holy grail” that India had signed a contract for acquisition of six HDW Type-209 submarines in the 1980s; two to be constructed in Germany and the other four in India. Sadly, the precious submarine-building capability and expertise, acquired by Mazagon Docks, Mumbai, were killed by myopic policymakers, when they, whimsically, cancelled the contract in the early-1990s after the construction of just two boats on account of kickback allegations. Had we not thrown out the “baby with the bathwater”, the past 25 years would have seen India become an established producer of diesel submarines.
Second, in a larger context, we must never forget that India has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest importer of arms today. This is despite our vast defence-industrial complex, comprising thousands of scientists and a network of sophisticated DRDO laboratories, backed by production facilities of the government-owned ordinance factories and defence public sector undertakings. That our scientists have struggled for decades to design and produce a jet fighter, a battle-tank or a jet engine can be explained away. But it is incomprehensible why we should still be importing rifles, helmets, night-vision devices and even bullet-proof jackets for our jawans.
We have also been unable to develop the technology for vital components with military applications, ranging from diesel engines to micro-processors, magnetrons and klystrons. Thus, at the heart of every ship, aircraft, tank, missile or electronic system produced in India, are key items of foreign origin. It is deeply disturbing to note that for the past seven decades, the political leadership has not seen fit to demand accountability for these gaping voids in capability from the defence-science and defence-production establishments. While “Make in India” and the hike in FDI limits in defence are held out as a panacea, unless a tangible, time-bound roadmap is drawn up, for attaining self-sufficiency in weapon systems, there is unlikely to be much change. Such a roadmap will work only if our innovative private sector is tightly integrated into defence research and production.
Third, it is time for Indians to face up to a fact that is known to every foreign firm that bids for an Indian contract: Arms deals are the “golden goose” for election funding. Till such time that we attain a modicum of self-sufficiency in military hardware — 20 to 30 years hence — a consensus needs to be struck between the major political parties to treat defence contracts as “holy cows” and exclude them from the purview of election fund-raising. Moreover, since alleged scams come in handy to settle political scores, after every change of government, the bureaucracy has, understandably, become cagey about decision-making in defence acquisition cases. The grounds for such apprehension must be removed.
Finally, banning or “blacklisting” of arms companies alleged to be involved in malpractices may appear to be a dramatic antidote because it makes a splash in the media. But in reality, it is counter-productive because it harms our security far more than the impugned firm. Here again, the Scorpene provides an apt example of our proclivity of “cutting off one’s nose to spite the face”. The contract for the torpedo selected for this class of submarines has recently been rejected, at the eleventh hour, because the mother company, Augusta-Westland, has been blacklisted in another context. Thus, at one stroke, we have de-fanged this potent and expensive submarine, and it will take a few years before a new weapon can be acquired for it.
By disarming ourselves in this manner, we are thoughtlessly fulfilling the fondest dreams of our adversaries.