The Chinese leadership's exhortation to the PLA to improve its capability sufficiently to win local wars must be a wake-up call to India's military strategists and operations planners.
India has been trying to ramp up, diversify and indigenize her defence production since the military debacle against China in 1962, but with limited success. The hosting of Defexpo 2022, in Gandhinagar, Gujarat October 18-22, is an important component of this strategy. In it, India would be looking at - besides showcasing its own indigenous defence capabilities - acquiring the finer technologies and capabilities needed for current asymmetrical warfare.
Firstly, India's design capability of defence materials has been poor compared to China. India so far depended on the purchase of all heavy equipment from abroad, particularly the USSR and the Russian Federation, as well as essentials like rifles and small arms. Even the production of ammunition was limited as some propellants are still imported.
India's ordnance factories have failed to keep equipping the armed forces with competent weapons. Despite having fought several wars and innumerable skirmishes with neighbours, the country's defence design and production capabilities have remained sub-optimal in all fields, although India has the largest pool of engineers in the world.
Meanwhile, India modified its defence organisation by planning integrated theatre commands for quicker tri-service response to threats. It has planned for manpower turnover by the "Agniveer" system. This will help create a large, trained pool of reservists if they ever should be needed. It will also reduce the pension budget and free more funds for upgrading and replacing defence material seamlessly.
The biggest problem remains the shortage of funds to plan properly for the obsolescence of equipment. The self-imposed ban on the export of lethal defence equipment until recently also dampened output and upgradation needs. Defence production industries can thrive only if there is regular offtake by the end users, for the products are not saleable elsewhere. Unless the defence forces can plan to purchase viable quantities, asking the private sector to enter production is not going to succeed.
Indian forces should begin to scrap equipment regularly at the end of their service life and replace or upgrade them with fresh kit. This will require planning several years in advance to start the procurement process so that the replacement process is seamless and the services are at optimal capability.
India's Department of Defence Production and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) must be able to coordinate with our military, paramilitary and police forces and prepare a schedule of requirements for three years at a time to enable production and purchasing seamlessly for factories to run efficiently. They must also actively market its wares worldwide using specialised sales personnel as well as defence attaches, to augment the production to viable levels and earn back the foreign exchange needed to buy specialised equipment.
Marketing needs to be done in Asia, Africa and Latin America far more strongly. India's training command should also try to expand its footprint in these continents to create friendship and interoperability among forces, which is particularly useful in UN peacekeeping missions as well as in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific region.
India should also increase its uptake of Nepali Gurkhas to ensure friendly communities in its borderlands. One must not forget that it was the Bengal Army trained and commanded by the British which conquered India for them. When the same Army revolted against the British in 1857, so they declared their elements from eastern India as non-martial races and those from Punjab and elsewhere as martial races. There is a growing demand again from eastern and northeastern India for the creation of their own regiments, which should be favourably considered in the light of history.
Standardisation of equipment across the three services will also promote interoperability and ease supply issues. India need smore aircraft factories and its shipyards must have the capability of producing both naval and merchant vessels quickly Since India never violates seller conditions, it must increase our design and manufacturing capability to produce and even invent new weapons and delivery platforms to enable the country to decisively repel local threats.
The Chinese leadership's exhortation to the PLA to improve its capability sufficiently to win local wars must be a wake-up call to India's military strategists and operations planners. India must be prepared to wage a multi-dimensional defence simultaneously at several points on our long border. Cyber-security must become foolproof and failsafe while internet services made resilient to disruption. Recent conflicts have shown the advantages of asymmetrical warfare over conventional engagements. The machine's performance always depends upon the manpower. All this requires continuous upgradation of the equipment of forces who are capable of operating in any terrain on the planet.
Even the production of spare parts, ancillaries and consumables depends upon their offtake. Hence it will be advisable to create dual capacities by which equipment for civilian use can be made by the same unit when defence requirements have been met. It is also necessary to place the production units all over the country so that any slack in one unit can be taken up by another. India must aim to become completely self-reliant in non-lethal equipment and progressively indigenize until all infantry, paramilitary and police equipment needs are manufactured in India.
This will complement the government's efforts to persuade overseas manufacturers to set up assembly and manufacture in India The Defexpo process is very useful in this. However, its success and utility depend upon regular offtake. Domestic sales and sufficient exports will remain the key driver for global and Indian private sectors. India must have the capability of quickly testing locally designed and produced equipment to invest in design, prototyping, testing and production on a profitable basis.
The defence procurement process must be streamlined and fully transparent so that the period from initiation of tender to the placement of orders does not exceed twelve months and delivery to the end-user forces takes place as soon as their equipment in use reaches the end of its service life.
(The author is a retired Indian ambassador. Views are personal)