Honey, I shrunk the funds!

Fighting for funds in the Ops Branch

I was in Air Headquarters for about seven years out of which five were spent in the Operational Branch, three as Asst. Chief of Air Staff Operations and two as the Vice Chief of the Air Staff. The other two years were spent as Director of Training and ACAS Personnel. In my five years in the Ops Branch, I used to watch an amazing ritual every year regarding the procurement of important additions to our operational capabilities or operational training. This ritual could best be compared to the mating dance of the scorpions or the Tarantulas. The females always killed the spouses after the mating.

In this case it was a dance between the Air Force and the Ministry of Defence. Unfortunately the Air Force was the dead one at the end without even the pleasure of mating!! Though I am talking about a period many many years ago, the procedure had always existed and I am sure exists to this day because the approach and mindset of the ‘Babu Log’ has always been the same and it would take a major restructuring to change it – something the Babu Log will not let happen. By Babu Log I mean the Administrative and Finance officials of our government. I am sure the status is the same because just the other day, the then CAS, ACM Krishnaswamy made a trite remark about the bureaucracy having the authority and not the responsibility. They thrust down decisions but never have to answer when things go wrong.

The ritual or ‘dance’ would start towards the end of a calendar year or early in the calendar year with an indication from the Govt. to Air Headquarters that an amount had been set aside for ‘new acquisitions’ in the budget for the next Financial Year starting on 1 April. When we talk about ‘new acquisitions’ we are not talking about new fleets of aircraft. That would be ‘capital expenditure’ and would be under a separate ‘Head’. We are talking about things like simulators, tethered balloons, side looking radars, instrumented ranges etc. This is dealt with by the ‘Plans’ Branch of the Air Force, who interact with the ‘Ops’ Branch of the Air Force, whenever they think fit or convenient.

Of course both Branches would have developed a ‘wish list’ over the years, updating it whenever they come across something of interest from published material, vendor brochures or vendor presentations in Air Hq. During the years I was in Air Hq, this amount varied between Rs. 200 and 300 crores. There would be a flurry of activities then to optimize a list to match the priorities with the cost and try and get the ‘biggest bang for the buck’. The final list would be the prerogative of the Plans Branch. Often some of the items indicted by the Ops Branch, who are the end users, would be left out and others included in the ‘wisdom’ of the Plans Branch. The latter have often not felt the need to debate the changes or inform the Ops Branch of their reasoning!! So, this sacred list would be sent to the Ministry of Defence, who would include it in their budgetary indications to the Ministry of Fiancé. The Ministry of Finance would include it in the Budget for the year and announce it with much fanfare in the Parliament. It must be realised that the ever burgeoning ‘Defence Expenditure’ goes primarily towards Pay, Pension and maintenance of existing equipment with less than 15% available for ‘New Acquisitions”. All the newspapers would carry the details of the allocations including the amount for the New Inductions, with banner headlines indicating the ‘vast’ increases etc.

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Nothing would happen till about October, though the Plans Branch would keep on chivvying the Ministry about firm allocations so that the process of calling vendors, negotiating etc. could be started. We would get a note from the Plans Branch to say that the Ministry had indicated that only an amount of Rs. 50 crores was ‘found’ available and could we please indicate our priorities within that amount. I forgot to mention that all this would be dealt with at the ACAS level. So the ACAS Ops would call his Directors and get into a huddle and come out with a new list of the top priority items that could come within the sum indicated, shedding many vital or important items. This would be projected by the Plans Branch to the Ministry.

Nothing further would be heard from the Ministry till the end of January of the following year and at times till the end of February. Then we would be told that only Rs. 20 crores could be ‘found’ and could we please make a ‘final’ final list and let them know on utmost priority!! This would be done.

