How India aims to boost its indigenous defence capabilities in two years
In what will provide a fillip to the government’s self reliance campaign and the domestic defence ecosystem, and boost Indian fighting capabilities, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is gearing up to provide the Indian military with a dozen new indigenous weapons and systems over the next two years, DRDO chief G Satheesh Reddy said on Friday.
The weapon systems that will be delivered to the military between 2021 and 2023 to strengthen its capabilities include beyond visual range (BVR) missiles, India’s first anti-radiation missile, anti-tank weapons, anti-drone systems, guided bombs and anti-airfield weapons, the government told Parliament in March.
Several of these systems were tested last year when India demonstrated its indigenous weapon-development capability to the world at a time when the border row with China in eastern Ladakh was at its peak. India has set aside ₹70,221 crore—63% of the military’s capital budget for 2021-22—for buying locally-produced weapons and systems to boost defence indigenisation. Last year, the defence ministry spent over ₹51,000 crore, or 58% of the capital budget, on domestic purchases.
“These systems that have been developed and others that are under development will significantly boost indigenous capabilities in development and production of weapons. We are moving towards achieving the goal of Aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) in the defence sector. And all this is happening at a time when we are progressively banning the import of military hardware through the positive indigenisation list (earlier called negative import list),” Reddy said.
Last year, the government notified a negative import list that sought to ban the import of 101 types of weapons, systems and ammunition over the next five years to promote self-reliance. This year, the government is set to notify a second list of weapons, systems and ammunition that cannot be imported. The list of weapons banned for import will be reviewed every year and more items will be added to it, officials familiar with the matter said.
In February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it may be described as a negative list, but it is a positive list in the language of self-reliance. “It is a positive list on the strength of which our own manufacturing capacity is going to increase. This is a positive list that will create jobs in India… This is a positive list as it guarantees that products made in India will be sold in India,” Modi said.
That statement by PM led the negative import list to be rechristened the positive indigenisation list. According to official data, DRDO has undertaken 79 projects worth ₹8,201 crore during the last three years. These include different types of missiles, gun systems, ammunitions, radars and electronic warfare systems.
Nailing delivery timelines
DRDO, which has acquired the reputation of long delays in delivery, is hoping to nail its delivery timelines so that the armed forces are not kept waiting for the new weapons and systems. The defence ministry specified the delivery timelines for different systems in Parliament on March 22.
The Astra BVR missile and the anti-drone system will be made available to the armed forces this year. The systems that the military can expect next year include the quick reaction surface to air missile system (QRSAM) to protect armoured columns from aerial attacks, the Nag and Helina anti-tank missiles with an effective range of five km, and the air defence fire control radar (ADFCR) that form a key part of a ground-based air defence system in conjunction with anti-aircraft guns.
While the Nag missile is launched from a modified infantry combat vehicle (called the Nag missile carrier or Namica), the Helina or helicopter-based Nag is for mounting on the Dhruv advanced light helicopter.
India’s first anti-radiation missile, Rudram, will be ready for induction into service by 2023 and boost the Indian Air Force’s capabilities to knock out enemy radars and surveillance systems. The smart anti-airfield weapon (SAAW) will also be ready in two years. SAAW is a precision strike weapon that can be used to target enemy airfield assets such as radars, bunkers, taxi tracks and runways. Indigenously developed by the DRDO’s research centre Imarat, the weapon has a range of 100km. It has been test-fired from the IAF’s Jaguar fighter planes and the upgraded Hawk Mk-132 trainer aircraft.
It is good that timelines have been set and DRDO is working towards achieving them, said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.
“The scientists have their work cut out so that capability gaps that have crept in—for instance, in the BVR space—are quickly made up and the IAF gains the upper hand again. The same applies to ground and naval systems. Our adversaries, especially China, are committing huge funds into defence R&D—we can lag behind only at our peril,” said Bahadur.
The weapons systems of the future
DRDO is working on a raft of other weapons and systems that will be inducted into service in the coming years, Reddy said. It is developing a new air-launched missile capable of knocking out enemy tanks from a stand-off distance of more than 10km.
The indigenous missile, named stand-off anti-tank missile (SANT), is expected to be mated to the IAF’s Russian-origin Mi-35 attack helicopters to arm them with the capability to destroy enemy armour from an improved stand-off range. The existing Russian-origin Shturm missile on the Mi-35 can target tanks at a range of 5km.
Key tests conducted by India last year included the supersonic missile-assisted release of torpedo (SMART) to target submarines at long ranges and a new version of the nuclear-capable hypersonic Shaurya missile with a range of 750km.
India is also developing a new class of ultra-modern weapons that can travel six times faster than the speed of sound (Mach 6) and penetrate any missile defence. In early September 2020, DRDO also carried out a successful flight test of the hypersonic technology demonstrator vehicle (HSTDV) for the first time.
Only the United States, Russia and China have developed technologies to field fast-manoeuvring hypersonic missiles that fly at lower altitudes and are extremely hard to track and intercept.
The road ahead
Imports have traditionally accounted for 60-65% of the country’s military requirements, with India signing contracts worth billions of dollars over the last 10 years for fighter jets, air defence missile systems, submarine hunter planes, attack helicopters, heavy-lift choppers and lightweight howitzers.
But India’s arms imports fell 33% between 2011-15 and 2016-20, said a report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on March 15.
The report on international arms transfers attributed the drop in India’s arms imports mainly to an attempt to reduce its dependence on Russian arms and complex procurement processes. India’s top three arms suppliers during 2016-20 were Russia (accounting for 49% of India’s imports), France (18%) and Israel (13%), the report said.
According to Sipri, India accounted for 0.2% of the share of global arms exports during 2016-20, making the country the world’s 24th largest exporter of major arms. This represents a jump of 228% over India’s export share during the previous five-year period - 2011-15. Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Mauritius were the top recipients of Indian military hardware.
Sipri, however, said India’s military imports were likely to grow over the next five years. “As India perceives increasing threats from Pakistan and China and as its ambitious plans to produce its own major arms have been significantly delayed, it is planning large-scale programmes for arms imports. Based on its outstanding deliveries of combat aircraft, air defence systems, ships and submarines, India’s arms imports are expected to increase over the coming five years,” the report said.