Minister Suggests Key Changes to Fix Weapons-Buying Process

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New Delhi: 
Confronted by a system of arms procurement that lies in tatters, Dr Subhash Bhambre, the Minister of State for Defence, has recommended a series of reforms at each of the nine stages prior to a defence deal being announced. He suggests a change in attitude from laissez-faire to being time-conscious and says “due diligence” cannot be an excuse for mammoth delays.

Yesterday, NDTV broke details of why Dr Bhamre felt his ministry was replete with “multiple and diffused structures with no single-point accountability, multiple decision heads, duplication of processes – avoidable redundant layers doing the same thing over and over again, delayed comments, delayed decisions, delayed execution, no real-time monitoring, no programme/project based approach [and a] tendency to fault-find rather than to facilitate.” As a result of this mess, of the 144 schemes contracted during the last three financial years, “only 8%-10% fructified within the stipulated time period.”

There are nine stages that the government follows before a major defence deal is signed, a process that, in the case of a major acquisition, can easily take more than a decade to be cleared. This means India’s armed forces are poorly equipped and frequently have to rely on obsolete weapons systems as they prepare to fight modern wars. The best example of this laboriously slow process is the Indian Air Force’s demand for 126 modern fighter jets, first raised in 2001. Seventeen years later, all that has been contracted for are 36 French Rafale fighters, not a single one of which has been delivered so far.

In a 27-point internal report in November last, Dr Bhamre has pointed out that the Request for Proposal (RFP) stage in the Defence Ministry sees repeated delays during the early stages of the deal process. “The average time taken by a scheme at this stage is 120 weeks,” six times more than the 20 weeks permitted by the Defence Procurement Procedure 2016, the government’s manual on how defence acquisitions have to be managed.  This is because of “repeated queries, lesser stress on collegiate meetings, delays in submitting comments/observations, delay in vendor assessment [and] duplication of process,” it says.

Now, after a file has been cleared by a collegiate within the system, “there should be no follow up of issues of RFP.” What’s more, the Defence Ministry collegiate should not meet more than twice to vet the process.

India is notorious for having one of the world’s most complicated systems to acquire weaponry.

There are several problems which have been identified when a weapon system that is being evaluated enters the trial evaluation state. The average time to complete this “is 89 weeks, which is three times more than that authorised.” This is often because field formations which conduct trials “are not adequately equipped or conversant with the trial methodology.” In simple terms, officers of the Air Force, Army and Navy may not be experienced enough to deal with the complex assessment process through which a weapon system is graded on multiple parameters before being deemed fit or unfit for use by India’s armed forces.

Dr Bhamre suggests that a trial overseeing team speed up this process while the Defence Ministry also explores setting up “well equipped laboratories/test facilities with the necessary international accreditations in specific defence related areas/zones.”

Cost negotiating, which “forms the backbone of a successful contract” is another area where delays are the norm. “The average time taken was 60 weeks,” says Dr Bhamre, “about 10 times more than that allowed.” In one case, cost negotiations with a foreign equipment manufacturer was delayed by “a colossal 273 weeks.”

To improve the system here means that that the process to benchmark costs vis-a-vis international standards has to be fine-tuned. To do this, officers in the Defence Ministry need to be educated. India, the minister says, needs “a pool of domain experts trained in negotiating skills, as well as contractual experts.” In nations such…

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