India’s defence story somehow gives an impression of two steps forward, one step back and then one sideways. Thus we have seen, in a period of a few weeks, the first indigenous aircraft carrier being launched — the INS Vikrant 2.0, the reactor of the country’s first nuclear submarine going critical, and then the worst naval peacetime accident in decades with the INS Sindhurakshak exploding at its berth.
The positive view is to perceive in all this evidence that the country is slowly moving forward at the strategic maritime level. The new carrier is small, its indigenous component largely hull and steel slabs.
However, it’s a major step towards ending the present trap of being fleeced by foreign vendors — a la the billion-dollar Admiral Gorshkov boondoggle.
There is nothing indigenous about the nuclear submarine INS Arihant. What matters is its existence: it helps plug a gaping hole in the country’s nuclear deterrence. Only a nuclear capability that swims with the fishes can be sure to survive a sneak attack against India’s nuclear arsenal.
This bit of military hardware is really a testimony to diplomacy — New Delhi persuading the likes of a Russia or a France to officially hand over ultra-sensitive technology. Money helps, but is never enough by itself.
Such incidents of triumph and tragedy deflect attention from the much deeper problems afflicting the Indian defence system. The Indian Navy is arguably the most forward-looking of the three services. Something about blue waters makes admirals more prone to seeking strategic horizons. India’s maritime indigenisation programme is further ahead than any other service. Roughly 80% of the navy’s hulls are made in India and over half its engines.
The imported component, unfortunately, soars when one gets into the nitty-gritty bits and pieces like missiles, radars and sonars, and things that go boom. That’s still much better than what the army and the air force have done. The last, the most technologically advanced service, is particularly laden with equipment made everywhere except India.
Defence indigenisation is one of those hackneyed topics that receives so much lip service that articles on the topic should carry a Rolling Stones symbol. Defence minister AK Antony is only the latest in a long line of raksha mantris who have declared their full support for Indian weapons, announced quotas and various other incentives — and then gone to sleep on the subject.
What is needed is a 20-year plan to slowly but surely build up the capacities to make arms at home. Rightly, the craft of weapon-making is upheld as the ultimate test of a nation’s technological capacity — and strategic muscle. Southern California, for example, is littered with small precision engineering firms that contribute one bit of knowhow to a fighter or warship.
If manufacturing components is tough, it pales in comparison to systems integration — the putting of all these components and technologies together into a working and lethal whole.
In India nothing of this sort exists. The public sector defence firms are little more than assembly plants, their indigenisation accomplishments are little more than screwdriver work on imported CKD kits. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) calls itself the “most diversified” aeronautics company in the world.
The phrase ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ comes to mind. The truth is HAL and its sister organisation the Defence Research and Development Organisation have a more self-serving interest in claiming they can build everything and seeking to corner every defence contract from Lehberry juice-making to the Akash missile. They seek to keep out the Indian private sector which, for them, is the real enemy.
This is the true cancer in the Indian defence production system: the iron triangle that exists among the defence ministry’s bureaucracy, the defence PSUs and a coterie of arms exporters and their agents.
The real test of defence indigenisation will be when a carrier is equipped with an India-made anti-missile system, the software running the fifth generation fighter is being tapped out in Bangalore, and the night-vision equipment on our tanks has optics ground in India.
A sensible indigenisation policy will have to be about incubating long-term capacities. This may mean policies that seem perverse and contraindicated. Competition may have to be curbed at times, with the odd single-vendor contract.
Foreign direct investment may have to be increased so Indian firms can learn overseas processes and technologies. India should also begin selling arms to earn the necessary capital, experience and corporate muscle to make arms at home. The point here is that this is not about inserting three pages on building more highways in the Five-Year Plan, this is about creating a military-industrial-technological culture from scratch.
That is the real Indian defence problem and the real Indian defence tragedy is that finding a solution has not even begun.