The quest for self-reliance in defence | Opinion
The intent is noble. But India’s techno-industrial complex has not shown the required competenceUpdated: Aug 12, 2020 19:44 IST
In the run-up to August 15, the challenge to India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty has been foregrounded in a startling, but perhaps unsurprising, manner by the June 15 Galwan setback. Chinese troops intruded into areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region where the Indian tactical presence was thin and there is an October 1962 sense of déjà vu.
In a puzzling development, the ministry of defence (MoD) uploaded some details of the transgression by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in the Ladakh region on its website on August 4. Within two days, this was removed without ascribing any reason. This lack of consistency on a grave national security matter was avoidable.
But as per media reports, the gravity of the challenge posed by PLA and its transgression in Ladakh was formally conveyed to a committee of lawmakers by the Chief of Defence Staff General, Bipin Rawat, on August 10. Currently, there is a stalemate in the de-escalation process which has compelled the Indian Army to deploy heavily along LAC and the committee was informed that this may be a “long-drawn process”.
The Indian military will have to prepare for a long haul in manning LAC so that there are no more “surprises” in other sectors. The Pakistan factor remains a perennial operational concern. Thus, the robustness of the inventory and logistics-maintenance depth of the three armed forces will be a critical factor in the short-term, as India prepares to manage a post-Galwan bilateral relationship with China.
In this context, defence minister Rajnath Singh put out a series of tweets on August 9 that underlined the resolve of the Narendra Modi government to redress long-festering structural issues pertaining to defence imports. Over the last decade, India has been in the very top-tier of global arms importers and this blunts the claim to “strategic autonomy” and major power status that Delhi aspires for. The flip side is that, during this period, Beijing has emerged as a major arms exporter and a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) study of January indicated that currently “China is the second-largest arms producer in the world, behind the United States but ahead of Russia.”
In the latest defence imports iteration, MoD listed 101 items as part of military platforms and equipment whose import would be embargoed progressively from now till 2025. This is a reiteration of a 2016 policy that the objective would be to encourage/compel the Indian armed forces to source these products from an indigenous manufacturer and thereby reduce import dependency. The list is large and varies from sniper rifles and self-propelled /towed artillery guns to different types of warships, combat aircraft and missiles.
This resolve to buy Indian-made military products is desirable and unexceptionable. A nation that imports a high percentage of its critical military remains vulnerable to the reliability of the supplier even while imposing high fiscal costs. However, the realisation of this objective — buy only make-in-India products — is predicated on a central assumption: That the domestic techno-industrial ecosystem has acquired the necessary competence to produce in a timely and cost-effective manner what the military needs, to acquire and sustain the optimum operational profile necessary to deal with the complex security challenges that are now more visible.
This proven competence level is yet to be arrived at. Consequently, while the intent is laudable, the wherewithal across the Indian military design, research and development (R&D) and manufacturing landscape need much greater infusion of resources — both material and human than what obtains now.
Successive governments have sought to prioritise the “make-in-India” objective but with limited success.
There is a paradox here, for India has attained a commendable degree of design-cum-manufacturing sufficiency based on the indigenous effort in certain strategic capabilities — viz nuclear weapons, satellites, missiles and nuclear propulsion (albeit with Russian assistance) but not in the conventional arms domain.
Yes, some major platforms are assembled or made in India such as fighter aircraft or tanks (MIG and T-72) but according to an imported design. The one area where there has been a commendable success is in warship design and building but even here, the equipment that accords the naval ship its war-fighting capability, the ordnance (guns-missiles) and the advanced surveillance are mostly imported.
Regrettably, there were a few design successes in the military domain. Though encouraging when they blossomed, they died a nascent death due to lack of strategic vision, political vacillation and institutional turf battles that turned venal. The story of the HF 24 fighter aircraft and the navy’s Advanced Panoramic Sonar Hull Mounted (APSOH) sonar is a case in point.
The bigger constraint in the Rajnath Singh announcement is that no additional funds are being earmarked to give a fillip to the new Make in India policy. Further, a pandemic-afflicted economy will have little to spare for the military-defence complex to nurture R&D and design skills across the board.
The R&D-cum-design shortcomings in India are endemic and best illustrated by the saga of the combat boots. As a former army commander lamented, “India manufactures some of the best shoes in the world but the Indian army wears the worst combat boots in the world which has remained unchanged in design for 130 years.”