The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report slamming the critical shortage of ammunition dogging the Indian Army has been greeted with much constertion. More will surely be heard on this vital matter during the ongoing parliamentary session, with the Congress already berating the Modi government for “not being serious” about the country’s defence, what with no full-time minister being given charge of this portfolio. The CAG report, while surely worrisome, merely goes to show that the country’s leadership is still continuing with its bad old ways and no lessons have been learnt over the past few years. This report details a follow-up audit the CAG has conducted, following its earlier audit for the period 2008-2013 on the dismal state of ‘ammunition magement’ in the Army. And what has the latest report found? No significant improvement at all in the critical deficiency in availability and quality of ammunition supplied by the state-run Ordnce Factory Board (OFB). As per the Army’s War Wastage Reserve (WWR) norms, it should have adequate munitions stock to fight intensively for 40 days. But the CAG report has found that stocks of 121 of the 152 types of ammunition the Army uses, were ‘below authorization level’ required for 40 days. More specifically, 40% of the ammunition would run out in less than 10 days, while stocks for another 55% were below the Minimum Acceptable Risk Level (MARL) of 20 days. This deficiency is said to be more crippling for vital artillery and tank ammunition. According to the CAG, as much as 83% of this high caliber ammunition would be useless in a battle due to paucity of ‘fuzes’, with which the shells have to be armed before firing.
Unsurprisingly, the CAG report has lambasted the ammunition depots, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the heavy vehicle factory in Avadi and others for such chronic shortfalls plaguing the Army for long years. What comes through in this latest report is that old stench of “irregularities and inefficiencies”, of purchases made that “lacked ratiole”. A balloon worth Rs 6.2 crore in Indian currency was imported as part of a Rs 49.5 crore aerostat surveillance system ‘which did not achieve its objective’, radiators built by a firm ‘which had no prior experience’ were fitted onto tanks the Army refused to accept, engines of a batch of microlite aircraft were overhauled at a cost ‘exceeding 50 percent of the cost of a new engine’, a batch of missiles procured from a dodgy foreign supplier that failed to clear the stipulated distance — these are but a few samplers of mismagement the CAG report has exposed. Defence procurement in this country has been bedevilled by extensive and institutiol bribery, but makes headlines here mostly when foreign suppliers get investigated in their home countries (as Bofors in Sweden and Finmeccanica in Italy). Very rarely have big fish been netted in India for receiving defence kickbacks; on few occasions, the trails uncovered threatened to lead to the very top and suck in sections of the political leadership. With some defence firms also carrying out whispering campaigns against rivals likely to secure contracts, the entire procurement process has been time and again brought to standstill. This has only served as excuse for bureaucratic inertia and callousness to persist in the defence sector.
If we cast our minds over five years back to what the then Army Chief General VK Singh had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the country’s defence preparedness, the latest CAG report will appear as a mere extension of the same sorry tale. In that letter on March 2012, the Army Chief lamented that his outdated tanks were “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks”, the air defence systems were “97% obsolete”, the infantry and special forces were short of essential weaponry, aviation corps helicopters were in need of urgent replacements, and stocks of missiles, anti-tank and specialised ammunition were critically low to last “three to five days of war”. However, this official letter only ended up angering the ruling dispensation as it was leaked to media, with several political leaders accusing General Singh of settling scores with the government. But there was no end to the paralysis in procurement process during UPA rule. After change of guard at the Centre in 2014, the NDA government has tried to speed up critical defence purchases with a new procurement policy while seeking to involve foreign firms to ‘Make in India’, regulate the role of agents in defence deals and check bribery. In the last year alone, it has reportedly inked defence deals worth around Rs 23,700 crore for ammunition and spares to the three defence forces. The idea is to ensure stocks for at least 10 days of intensive fighting, considering the lack of action in previous years to shore up stockpiles. The problem is that even such a 10-day stockpile will take around two years to build up, such is the slow pace of defence supplies. As the challenges looming at the borders with Pakistan and now Chi go to show, the country’s leadership will have to move relentlessly fast and to a plan to back its present Army Chief’s assertion that his men are ready to fight on “two-and-half fronts”.