The sorry tale of India’s attempts at self-reliance in defence equipment continued at this year’s Aero India show in Bangalore. Defence minister AK Antony mouthed platitudes about how indigenisation, including technology transfer, was uppermost on his mind.
The State-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) handed over the Dhruv helicopter and displayed a new and improved Light Combat Aircraft.
That the real story of homegrown defence development has not changed was underlined by the more candid statements of the Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, who called for financial penalties against Indian defence equipment makers guilty of “poor performance” when it comes to producing good weaponry on time and within budget.
India’s inability to manufacture any defence equipment was once an embarrassment. Today, it is a festering economic sore and a national security issue.
In a recent report, the Stock-holm International Peace Research Institute showed that between 2007 and 2011, India was the world’s largest arms impo-rter, spending $12.7 billion on weapons.
And this story will get worse. Even after announced austerity measures, IHS Jane’s Defence Budgets has projected that India will be spending over $65 billion on weapons by 2020.
Inevitably, given our inability to even produce ‘Made in India’ army boots and pistols, let alone submarines and fighters, much of this will be spent overseas.
Mr Antony has attacked the performance of the State-owned enterprises and he repeatedly called for indigenisation. In Bangalore, he insisted that technology transfer would be a prerequisite for all future contracts.
This is the easy response to demands for indigenisation. The DRDO and State-owned firms regularly receive infusions of technology but are incapable of converting this knowhow into an innovation cycle.
The technology is usually out of date and repeated transfers have to be arranged every few years at the cost of several billion dollars per dose.
A much more strategic plan to develop indigenous defence capacity is needed. The monopoly of the State-owned defence enterprises must be broken. The Indian private sector has to be brought into this industry on a war-footing.
This will not be easy: Mr Antony’s minions are the greatest acolytes of the DRDO and its sister organisations. There must be a recognition that India needs a far more flexible defence offsets programme.
India has a small private defence manufacturing base that cannot be scaled up overnight.
The offset funds should be used to pay for technical education and infrastructure. So far, there is little evidence that the defence ministry has thought much beyond the normal platitudes and the traditional formulae.