The Procurement Office of the Master General of Ordnance of the Royal Nepali Army (RNA) has sought applications from agents of international firms wishing to be included in a list of companies to supply hardware. The notice, published in the Gorkhapatra of 14 May, provides the description of the "equipment to be supplied", which include "different kinds of arms, accessories, spare parts, ammunition", as well as radio sets, jamming devices, satellite phones, mine detectors, bomb disposal suits, and night vision devices.
Doubtless, the army needs to modernise after years of stagnant budget. But how is one to react to the requirement of tanks and "armoured gunship helicopter/aircraft", as stated in the notice?
The country seems to be caught in a headlong rush towards an unsupervised, unrestricted military buildup that it can ill afford. One wonders if there is proper discussion even within the military command about the need for and implications of adding tanks, helicopter gunships or bombers to the arsenal. An attempt last year to import two used Russian-made Mi-24 gunships via Australia was scrapped, because better sense prevailed. But it looks like the army hasn't given up.
Are these weapons appropriate, and can we afford them? The national budget can't, so which foreign source is pulling out the checkbook? Could it be the Indian military, whose COAS was in Kathmandu recently indicating a willingness to add another billion rupees to the significant support already provided. Since the British are already committed to "non-lethal support" when it comes to helicopter assistance, would it be the United States that is making the RNA think big?
What seems to be a deliberate plan to acquire such weaponry must be questioned primarily because of their lethal internal consequences, both in military terms and the larger inter-institutional equilibrium of the state.
Long-range weapons will increase the destructive power of army units, and the chances of added victimising of hapless civilians, which was a factor in the latest bout with the Maoists. Further, the ability to call in the gunships is liable to make commanders lax about on-the-ground intelligence gathering and improvement of the ability to fight 'clean'.
If the army is to be an effective fighting force it surely needs to increase capacity at the personnel level, it does need better transport and logistics, and it requires more officers per soldiers so that there is better command and control and less civilian 'collateral damage'. The army will also require weaponry suited to Nepal's terrain and the nature of the enemy. Helicopter gunships and tanks are not appropriate weapons.
All militaries want the latest technology, and the display of high-end firepower during the latest Iraq war has only increased these desires the world over. But will the enemy the army expects to fight have armor, installations and encampments of the sort that requires gunships and tanks?
There are other questions of a more political nature. Will such extra-lethal hardware make the centralised state more powerful? In the period after the People's Movement the cap in the RNA's budget affected the army's fighting capability and operational strength. But the last year has been a different story, with a doubling in size of its air wing, and its battlefield capability reinforced with the arrival of Belgian Minimi belt-driven guns and US M-16 rifles. There has also been an active recruitment drive to add thousands more soldiers.
With its enhanced firepower and countrywide deployment, it becomes clear that the Nepali military is fast acquiring a position in national affairs that it has never had in the modern era. Further, and ominously, the RNA seems willing to descend to the political playing field as evident in its pronouncements against the political parties on behalf of the king. How will domestic politics and the peace process be affected by the acquisition of these weapons?
The expenditure of this money should be made with civilian oversight and some measure of debate among experts who can consider the merits and evaluate the rationale of tanks and helicopter gunships.
(Kanak Mani Dixit is the editor of Himal South Asian.)