Reports casting doubts over the validity of defence deals struck in the near past by the UPA government may only be the first shots fired in the gradually heating atmosphere of parliamentary elections, writes Rajiv Singh.
With the declaration of parliamentary elections the silly season is well and truly upon us and it's time to expect that staple fodder of all elections to be served up for our daily consumption a nice juicy scandal.
We are off to a brisk start with a young Varun Gandhi playing the Hindu avenger before small and, sorry to say rather giggly crowds. Fire, brimstone and rivers of blood rhetoric is not very convincing when it emanates from roly-poly cheeks and with convent school diction. Thousands have gathered today to witness him ''court arrest'' in the small town of Pilibhit the vast majority, once again, spectators.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the veteran Mulayam Singh is now adorning the fool's cap, instead of his familiar all-red Gandhi topi, which he dons on such occasions as elections. The red cap has a political lineage, being indicative of the socialist school of thought at the time of the country's freedom struggle. The change of headgear metaphorically speaking has taken place for he apparently threatened a woman bureaucrat and got reported. This, as we all know, is not done in a democratic setup. In the silly season you need to be less un-civilised than usual.
A scandal at last!
To the great Indian tamasha, even as it begins to unroll, we may now add something a touch more cerebral. The first whiff of a scandal at last! Emerging from the pages of a Mumbai news daily is a report that suggests that the UPA government ruling in Delhi may have signed massive defence deals worth thousands of crores ''on the sly'' just before parliamentary elections were announced.
It's doubtful if the technicalities surrounding these deals will interest the overwhelming majority of the voting masses though it may gain some traction with the overwhelming majority of the chattering classes, who rarely step out of their air-conditioned confines to vote. This may be the intention, for ceaseless chatter, at least in the electronic media, may tend to have an indirect influence.
Carefully patterned after a number of previous 'scandals' served up over the decades, the latest 'scandal' comes across like the tenth re-run of an old TV soap opera.
A national daily has now picked up the story, and, even though it tries to be more even-handed, it leaves the insinuations intact.
On the sly
So what are the contours of the story? As is the norm with budding scandals, there is always a lot more of smoke than fire. A certain amount of writing skill allows a scandal to be neatly wrapped around a bare skeleton of 'facts'.
So let's take a look at the broad contours of the storyand dig into the nitty-gritties subsequently.
- That the UPA government has ''quietly signed a massive, legally opaque, Rs10,000 crore defence deal with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), ignoring a continuing probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and initial vigilance concerns.'' The deal concerns the supply of medium range-surface to air missiles (MR-SAM).
- That the deal ''comes at a time when India already possesses a more powerful missile in the same class the advanced air defence (AAD) missile, part of India's anti-ballistic missile shield.''
- ''The deal, which is being kept under wraps, could sound the death-knell of the indigenous surface-to-air Akash missile system, into which hundreds of crores have been invested over the over the years. More importantly, the deal ignores the success of the AAD missile, which could be deployed as a surface-to-air missile and used exactly like the Israeli MRSAM.''
From the man in charge
So, let's revisit the comments made by Dr Prahlad, chief controller, DRDO, the man in-charge of the Akash missile development programme, at the time of the signing of the deal.
''We are jointly developing a 70-km range MR-SAM in partnership with Israeli companies,'' Prahlad informed the media at the time the deal was announced.
''We may take around 12 years but the requirement of the services is that they want it (MR-SAM) fast. The only way to make it in four to five years is to partner with a country which has already developed some of the hardware. If they have got some hardware and we have got some knowledge, we can do it in 4-5 years,'' Prahlad said.
Prahlad added that the DRDO had already developed indigenous air defence systems, such as the Trishul and the Akash, but the latter did not fit the bill for the MR-SAM project as its range was only 30 km. The services, he said, had posited the requirement for a missile system with a range of 70 km.
This, as far as sounding the ''death knell'' of the Akash SAM system is concerned from the man in charge of the development programme.
