Mock-ups of the Akash surface-to-air missile have been a regular on Independence Day parades. It has repeatedly been touted as one of the successes in India’s tortuous attempts at producing weapons at home. Indian Army has now said it wants to buy a foreign made surface-to-air missile, Israel’s Spyder QR-SAM, despite having already inducted two Akash regiments. The reason: The Akash simply doesn’t work. This underlines the trade-off that will exist for many years in trying to ’Make in India’ and the weapons requirements of the armed services. The army’s decision also reminds us that given how tough a neighbourhood India lives in, there is little leeway on how much national security can be compromised.
There will be little argument that India’s future trajectory is severely compromised by its small, shrunken manufacturing sector. There will be even less debate that Indian security interests are not served by its dependence on imported military wares. That does not mean that India’s soldiers can be expected to use substandard weapons systems while it learns to develop its own weapons – a process that could take decades.
What is needed is a long-term plan to slowly build the technological and institutional capacities to learn to how to design, construct and even export weapons. Defence and aerospace are the cutting edge of technology and baby steps will be required to get even a foot in this door. Over the years New Delhi’s politicians and bureaucrats have developed a pattern of either slapping Sanskrit names on assembled foreign-made weapons or announcing grandiose plans to build advanced weapon systems even while the country struggles to make revolvers and combat boots.
‘Make in India’ should be seen as an evolutionary process. The government should workout a rough roadmap, one that should be done in consultation with Indian and foreign industry, in which the milestone should be the mastering of specific capabilities, learning how to build world-class components and moving onto the crown jewels of defence – weapons design and system integration.
The indigenisation success of the Indian navy, for example, has been possible because the initial focus was on hulls and superstructure, working towards propulsion and more sophisticated technologies. When it comes to electronics and actual weapons, the navy still imports the vast bulk of its needs. The Akash is a perfect example of how things should not be Made in India. The army’s need was for a quick-fire missile that could knock out low-flying, high-speed targets like drones and fighters. This is the kind of advanced equipment that should have been recognised as a technological goal for the future.
It is time to recognise that national security is one policy area where quick fixes and symbolic politics should be avoided because the negative consequences are literally incalculable.