According to media reports, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has set up an apex committee to carry out a performance and efficiency audit of capital procurements, logistics, inventory and maintenance of assets of the Armed Forces.

The committee is to be headed by the Defence Secretary, and its members include the Secretary Defence (Finance), Director General (Acquisition), Controller General of Defence Accounts (CGDA), Vice Chiefs of the three Services, Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff, and other senior MoD officials, including representatives from the Defence Research and Development Organisation DRDO).

The committee, according to the media, will advise Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on measures for overall improvement in strengthening of internal oversight, risk management framework in various aspects of functioning of the defence ministry.

Media reports added that the MoD described the formation of this committee as a "major shift" from the existing transaction-based compliance audit to carry out an outcome-based performance and efficiency audit.

The media reported that setting up the committee comes amid efforts to streamline military procurement procedures, and focus on enhancing the country's overall combat readiness.

A statement issued by the MoD stated, "this kind of audit is expected to provide valuable inputs to the top management of the ministry of specific shortcomings, if any, in planning and execution of projects, and suggest systemic improvements in internal controls, soundness of financial procedures, identification of risk factors.

"The broad areas identified for the conduct of performance and efficiency audit include defence capital procurements, provisioning, logistics, inventory levels, maintenance of platforms/assets, role and performance of authority holding sealed particulars etc. the apex committee can also recommend any other specific area for performance and efficiency audit."

There are many questions being asked about this high-powered apex committee. The first is: why don't the terms of reference include an 'operational audit' to identify why we lost control of some 1,000 sq km territory in Eastern Ladakh to the PLA in 2020? And why did we vacate the Kailash Range in our own territory, which will be used by China to say it was never Indian Territory, and what are we doing to remove the PLA intrusions?

Such an operational audit would help save repetition of similar strategic blunders. Most importantly, it would bring out why a national security strategy is urgently needed. From this should flow the military doctrine and the defence procurement plan.

An operational audit will also bring out the need for a comprehensive strategic defence review. And why the Raksha Mantri's Operational Directive should not be a stereotype document which is not even revised after a major debacle like the PLA intrusions in Eastern Ladakh during 2020. Defence Policy, both in no-war-no-peace and war, is the forte of the Defence Secretary. The Chinese aggression during 2020 proved that our defence policy failed miserably. Perhaps that is the reason any operational audit has been avoided.

The Defence Secretary is also in-charge of capital procurements. After the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), capital procurements should be under him, not the Defence Secretary. But capital procurements is where the main money lies.

It is no secret that whichever the government, every defence deal has underhand dealings, which are handled by the Defence Secretary and the Director General (Acquisition). The cuts reach destination(s) before the actual deal is inked. We would be naïve to think that anything has changed with the bureaucracy ruling the roost as always and the politicians hostage to their advice.

The same thing happens in Empowered Committees going abroad for defence purchases. The public is told the committee is headed by a military member, but the deal is inked by the DG (Acquisition) or his deputy, who will stay in a separate hotel than the committee members, and work out the pricing and the 'cuts'.

The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) or the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) is issued periodically by the MoD, every time it is said that this one is the ultimate. But changes are made to suit, or rather cover up, the policy makers. For example when the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) raised serious observations against the offset obligations not fulfilled by foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), including commitments made in the Rafale deal, the clause of "offsets" were removed from DAP 2020, which is the most recent one.

The usual tricks for money-making include delays in procurements using red tape, and raising questions on file to delay the process. Import of defence equipment is always blamed on the Armed Forces, but the behind the scene moves of the bureaucracy are covered up.

A glaring recent example is the need to import fighter aircraft for the Indian Navy's aircraft carriers. The requirement was known a decade or more ago. Why then was the naval version of the Tejas or rather the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) jet not ready for induction onboard the second aircraft carrier 'Vikramaditya' which has just completed sea trials? Where is our forward planning in the MoD and the DRDO? This is just one example albeit a major one.

The MoD strategy is always to appoint a committee whenever some issues are likely to come up. Which in this case could be likely observations by the CAG or by the Parliament's Standing Committee for Defence. Ironically, such committee reports are kept under wraps (completely or partially) with some recommendations implemented that suit the bureaucracy.

The matter is thereafter put in the freezer. The lack of will and institutional capacity to make sustained and holistic effort to bring about systemic changes in the management of defence has been on display over the past decades. De-classification of original MoD records, which should be part of such reports, is out of the question, even though classified documents are sometimes leaked to the media for political reasons.

Audit must be the follow up for all defence procurements, especially in the case of capital acquisitions, pointing out the flaws including the delays by default or design. But this is only 'on paper' because it will call for accountability, and the skeletons will be difficult to hide.

In the instant case, the military members in this committee are embellishments to justify what the Defence Secretary and the Defence Minister want to project: a WW (White Wash) Committee with the report as white as the Kurta-Pyjama of the politician. The so-called "major shift" from the existing transaction-based compliance audit will make the white-washing all the more easier.

Lt General P.C.Katoch is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.