At this Stage the ministry would exercise one of two options. If they were serious about giving the miserable 20 crores, they would say, pending final allocation Air Hq should call the vendors and start negotiations on a competitive basis. Of course, this process itself was not in the hands of the Air Hq. It could only submit the offers and the vendor’s particulars and ask the Ministry to officially call the vendors. The other option was to delay it even further and then tell the Air Hq to produce a list and then say that the Air Hq did not do the needful to use the allocated funds!! I have seen both options being exercised with some years where the ultimate allocation is not even 10% of the original indication and even that being allowed to lapse. Even when serious negotiations were held for the miniscule money ‘found’, the Babu Log were clear that the actual outgoing during that financial year would be probably only the 10% of so of down payment. I have seen the glee and gloating in the eyes of the Babu Log of having ‘saved’ the government all that money!! It didn’t strike them that the operational efficiency and fighting capabilities of the Air Force was being affected, year after year. It is the epitome of authority without responsibility. They didn’t have to go to war and they didn’t understand that there is no Prize for the ‘runner-up in a war’!! There is just no accountability for them. They do their two or three year stint in their jobs, starve the armed forces of the very ‘teeth’ needed to hold ones own, let alone win a war.

What I have described so far is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg and there is another area where the action of the Babu Log is much more reprehensible and, I would say, anti national. That has to do with what we call War Wastage Reserves or WWR.

The War Wastage Reserve

Everybody knows that the Armed Services need to have sufficient munitions to fight a war, such as bullets for the guns, rocket projectiles, and bombs etc, which are easily recognized even by the ‘man in the street’. There are other munitions which have been added to these such as air-to-air missiles. Smart bombs, runway penetration bombs, long range or ARMR missiles etc which are very expensive. But they are needed if you want to utilize the very expensive weapons platforms (aeroplanes) that we buy, to take full advantage of their design capabilities. The quantity of these items required to fight a war is referred to as War Wastage Reserves and it means exactly what it says.

How do we go about working out how many of these we need. It is a daunting exercise, especially when you are the fourth largest air force in the world. The steps would go like this:

1.    Take the number of aircraft you have, type wise.
2.    Work out the availability of aircraft for operations, based on the expected serviceability of the fleets. The serviceability figure is something that is worked out between the Ops staff and the Maintenance staff, taking into account the superhuman effort that would be put in to get the maximum number of aircraft ‘on line’.
3.    Work out the number of sorties each aircraft would be doing, taking into account the number of pilots available for the type and the maximum flying that they can do in a day and the capabilities of the ground crew to turn the aircraft round.
4.    Decide on the likely targets for the missions and match the required missions.
5.    Decide how many of each kind of missions that fleet would do per day. The missions could be ‘Close Support’ to the army or Navy, Air superiority missions, Missions against strategic targets, tactical targets etc.
6.    Total up the munitions required for each kind of mission per day for each fleet to undertake the assigned missions.
7.    Multiply this figure by the number of days you expect the war to last. There are small variations to this that I won’t go into.
8.    This is the WWR. But you would need to add to it the remaining munitions needed at the end of the War for any contingencies.

Having completed these unbelievably complicated and intuitive calculations, we need to get ‘Government ‘acceptance for our reserves. This means endless meetings with the Babu Log at middle level by the Directors of the appropriate fleet and proving to them every bit of the calculation. With their approach to prove that the entire calculation and every bit of it is inflated, it is a most frustrating exercise and it took me nearly two years to get the WWR revised for the entire Air Force, when I was the ACAS Ops. Actually there were still some unfinished work but they were for the less important fleets since we started with our top priority fleets first.

One would think our job is done and all we have to do is to go and order the munitions to top up the holdings. Nothing could be further from the reality. To top up each kind of ammunition for each type of aircraft, we had to submit individual cases and argue it through. If it was a case of convincing the need it should be easy since we have a sanctioned WWR and the holding are finite and the shortfall is clear. But the approach of the Babu Log was different. For each kind of munitions, it would be almost a case of going over the workings of WWR again, sometimes because they almost reopened the case for WWR or because the officer from the IAS or Finance was new to the job and had to be educated about the whole procedure and concept.

Having spent days and weeks gong over one item of munitions, they would run out of objections and we would prove that our minimum requirement was a specific number. Let us say this worked out to 2000 simple rocket projectiles, manufactured in India by an Ordnance factory. One would think that they would just say ‘go ahead’. But NO. We would get ‘decisions’ saying ‘I can allow only 200’ or ‘I am willing to authorize 200’ etc.

