Whither self-reliance in defence hardware? Need for complete revamp of India's DTIB

India’s political establishment seems to have utterly failed to appreciate the need for self-sufficiency in military hardware. Consequently, no roadmap or grand strategy has ever been drawn up, for attaining autonomy in defence-production, writes Admiral Arun Prakash (retd) for South Asia Monitor


In a clear declaration of his priorities, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched the laudable ‘Make in India’ campaign within weeks of election to office in 2014. Aimed at making India a "global design and manufacturing hub", the initiative targeted 25 sectors, with the triple objectives of creating jobs; increasing the growth rate of manufacturing; and enhancing the contribution of manufacturing to India’s GDP. Over the past six years, apart from an initial spurt in FDI, the indicators in respect of all three stated objectives have disappointed.

Past elections have shown that, while the Indian voter may detest "policy paralysis", he is quite susceptible to being swayed by catchy and aspirational slogans. Politicians, therefore, make liberal use of catch-phrases, not just for garnering votes, but also, as placebos to assuage the peoples’ disappointment in other spheres. The time has come, for the Indian voter, to look beyond political sloganeering and ask why India’s landscape is littered with so many stalled projects, and why planned developmental goals and objectives, are so rarely met.

The answer, one suspect, is to be found in the harsh reality of flawed policy formulation, coupled with absent mechanisms for policyimplementation as well as programme oversight. Thus, if many of the PM’s lofty aspirations for the nation remain unrealized, it is, clearly, his cabinet colleagues and/or civil-servants who should be held to account for their lackadaisical approach or non-performance.

Against this backdrop, the PM’s latest exhortation to his countrymen, to strive for an ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ or ‘self-reliant India’, in the midst of the grave health and economic crisis wrought by COVID-19, has mystified many. It has also left sceptics wondering whether this indicates a retrograde lurch towards the old days of swadeshi, or ‘import substitution’ and an autarkic economic mindset as manifested by India’s refusal to sign up on multilateral trade agreements.

Given the uncertainties of the global economy and increasing trend of trade protectionism, arguments for and against self-reliance, as a recycled policy maxim, could go on forever. However, the one area in which ‘Atma Nirbharta’ or autarchy is unarguably vital is India’s underperforming defence production sector. In this context, it is heartening to note the reforms, announced by the finance minister recently. That they come in the midst of a mortal struggle against COVID-19 and should be seen as evidence of the government’s resolve to convert this ‘crisis into opportunity’, and one must refrain from carping.

The abject failure of our government-owned Defence Technology and Industrial Base (DTIB) to attain self-reliance in weapon systems represents, not just security vulnerability, but also a colossal missed opportunity. Thriving arms, aeronautics and shipbuilding industries could have made a dramatic contribution to the success of PM Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign; by spawning a complex of ancillaries in the MSME sector, by skilling our youth and creating jobs for them and by positioning India amongst the world’s weapon exporters.

There is huge irony in the fact that India, the world’s second-largest arms importer also happens to possess one of the world’s largest DTIBs, comprising the huge Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), with its large cadre of talented scientists and network of 50 laboratories, backed by the production facilities of nine Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSU) and 41 ordnance factories. The complex has been churning out an array of military hardware, including warships, fighters, tanks, missiles, radars and aero-engines; proclaimed as indigenous.

Lamentably, the core of each indigenous platform, i.e. its engine (whether diesel, gas-turbine or nuclear), guns, missiles and radars, as well as key electronic components like microprocessors, magnetrons and travelling-wave-tubes are all of foreign origin.  Representing 60 percent-70 percent of the platform’s cost, these vital components render the availability and effectiveness of our weapon-systems, in war, contingent on support from foreign sources of uncertain reliability.

India needs to introspect how, starting from a similar base in the 1950s, the defence industries of Brazil, Turkey, South Korea and Taiwan has left India miles behind! China’s military-industrial complex, which took wing in the 1960s, after Beijing’s doctrinal breach with the Soviets has stunned the world by its ingenuity, innovation and productivity. Today, China is engaged in rapid serial production of modern aircraft-carriers, destroyers, nuclear-submarines, stealth-aircraft and hypersonic-missiles amongst much else.

India’s political establishment seems to have utterly failed to appreciate the need for self-sufficiency in military hardware. Consequently, no road-map or grand-strategy has ever been drawn up, for attaining autonomy in defence-production. Since the 1960s, India has poured billions of dollars into Soviet/Russian coffers for weapon purchases; often helping keep their bankrupt corporations afloat. But no Indian statesman has ever thought of leveraging these huge transactions to acquire advanced technology for India’s laggard DTIB. Exactly the same play-book is being re-enacted in the American context. The past decade has seen us purchasing over 20 billion dollars’ worth of US military hardware, but not an iota of technology has been either demanded by India or offered by the US.

Prominent amongst DRDO’s many failed/overdue undertakings are the meandering Tejas fighter, the Arjun battle-tank and Kaveri jet-engine projects and the rejected INSAS family of small-arms. These are, collectively, indicative, not just of the organization’s lack of focus but also of the total absence of political direction in the vital area of military-industrial capability. No accountability has ever been demanded by any government from any organization or individual for this dismal state of affairs. The Defence Production portfolio, usually allotted to a junior Minister of State, is actually overseen by the Ministry of Defence bureaucracy, which wields authority but lacks comprehension as well as interest in military-technology. Their sole function seems to be protecting their DPSUs from the private-sector competition.

The three Services have been denied a say in the prioritization of DRDO’s projects, and the latter is free to spend its budget on technologies which may lack relevance to the military’s operational needs. The three Services regularly provide the DRDO with a Technology Roadmap spanning 10-15 years and draw up Staff Qualitative Requirements in close consultation with this organization. Scientists, must, therefore, refrain from pursuing ‘technology demonstration’ and other self-assigned goals, while the military waits, in vain, for ‘hardware’ that would bolster its combat capabilities. 

Most DRDO projects have failed, due to the absence of political vision and guidance, coupled with a deficit of project-management skills. The navy’s warship and nuclear-submarine building programmes have clearly demonstrated that user participation and project management by hand-picked military officers are the twin keys to the success of such vital programmes.  

Having embarked afresh on the ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ campaign, the bitter experience of the past should prompt the Prime Minister's Office to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. Nothing short of a complete revamp of our DTIB will deliver desired results. Amongst the measures those merit serious considerations are:

Ø Evolution of a 50-year Defence Production Strategy that spells out actions required for rejuvenation and planned growth of India’s DTIB.

Ø Creation of an independent Ministry of Defence Production.

Ø Re-structuring of DRDO to inject transparency, efficiency and accountability. Participation of user Service(s) must be mandated, in terms of management as well as a financial contribution to the project.

Ø Mobilization of the private sector as a full partner in defence R&D as well as production.

(The writer is former Chief of Indian Navy and former Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. The views expressed are personal)

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