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CAG report: time to roll back GOCO

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President, Shri Ram Nath Kovind at the ‘At Home Reception’, on the occasion of the 72nd Republic Day Celebrations, at Rashtrapati Bhavan

The CAG`s observation that the Army`s plan to privatise Army base workshops (ABW) operations through GOCO (Government Owned Company Operated) model in order to shore up operational readiness and reduce spending is fraught with risks and operational challenges, is very timely.

“The implementation of GOCO model is fraught with risks and operational challenges as identified by the Headquarters Base Workshop Group. 385 out of the 1,077 affected civilian manpower of closed stations/static workshops are lying idle and the same situation may arise in ABWs, if these issues are not addressed while implementing the GOCO Model”– CAG Report tabled in Rajya Sabha on Aug 11 and Lok Sabha on Nov 29.

Given the changing military landscape in the sub-continent, it is encouraging to see that an independent constitutional authority has been able to foresee the risks of embarking on an initiative that has been jettisoned even by countries having a strong Defence Industrial Base and who are in the business of design, development and manufacture of weapon systems for the past 100 years. In contrast, the Indian Army possessing a unique medley of systems from all corners of the world appears to have embarked on a wasteful exercise of privatising sustainment engineering. Its mix of modern and legacy systems need painstaking engineering efforts by maintainers to retain them in a fighting fit condition.

Even the Infantryman`s assault rifles are of imported origin and will need periodic maintenance at an ABW to be able to deliver equipment capability relevant to mission needs i.e. to fire a certain amount of ammunition without critical stoppages. Several serving officers and veterans including a former COAS had expressed serious concerns about the initiative being a “NO GO” right from start. Yet the Army in its classical tradition of “Yes Sir yes Sir, three bags full Sir” moved ahead with ambitious timelines of 2019/2020. The AON however is still awaited.

The Armed Forces sustainment engineering system is based on the principle of replacing forward and reset in the rear. Today, each service has its integral maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) infrastructure that comprise close support(CS) and deep support (DS) outfits. CS comprises Organizational(O) and  Intermediate (I) whereas DS comprise Depot (D) level support. While CS is located close to platforms deployed, DS is spread throughout the country as base repair depots (BRD), army base workshops(ABW) and naval dockyards. These are specialist enterprises that carry base refit activities and are the last port of call.  CS and DS are shared for elementary systems like small arms, instruments and vehicles in some locations. The Airforce and Navy have not pursued any such initiative, as they consider platform readiness being the sine qua non for operational readiness. It is enigmatic why the Army has not yet focused on this vital constituent of 21st-century combat, despite possessing thousands of weapon platforms.

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A Corps sized formation today holds a large collection of weapon systems that need to be mission capable to give it the required operational edge. The vast array of soldier systems, tanks, guns, rocket systems, missiles, UAVs, helicopters, electronic warfare, communication and computing systems need to deliver an assured level of mission reliability when deployed at the LAC or LC. Any malfunction or degradation in their capability will only be detrimental to the Infantrymen manning forward defences on the ground. In 1943, when non-functional brand new bazookas failed to stop German tanks, fifty-one young men lost their lives in village Gela, near Sicily. The men had pieces of their own bazookas ground into their bodies by German tanks they were trying to stop. Today, there is an indispensable need to work together towards integrated capability readiness to support the warfighter. Without a dramatic improvement in tactical and strategic capability readiness, the Army may end up preparing for a typical mechanical grind out the operation. Body counts cannot forever remain an indication of who had an edge.

GOCO initiatives have been attempted in a number of developed countries like the US, UK, Western Europe but have finally been jettisoned and confined to ammunition manufacturing, research and development, transportation, etc. on account of cost and operational effectiveness. The Department of Defence in the US operates 20 major maintenance depots that have some of the most versatile maintenance, repair and remanufacturing capabilities in the world.  The arrangement which has been adopted is Teaming,  where a certain share of the reset work is given to  OEMs based on core competencies and work on critical and confidential systems, integration and testing of platforms are carried in the depots. In our context, as most systems are imported, there are no OEMs available locally, hence the creation of required skills and competencies will not only be cost-prohibitive but also half baked. Besides, there will always be a grave risk of classified inputs of platforms like operating frequencies, ballistic computing, armour protection, system vulnerabilities being compromised. Closed systems are closely guarded by all militaries and are always the exclusive domain of combat maintainers,  to prevent countermeasures and technological surprises being developed by the adversary.

