Defence spending hits the skids as 2014 polls cast a shadow on the sector
As with almost everything else, the 2014 general elections are bound to cast a shadow on India's defence sector. Be it modernisation plans or general preparedness, the polls could prove a roadblock.
With the UPA government going into poll mode on the back of scams and a general policy paralysis, it's unlikely there will be anything new to cheer about till the elections end in May.
If a new government is sworn in, it would bring the curtains down on A.K. Antony's uninterrupted seven-year run - more than any of his predecessors - as defence minister. He looked happy in his last public appearance in Bangalore at the initial operational clearance ceremony for Tejas.
"The Light Combat Aircraft is finally a reality, aircraft carrier Vikramaditya - sailing back to India from Russia - is a reality and the indigenous main battle tank Arjun for the Army is a reality," Antony had announced with exuberance, pointing to the three frustratingly long-pending and much criticised projects that have finally seen the light of day.
It was a personal triumph for Antony as well, as he will have something to show in his final report card.
But the din of celebratory firing and backslapping in the defence ministry failed to muzzle the guns on the border, erase the ignominy of a former Indian Air Force (IAF) chief being named in a kick-back scandal, or neutralise the loss of a frontline submarine with 18 sailors on board.
The year 2014 will be one in search of answers. The CBI will continue to seek evidence in the AgustaWestland scam allegedly involving former IAF chief S.P. Tyagi, and the Indian Navy, hopefully, will get to know what caused the terrible explosions in INS Sindhurakshak that sunk the boat and took 19 precious lives with it.
On the border, the Army will be keeping its fingers crossed and hope that the year pans out better than the last one. Frequent skirmishes on the Line of Control with Pakistan and China's constant nagging on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) had reached new levels of discomfort and the rare stand-off in the Depsang plain of Ladakh last April had all the potential to snowball into a major crisis.
The Army signed off 2013 with a confidence building meeting with Pakistan to maintain the truce on the LoC, and New Delhi has signed a border agreement with Beijing to keep the LAC peaceful. Both will be tested for good measure in the year to come.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) battled one of its worst image crises when its former chief Tyagi was accused of accepting bribes to swing a helicopter deal in favour of Anglo-Italian company AgustaWestland.
The Navy was jolted on August 14 by explosions in its frontline submarine INS Sindhurakshak when ammunition was being loaded into it just before deployment.
But it was not all gloom for the defence sector. The long-pending construction of key home-made equipment like nuclear submarine Arihant, aircraft carrier Vikrant and Light Combat Aircraft Tejas achieved key developmental milestones.
Arihant's nuclear reactor went critical, aircraft carrier Vikrant completed its first phase of construction and Tejas was certified for induction into the Air Force.
The milestones were indeed major breakthroughs, but it will still be some years before these platforms - which can propel India into a select group of countries with the ability to build advanced military assets at home - join the operational fleet.
While Arihant can be expected to start sailing in 2014 on its way to full deployment the following year, Vikrant is not expected to be operational before 2020.
The IAF can expect two Tejas squadrons by 2017, but the more advanced version of the aircraft will not see the light of day by the end of this decade.
Caution is buzzword in acquisition plans
By Mail Today Bureau in New Delhi
In its last meeting in December, the defence acquisition council had cleared the purchase of military hardware worth Rs 16,000 crore. But going by the requirements of the three services, that's not going to be enough.
And India's defence spending might take a hit, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging caution during his address to the top commanders of the Army, Air Force and the Navy in November.
The impact of Manmohan's statement of "cutting the coat according to the cloth" will be felt in the months to come.
The IAF's mother of all deals for the purchase of 126 Medium Multi-role combat jets from French aircraft maker Dassault still hangs in the balance. It is unlikely to be finalised within this financial year, and in all possibility the decision will be taken only by the new government.
Sources said key aspects of the contract pertaining to the transfer of technology for making Rafale combat jets in the country and offset proposals submitted by the French company have been finalised, but other issues relating to ownership of the aircraft manufactured in India are yet to be sorted out.
Apart from the combat jet deal, the IAF is also awaiting movement on the purchase of air-to-air refuellers (A-330), attack helicopters (Apache) and heavy lift helicopters (Chinook). The IAF hopes these contracts will be finalised in the first half of 2014.
For the Navy, it is a race against time to get the government's approval for a new line of submarines. The proposal has been pending for several years and the Navy hopes that it will see the light of day in 2014.
The Navy is also critically short of helicopters. It hopes the government will clear the purchase of the entire range of helicopters that need to be urgently replaced.
The Army's quest for new artillery guns also remains to be addressed. A proposal to buy ultra light howitzers M777 from the US is in the final stages and hopes are high that it will be finalised in the first half of 2014.
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