The country is coming to terms with the gradualist Prime Minister Narendra ‘Change does not happen all of a sudden’ Modi, who is relying on the existing decrepit apparatus of State, unimaginative policy establishment, and the government’s usual lackadaisical way of doing business to deliver results.
Even Modi’s flagship ‘Make in India’ programme is being driven into the ground by the old approach in the defence sphere of licence-manufacture now garbed in different rhetoric. Thus, in a ‘Navy Day’ newspaper supplement featuring a piece titled ‘Indigenisation of P75 is a good example of ‘Make in India’’, Bernard Buisson, managing director of the French government-backed private sector naval defence major DCNS (Direction des Constructions Navales), clarifies that by “indigenous” he means that local companies will do what defence public sector units (DPSUs) have been doing for the last 60 years — importing various components and ‘screwdrivering’ them together as per supplied blueprints.
If the French or any other foreign firm wins the contract, the resulting P-75i submarine will be about as ‘indigenous’ as the DCNS Scorpene boat currently produced by the Mazagon Dockyard, the slew of combat aircraft (British Jaguar and Hawk, Russian MiG-21, MiG-27, and Su-30MKI) assembled by Hindustan Aerospace Ltd, the Swedish Bofors gun outputted by the ordnance factories or the Russian T-72 tank by the Avadi Heavy Vehicle factory. Without the home-based design engineering element, foreign developed military hardware mislabelled ‘indigenous’ will continue to keep India a captive of foreign vendors, and the Indian government will be played for a fool it unfortunately has shown itself to be in these matters, even as the prospect of a truly indigenous, comprehensively capable, Indian defence industry keeps receding.
These conclusions are reached on the basis of recent developments. There is the Dhirendra Singh Committee report on reforming the defence procurement procedure. It
has brazenly recommended cutting the political executive out of all procurement decisions and making the armed services solely responsible for them. This will ensure the Indian military remains industrial age, sub-strategic, cued to the wrong threat (Pakistan), and incapable of transforming itself in line with new technologies. Next, the defence ministry taskforce chaired by former DRDO chief VK Atre, asked to come up with an alternative to the disastrous ‘lowest tender’ system, has managed to at once subvert the government’s intention and retain for the DRDO-DPSU combine its primacy by keeping many private sector companies from competing for armament-development contracts with onerous entry-level financial conditions. And belatedly, the government has discovered ‘military diplomacy’. It has formed a committee led by deputy national security adviser Arvind Gupta to suggest ways to extract advanced technology from reluctant vendor states by using, as I have long advocated, our expensive armament buys as leverage, and mobilising Indian embassies to push exports of Indian-made arms to developing countries.
The nested problems, however, are many. Gupta, a diplomat, will be hampered by the foreign service’s traditional antipathy to the military intruding into its turf. Also, it doesn’t seem that all departments of government making capital purchases abroad are being brought into the leveraging ambit as they should be. Hence, the civil aviation ministry, for example, is apparently free to permit — as it has just announced — private airlines to buy hundreds of passenger aircraft directly from Boeing or Airbus, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, without binding either of these companies to the offsets rule applying to military procurement (mandating 30-50% of the contract value to be ploughed back into India by way of designated technology transfers and co-production deals). And finally, how are developing states to be induced into buying India-made weapons systems when the Indian armed services don’t?
By way of a template for technology transactions, the Gupta Committee needs to study how China built its aerospace industry by buying McConnell-Douglas MD-80/90 aircraft in the 1980s in return for the American firm transferring its design and production technologies in toto, including the then cutting-edge design/computer-assisted manufacture technologies. That deal ended McConnell-Douglas’ run as an aircraft producer (it merged with Boeing) while germinating in China a major transport aircraft design, development, and manufacture hub.
But the Indian government seems institutionally incapable of assessing technological trends and prioritising technologies for absorption, mustering the fixity of purpose, or configuring a clear-eyed, cold-blooded, strategy and ruthlessly wielding the country’s political and economic clout in a buyer’s market. Instead, it is sending out confused signals. How were the representatives of Indian companies accompanying defence minister Manohar Parrikar to Washington, for instance, supposed to fish for possible US partners without any certainty of project contracts in light of the Atre Committee tilt? Worse, New Delhi is paying more attention than is prudent to Washington’s argument that signing the ‘foundational agreements’ — Logistics Support Agreement, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for sharing geospatial data, and Communications Interoperability Security Memorandum of Agreement — will spur the ‘Make in India’ programme when, actually, they will insert the US into the Indian military’s operational loop and violate sovereignty. And, it is being swayed by the American pitch for things like the electromagnetic aircraft launch system on gigantic carriers that are extraneous to India’s security needs and interests.
Keeping in mind the imperative to strengthen the design engineering capability, it makes more sense to seek substantive US inputs into commercialising Indian-designed systems, such as the Tejas Mk-II fighter, (the abandoned) Kaveri jet engine, and in developing the navy warship directorate’s own 75i submarine design.
Bharat Karnad is a research professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal