Keep it simple

The government has scrapped a 13-year-long procurement process for 12 minesweepers, warships that are critically needed to counter hostile navies’ strategy of bottling up Indian Navy warships in harbour, by laying explosive mines at the exits. For years, the navy has made do with six Soviet-era minesweepers, of which two retired last year and the remainder are outdated. This leaves a glaring hole in India’s maritime security until a new vendor is identified, a contract concluded and the minesweepers built. Going by past track record, this could take over a decade. This is hardly the first time an operationally vital procurement has been cancelled after years of evaluation. The cancellation of the tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), and its culmination in the unplanned procurement of 36 Rafale fighters in flyaway condition, too, embarrassed the Indian procurement process.

Similarly, last month, after years of trials, the government cancelled the procurement of Spike anti-tank missiles from the Israeli company, Rafael. Also last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi commissioned the first Scorpene submarine, INS Kalvari, with great fanfare, but without matching torpedoes – its primary weapon – because of the cancellation of a contract with Italian company WASS for Black Shark torpedoes after its sister firm, helicopter maker AgustaWestland, was investigated in Italy for bribing Indian officials. That also caused the scuppering of a contract for eight AW-101 helicopters for Indian VVIPs. The truth is, Indian defence procurement is littered with tens of such cancelled acquisitions and include light utility helicopters, assault rifles and light machine guns for the infantry, naval multi-role helicopters for Indian warships, aerial refuelling aircraft to extend the range of air force fighters, quick reaction surface-to-air missiles (QR-SAMs) to defend against enemy fighter aircraft and many more.

The obvious question that comes to mind is: why do so many procurements fail? The reasons vary, but a prime one is the flawed framing of qualitative requirements (QRs) or the performance criteria the weapon being bought must meet. Too often, the user service — the army, navy or air force — motivated by the certainty that sluggish procurement processes will ensure the system enters service at least a decade later when technologies would have advanced, frames such technologically ambitious QRs that no existing system, or perhaps a single existing system, meets those requirements. Since bureaucrats desire at least two eligible contenders for “price discovery”, this sends the acquisition back to the start line. 

Other reasons include having unrealistic demands for high-technology that vendors are unprepared to part with; or, as in the MMRCA case, stipulating such a complex “life cycle costing” model for comparing bids that determining a winner became impossible. Simplification of the procurement process has been repeatedly promised in the past. Yet, on the ground, the procurement process remains every bit as cumbersome as ever. What remains elusive is a simple procurement procedure, and bureaucrats who know their subject and do not constantly fear the possibility of subsequent investigation.

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