What was supposed to be a corporatisation initiative as per the Shekatkar Committee, similar to that of  Ordnance Factories(OF), got converted into a total privatization initiative by a few crafty military men with shallow knowledge of weapon readiness intricacies? Post-retirement,  some have joined private companies in anticipation. Post the LAC standoff, the top brass should have realised how outsourcing core capabilities can create high risks to security. It appears that after four years of papering over the issue, there is a growing realisation that the project is unlikely to take off. The dilemma appears to be in admitting that there has been an oversight and communicating the same to higher-ups. After four years, the necessity of GOCO  is still under consideration, post which a five-year time span can be safely assumed for the experiment to come to some conclusion. Army`s equipment readiness has faced a double whammy with the ongoing corporatization of OFs and  GOCO, which has increased entropy and affected force readiness. Engineering instability at the ABWs over the past decade and its likely continuation for another decade or so will surely aggravate force hollowness.  The modernization of all  ABWs has been put on hold and automation and digitization of force readiness analysers, engineering processes and protocols that could have led to consider downsizing, has been abandoned in the name of GOCO! One cannot expect ABWs to perform like private enterprises without putting any funds for modernization. The CAG`s caution is spot on and should lead to a threadbare discussion of the proposal.

There are readiness risks under GOCO, especially if a  contractor is a sole source. At times, we ourselves have taken serious risks by not purchasing MTOT. The fewer the sources,  the greater the risk that we will not be able to get platforms in a ready to fight condition when needed. Even when there is competition, there is the danger of contractors  “buying in” by bidding low initially and then hiking prices later. There will be problems repairing obsolete equipment with foreign OEMs stopping production of spare parts.  Also, contractors need to have the right types of facilities, equipment and skills, as well as access to technical data.  The surge needs for the platform must be considered – by placing all requirements under non-combatants, surge capability will be severely compromised.

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The basic  question is not “should  we outsource/ privatize ABWs ?” The more important question is – how do we make operational sustainment of imported weapons and equipment more efficient to support the warfighter with acceptable risk at affordable costs? In 1962, the gallant Kumaonese made supreme sacrifices(115 killed in action), battling it out alone at Rezang la, Chushul sans fire support from non-functional tanks and guns in location, an outcome of superficial planning by generalists. There is a huge readiness risk allowing the industry to take over ABWs since a contractor could decide when he does not want to provide a service. The US Army has tackled this issue in a pragmatic manner post the first Gulf War and created a PPP model which provided for a mandatory 40% outsourcing to industry and a 60% retention of workshare with the Depots.  Anniston Army Depot is a GOGO facility under the command of the US Army spread over  16,000-acres. The United States has not built a new tank since 1993, while we have inducted two in this period and could induct two more!.  Instead, the US has refurbished and rebuilt existing vehicles with substantial cost savings. Anniston ensures that non-mission capable tanks enter the premise, get stripped down to their component and reassembled with upgrades in like-new condition. With the evolving strategic partnership with the US, it is time the Army took some lessons in the vital area of capability readiness and force regeneration.

A word about the management of people and specialist skills of a workforce of over 12000. Once considered an asset today they have already been branded a liability. Thousands of employees could become surplus as a   consequence of  GOCO  which the CAG has also alluded to. It has already created some apprehensions about job security. The closure of station workshops created a pool of over 1000 surplus civilians who had been gainfully employed on technical work. A large number of these were ex-servicemen who had been absorbed on re-employment. The MOD has not been able to provide many of these personnel alternate placements, consequently, they are been paid, yet not being employed productively. The GOCO experiment is sure to create a  crisis of much bigger proportions and Covid alongside  PLA standoff at LAC  are certainly not the ideal time to initiate such turbulence. It may be better to call off the GOCO exercise till Theatre Commands come to fruition. There is certainly some aberration in strategic thinking at the top; while the IAF and Navy are acquiring new platforms and upgrading old ones, modernising their   DS facility in the stride, the Army is content with doing panic procurement and allowing its force regeneration infrastructure to remain archaic,  unstable and wither away. Post setting up of Theatre Commands, a holistic review of the tri-service engineering sustainment infrastructure can be undertaken, something akin to the  Defence  Base Realignment and Closure Commission reports of the US military.

