It is indeed a big buy, made to look even bigger because of the fact that, one, it is the single largest shopping order, and two, the source of supply is one single country; Russia. The shopping list includes weaponry for all the three services but in terms of volume the bulk perhaps goes to the army. The purchase will be through the supplier's credit of one billion dollars; with an interest rate of 4 percent (so far what we are able to learn). In terms of taka, it is eight thousand crore, nearly as much as the amount allotted to the health sector in the current year's budget.
However, there is an element of mystery surrounding the details. We are not sure as to the period of credit or the terms of repayment. What has also surprised many is the abruptness with which the news was broken; just a few days before the visit took place. And there are suggestions that the weapon deal has come with the nuclear deal as a package.
However, given the instances of weapon purchases in the past, we should commend the government for making the deal public, albeit at the last moment. In the past, such purchases were kept out of public knowledge until after the purchase had been made, if at all. However, there has never been such a huge sum involved either. Therefore we demand of the government more transparency on the issue.
It is not surprising that the deal has raised the interest of many because of the new dimensions that the arms deal with Russia has added to Bangladesh's military and foreign policy projections. And depending on one's leaning, it is bound to be interpreted in different ways.
The billion dollar purchase has both a diplomatic and a defence/military dimension. And given that it has been after almost 35 years that Bangladesh has sought a different source for a bulk of its weaponry, particularly for the army, there are several implications that the authorities concerned will have to contend with.
It must be mentioned that Russian weapons are not new to the Bangladesh military, but the bulk user has been the BAF only, with very little or nothing Russian in the army or navy inventory. But since 1975, China was the main defence supplier, although we saw a shift in 1996 when Mig-29s were purchased from Russia after almost 30 years of dependence on China for ground attack and fighter aircraft. The question is why the sudden change after almost 35 years. We do not have a defence white paper or a complete defence policy. It is therefore difficult to rationalise such a big purchase.
Any purchase should be in line with a country's defence policy. And every military needs to revaluate its defence policy (whatever be the structure of the policy and in whatever way that may be articulated) and its military strategy from time to time. And that is what begs the question. What was the urgent need at this point in time to go for such bulk purchases, the highest single order in our history?
Given that the matter was not discussed by the cabinet, much less in parliament, leads to all kinds of speculations. The question is did the military go through the complete process of weapon acquisition before going for Russian-made weapons. Even if the process is abridged, one cannot do without the in-country test and trials of a military kit to assess its operability in own terrain and weather conditions. We do not know if that had been done. And that gives a degree of validity to the comments that the nuclear deal, given Bangladesh's need for energy, was lumped with the arms deal, that there were extraneous compulsions for Bangladesh to opt for the one billion dollar deal with Russia.
Without going into the "guns vs butter" debate, one would like to think that the purchase will help meet the forces goal of the country, and the weapon systems have been carefully chosen to meet the military's need. It is difficult to accept the argument, in some cases it sounds almost like an excuse, by some TV talk-show panelists that these equipments are mainly for use in UN peacekeeping operations. No country will ever spend such a huge sum at such a high rate of interest just for peacekeeping purposes.
However, this cannot be seen just as another military deal. The diplomatic undertones that the deal conveys cannot be overlooked. Some see this as a tectonic shift from PRC to Russia, not merely for diversification of source of weapons, because there are cheaper sources of weapons available at this point in time elsewhere in the world, but also as a strategic choice, whatever the rationales might be. And that is where the foreign office has to convince those that may have a stake in the move, about the justification of the position Bangladesh has adopted.
The writer is Editor, Op-ed and Strategic Issues, The Daily Star.