NEW DELHI: Air Marshal P K Barbora has again ventured into a territory which nobody donning a uniform has dared, attacking the political class for hindering the modernisation of the armed forces due to their petty interests.
The armed forces have long talked about how politics often overrides national security in hushed tones but no one has dared to bell the cat publicly while still serving.
But then, Barbora has always been somewhat of a flamboyant character, whether it was undertaking unheard of combat manoeuvres on his MiG-21s in his younger days or declaring as the Western Air Command chief last year that his force was capable of hitting "5,000 targets’’ in Pakistan after the 26/11 terror attacks.
Coupled with this dash of flamboyance comes the unsettling ability to speak his mind publicly even if it’s politically incorrect or unpalatable. Even as he expressed regret for hurting some sentiments with his candid `personal’ views on why women cannot be inducted as fighter pilots just yet, the IAF vice-chief did some plain speaking yet again on Thursday.
This time, he attacked the proclivity of political parties to use defence procurement deals to settle political vendettas as well as the half-hearted steps taken to open the defence sector to the private sector and foreign direct investment (FDI).
First, Air Marshal Barbora clarified it was his "personal opinion’’, not that of IAF or the defence ministry, that pre-conditions like not having children for some specified time would have to be imposed on women who want to become fighter pilots since over Rs 11 crore is spent on training each fighter pilot.
"I am quite confident, as I mentioned before, that in the not too distant future, we hope to see women flying fighters in some form of combat roles... (But) it has to be a step-by-step approach,’’ he said.
Then, during an international conference on "Energising the Indian Aerospace Sector’’, Air Marshal Barbora launched an attack on the culture of "irresponsible politics’’ which "impinges very badly’’ on the country’s defence preparedness.
"The internal politics over the years is such that whatever defence requirements are cleared by the government, they are opposed by the opposition parties. And the same happens when roles change and the opposition sits in government,’’ he said.
The tendency to score political points by referring defence deals struck by an earlier government to the Central Vigilance Commission brings modernisation of armed forces to a grinding halt. "Everyone looks at each other with suspicion,’’ he said.
Seeking "pardon’’ for "saying things which must be said’’, Air Marshal Barbora then held that India should be "bold enough’’ to allow more FDI in the defence sector as well as bolster the role of the domestic private sector in the arms manufacturing business.
It was in May 2001 that the defence industry sector was opened up to 100% private investment, with up to 26% FDI, with the aim of establishing a strong defence-industrial base. Till then, the defence sector was strictly the public sector’s preserve.
But the policy has not shown much results since then, with the armed forces continuing to import around 70% of their military hardware and software from countries like Russia, Israel, France, UK and now, increasingly the US.
Even Pakistan does much better on the defence exports front, said Air Marshal Barbora. While defence PSUs like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd are "pleased’’ at producing just doors and undercarriages for European Airbus aircraft, China has taken huge strides and is making the "whole damn thing’’, he added.
The IAF vice-chief did not stop at that. He even asked private companies to learn the art of `reverse engineering’ in military technologies, which China has mastered and exploits to the hilt. "Has anyone ever had the courage to ask China why are you doing it? No one cares a hoot. If you can’t make it yourself, you should at least know how to do reverse engineering,’’ he said.