Now, for the next charge that the ''... deal comes at a time when India already possesses a more powerful missile in the same class the advanced air defence (AAD) missile, part of India's anti-ballistic missile shield.''
The Green Pine base
The Indian BMD's AAD/PAD (renamed: Pradyumna) missile system is a proven success and is indeed in the same class as the MR-SAM system now being contracted for with the Israelis. So why has it been ignored?
No surface-to-air missile (SAM) system operates on a solo basis flying blind. There is a back-up system, including radars, that provides the first promptings of a threat. Radars, and other related systems, then guide, or launch, the SAM in the direction of the hostile threat.
The AAD's support system, for all these years, has been the Israeli Green Pine radar, which allows the Indian BMD system to display the kind of effectiveness that it has. The Israelis sold two of these radars to us about half a decade ago, and these have formed the core around which the fledgling Indian BMD system operates.
The Green Pine system has now been further improved, and the DRDO has evolved the Swordfish radar, a system with enhanced range. The evolution has occurred on the back of the earlier platform the Green Pine.
After the missile has been directed towards the hostile threat by the radar, it then becomes autonomous and begins to track, and ultimately home in, through its own 'seekers'. It is not confirmed, but there have been reports suggesting that the BMD programme may still be operating with Israeli, or even Russian, seekers.
This may not be the case, but then, like all technologies, seeker technology too is an evolving one the Indians may have developed a particular generation of this technology and require to leapfrog to another generation. This may or may not be the case, but in defence nobody is going to enlighten you about the loopholes in their defences or development efforts either.
In defence, when a deal is being struck you may attempt to read between the lines, or the clauses, and figure out things which may not be stated for the reading pleasure of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
Now for the other point that the deal has been signed ''quietly'' by the UPA government, ignoring a CBI probe. This is wilfully overlooking the chain of events as they have occurred with respect to the deal.
The report itself concedes that the deal was cleared by the government sometime in 2007 actually July 2007 a good two years before the parliamentary elections were due. So why was it not signed then, rather than now, when the whole world, including every defence reporter in town, would draw the appropriate conclusion and scream 'scandal' from the rooftops?
Well, for the very same reason, which the report itself provides. There was an ongoing CBI probe, and niceties of democratic conventions did not allow the deal to be consummated. So what changed, and why did the deal come to be signed days before the 2009 parliamentary elections were announced?
For that matter there was another deal signed a couple of months before this one in December 2008 with identically the same parties. This Rs1,800-crore ($400 million) deal is no small matter either, and involves the supply of 18 sets of Israeli SPYDER short and medium range missile systems.
If the MR/LR-SAM deal was cleared by the government in July 2007 and the decision held in abeyance till February 2009, the SPYDER deal was already in the works, and close to being solemnised, by October 2006. So, how come the deal was ultimately signed only in December 2008?
This deal too was kept in abeyance for over two years for the very same reasons, according to the report, that the government has now violated legal propriety. The CBI, we need to note, was 'investigating' an earlier scandal the Barak missile deal involving the same parties, signed by the BJP-led NDA gvoernment. Though the country's defence preparedness required that the SPYDER and MR-SAM deals be consummated, legal propriety also required that CBI clear the parties involved.
But then in December 2008 and February 2009 both the deals were cleared in a hurry as the investigative report suggests, in a ''legally opaque'' manner. Were election funding pressures looming, or was there another reason?
What open tendering?
The reports points out another violation guidelines laid down by the ministry of defence itself. ''The fact is,'' the report says, ''that there was no open tendering in any of these three contracts (i.e., MR-SAM, SPYDER and Aerostat radars). IAI was the only participant from the beginning in the MR-SAM contract, and no comparative pricing was done in the international market.''