Sharing of resources to support all tri-service platforms like small arms, armaments,  UAVs, helicopters, missiles, combat vehicles, optoelectronic, IT and communication systems, radars, etc. will bring in massive cost-cutting and generation of resources for modernization. Above all, it will facilitate lateral absorption of skilled manpower and mitigate human suffering and other ill effects. If soldiering is all about teamwork, why subject the civilian combat maintainers to such a roughshod treatment. After all, these are the same highly skilled boys (now greying) who dismantled Shermans and AMXs to facilitate airlift to the Valley and Chushul during 1947 and 1962, refurbished tanks, APCs, recce vehicles for 1965 and 1971 operations, have reset over 500 x T 72, indigenised thousands of components and carried out a pilot reset of T90 tanks.

They even designed and manufactured the Field Marshal’s baton for Sam Manekshaw. They have moved to all corners of the LAC and LC to sustain defective equipment beyond the capability of field maintainers, similar to medicare for the soldiers. One devil–may–care move by some military men with a frog’s eye view (usually square pegs in a round hole) has washed away their unparalleled contribution to the Army over the years.

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Also Read:

GOCO – The Inside Story

Corporatisation of Government assets – think before you act

Soldier and System Readiness will remain the two foremost battlefield operating systems of warfare. Soldier readiness relates to training, equipping, combat skills and competencies while system readiness is the ability to provide reliable equipment to execute missions. It is derived from the ability of each unit to deliver a stipulated mission capability. In simple terms, it is the ability of a force to know how far it can run and how long it can jump. A fine example of readiness was demonstrated by the US Air Force during the Gulf war when it flew 60000 sorties and dropped 84,000 tons of ammunition that helped shorten the war. The M1 Abrams covered 5000 miles a year, an “optempo” of six times the peacetime rate of 800 miles, helicopters operated at two to five times peacetime rates. The deployment at LAC could see a manifold increase in optempos of platforms, which the systems cannot deliver without close support from ABWs.

Delaying repair or remanufacture once equipment has reached the specified level of wear as is happening currently may result in premature erosion of combat capability.  For a nation faced with the prospects of a two-front war, risk assessment and mitigation is a must. National security cannot be outsourced under the misguided notion that a contractor will somehow run a reset facility and bring in huge savings. The Army`s proposal for GOCO is harebrained, devoid of a Plan B, raising serious doubts if it was fully thought through before projection at the highest levels. The CAGs observation should provide the critical mass for an internal review by the Army. Valuable time and taxpayers money have been spent on the GOCO project report. MOD needs to consider a rollback, replacing GOCO  with a PPP model,  stipulating mandatory outsourcing of a certain percentage of work share to MSMEs. This change in nomenclature from GOCO to PPP will in one stroke restore the focus on substance, raise the morale of the workforce and give the much-needed direction to this initiative.

This will usher a  transformative change of teaming and collaborative work in the ABWs resulting in downsizing, technological up-gradation and higher productivity besides revving up activities in the MSMEs. What is crucial is that the operational control of the base reset process will remain with the Army, eliminating the possibility of compromises, howsoever minuscule the probability may be. This is what was the objective of the Shekatkar Committee I suppose, certainly not denuding Army`s Equipment Readiness, creating additional vulnerabilities and playing around with the livelihood of 12000 strong civilian workforces. The young warfighters deployed at the LAC who expect mission capable platforms to come out with all guns blazing in their support when needed, seek actions, not words to re-assure them that history (Chushul) will not be repeated.

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Lt. Gen. (Dr.) N. B. Singh, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC
Lt. Gen. (Dr.) N. B. Singh, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC
Lt Gen N B Singh served as Director General of the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineering (DGEME), Director General Information Systems (DGIS) and was a founding member of the Armed Forces Tribunal, Jabalpur. He specializes in armored fighting vehicles and played a key role in the design and development of bullet proof vehicle Takshak, Arjun Armored Recovery vehicle and made significant contribution in the development of the Dhanush gun system. He has undergone specialized training in Germany on off highway vehicles and served in Moscow as Military Attaché Technical.


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