My officers could only sit there stunned by the ridiculous percentage being accepted and wondering how a war was supposed to be fought. They wouldn’t even say ‘we appreciate your requirement but this year we have money only for so much and as soon as the new financial year starts, we will automatically authorize the rest”. It would be a dead end and the indication was either take it or leave it and come back again with a new case another day in the far distant future!!

Many times my officers have left meeting saying that it was just not acceptable. The levels would be raised and ultimately by sheer wearing us out, they would ‘clear’ a number way below the amount required to fight a war lasting half or quarter of the expected duration. Can one imagine the frustration and anger as well as the fear that, if we went to war, we might lose it because of shortage of munitions!! At that point in time the responsibility would be totally that of the Air Force. The babu log exercised total authority but NO responsibility. At the end of these meetings one had the feeling that the officer would go back and tell his superiors that he ‘had saved so much money for the Government by masterly arguments’ and expect a commendation for his performance without even a thought that he had actually crippled our war making capabilities!!

If this was so for indigenously produced munitions, can you imagine what would go on for imported expensive ones like the smart bombs or beyond visual range missiles!! It also did not strike the Babu Log that we were crippling our own weapon producing capabilities by depriving the Ordnance factories or even minimal orders to keep the line going. We have had letters from the Ordnance factories saying that their auditors are asking lines to be closed because it was not economical!!

It is not that we were in a cocoon and were not aware of the financial constraints of the Govt or the need to keep our demands for munitions low so that other priority needs can be met from the same ‘cake’ of funds. Often we told the Babu Log that our need was more but in view of the high cost of certain munitions, we would keep it to the bare minimum, taking chances with the conduct of a war.

Meeting with the PM

At this juncture, I must recount my fight back. There was a momentous occasion when the Prime Minister called a meeting with the three chiefs, MoD officials, Cabinet Secretary etc to discuss our war capabilities. The IAF Chief was good enough to take me along, as I was the VCAS and ‘Ops’ was my baby. In the course of the meeting, the PM asked the all important question to each of the Chiefs, “If we go to war, will we win?”. He asked the Army and Navy chiefs first, as they were seated in that order, and they both replied emphatically that we would win.

When it came to the Air Force, he happened to look at me and asked and I wasn’t about to let go a chance like that. I replied “Yes Sir definitely, but you will have to find a way to get the UN or somebody to come and stop the war after 15 to 20 days”. There was shock and disbelief on his face and he asked me “Why?”. I said “The Ministry of Defence has not allowed us to top up our War Wastage Reserves”. He looked at the Defence Secretary and asked “Is this true?” and all he could do was to look uncomfortable. He was told “Rectify this immediately”.

What came of it would be comic, if it wasn’t so unproductive and yet an indicator of the Standard Operating Procedure of the Babus. I got a note from the Defence Secretary, two days later, to say that with a great deal of effort and persuasion, he had been able to get released 200 Matra Magic Missiles and 200 Runway destruction (Dibber) bombs from the French Matra Corporation. He never asked me what we needed but used it as an opportunity to promote his private interests!! I took great pleasure in writing back to him, gleefully, that these were not stores we were interested ion but wanted more gun ammunition, rocket projectiles and conventional bombs. I did tell my staff to quote the PM, when they went next to a meeting on WWRs.

The Training Reserve

There is one more fight that we needed to have periodically and that was the Training Reserve. As you will guess, the Air Force needs to keep its pilots in fully trained state to be able to deliver the weapons in war. To do this, munitions have to be expended during peace in training, even for the ‘fully operational’ pilots. In addition tyro pilots have to reach operational standards. This again is a periodical Maha Bharat with the Babu Log. In addition to the previous tricks, they have a new one for blocking this Reserve and reducing it. In one year they will arbitrarily reduce the available munitions. Then in the next year they will ask you, ‘Last year you managed with less. Why are you asking for more now”?!!

The state of the WWR needs to be watched much more closely by the Air Force Hierarchy and the departments of the Government to make sure that we can conduct a war successfully. As I said before “There is NO prize for a runner up in a war”!!

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