''Comparative tendering'' comes into operation with a commercial contract and not in areas of strategic interest where you already have a partnership of long standing. What tendering was done before the Israeli Green Pine radras were acquired the bedrock of the Indian BMD programme? Technology of the Green Pine variety is not available for love or money in the open market they can only be acquired if two, or more, governments agree to strengthen strategic relationships and pass on such technologies as proof of their long-term friendly intent towards each other.
It is known that the US and Israel got into a spat over the transfer of the Green Pine technology to India as it has been jointly developed by both nations as part of the Arrow BMD programme and was almost entirely funded by the US. Under immense pressure Israel eventually agreed to suspend interactions with India for a period of time.
It may be noted that Israel, another democracy, did not resort to ''open tendering'' for the transfer of the Green Pine radars to India and even risked an open spat with a strategic partner of long standing the US.
The Israelis have gone the extra mile with regard to India, not just with the Green Pine exchange, but in various areas too numerous to enumerate some only in the knowledge of the very few.
As already pointed out, it is not even clear if the Indian BMD programme has used, or is using, Israeli seekers for their intercepting missiles.
As they did with the Green Pine, Indians may have begun with a set of seekers provided by the Israelis and moved on to gradually evolve one of their own, or may be in the process of doing so, as they did with the Swordfish. They may have developed a particular generation of seekers and now feel that partnership is essential.
Defence development programmes have now gradually moved beyond the means of almost all companies, or nations, to fund entirely on their own most programmes and nations are seeking partners.
Put simply, there could be more irons in this particular fire than we may imagine.
Life in defence unfortunately for investigative folks is not entirely about legal opacity, open tendering and the like.
Dr Prahlad put it in a succinct manner on our own, the development cycle may take up to 12 years, but a joint development programme may shorten the cycle to 4-5 years. Cost analysis also includes time as a critical factor.
Israel's Arrow BMD programme had the US as a partner. Surely this technological giant did not require seeking the partnership of such a small nation? They did, though, and so do we. And let us not get into hocus-pocus of 'open tendering' and 'legal transparency.' These are applicable to areas where technologies are comparable and available off-the-shelf.
No country in the world is passing on technologies of strategic interest on a commercial basis and so ''open tendering'' and ''legal opaqueness'' are phrases strictly for the idle and ones with political axes to grind.
The Patriot system is not available on an ''open tendering'' system to anybody, nor the Russian S-300, for that matter. The Patriot was made available to India only after the country conducted the first round of its BMD tests in November 2006.
It is entirely to the credit of the Indian government that it held out for as long as it did in not consummating these deals in the face of CBI 'investigations' and lost out on two years of development time as a result.
The 26/11 shock
The fact remains that something did spur the government to act all of a sudden where, manifestly, it was sitting tight for two odd years on these deals. What could have provided the push?
Was it the sudden realisation that elections were a matter of months away and that party coffers were empty? Or did the 26/11 Mumbai attacks provide the wake-up call?
The deterioration in the security environment in the region, post-26/11, was sudden and rapid. The 'partnership' with the US in trying to corner Pakistan has yielded impressive results precisely nothing. The massive Kupwara encounter in Kashmir, where 17 Lasher-e-Taiba cadres were gunned down by the Army, brought forth a prompt response from the L-e-T. A spokesman called up newspaper offices in Srinagar acknowledging the encounter and threatening more of the same. Things are not back to normal. They are only where they have always been part of the offensive strategies of the Pakistani establishment.
Life has moved beyond the pale of conventional warfare tanks will roll across the border only under the umbrella of protective SAM/BMD systems. If the enemy is not in a position to handle your conventional forces, or is overwhelmed by them in conventional combat it will take recourse to other means.
Mumbai 26/11 brought home the fact that a full-scale clash with our neighbour was a immediate possibility, in spite of all the 'nuclear' rhetoric that attends such arguments. It is only prudent that other arguments, such as ''legal opaqueness'' and ''open tendering'' were given the miss and the needs of the hour were taken onboard.
This, in all probability, is what the government did.