Defence indigenisation can’t happen overnight - Hindustan Times
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Defence indigenisation can’t happen overnight

Mar 09, 2023 07:58 AM IST

New Delhi realises it must be self-reliant in all significant areas relating to the military. Accordingly, it is working overtime to build its defence-industrial capacity, but it will not yield significant results for another two decades.

The Russian war on Ukraine has devastated the country, and is also hollowing out Russia. But just as there was an underestimation of Ukraine’s capacity to fight off giant Russia, so, too, has there been a tendency to underrate Russia’s ability to work around the western sanctions and its determination to conduct its “special military operation”. The Indian view sits uncomfortably between these two poles.

Speaking in Pune in January, army chief General Manoj Pande said that the ongoing conflict had brought to the fore “the impact of asymmetric warfare, potential of information warfare, digital resilience, weaponisation of the economic mechanism, communications redundancy, space-based systems and many more — all driven by technological prowess.” (PTI) PREMIUM
Speaking in Pune in January, army chief General Manoj Pande said that the ongoing conflict had brought to the fore “the impact of asymmetric warfare, potential of information warfare, digital resilience, weaponisation of the economic mechanism, communications redundancy, space-based systems and many more — all driven by technological prowess.” (PTI)

Events have belied Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s belief that this was not “an era of war”. But New Delhi has had sound practical reasons for taking a Russia-centred neutral stand, arising from its enormous dependence on Russian systems in its arsenal, adding its somewhat opportunistic access to discounted Russian oil.

PM Modi’s comments were more likely an oblique admonition of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, as far as the military is concerned, their staff and training institutions have been taking a hard look at the lessons of the war.

Speaking in Pune in January, army chief General Manoj Pande said that the ongoing conflict had brought to the fore “the impact of asymmetric warfare, potential of information warfare, digital resilience, weaponisation of the economic mechanism, communications redundancy, space-based systems and many more — all driven by technological prowess.” As the Ukraine war enters its second year, it would be prudent to hold back judgment on some of the issues that had gained salience last year. The tank has not become obsolete, it is still being used in the war, and the Ukrainians are planning to up the game with German Leopard and US M1 tanks. Technologies, such as networked drones, have made the battlefield much more transparent, and this extracts a price from any attacker.

Artillery remains the queen of battle, and its use is devastating. However, the accuracy and longer range of western supplied systems used by the Ukrainians have ensured that the Russian-style massed artillery may have had its day. Indeed, according to a recent report, while the demand in Europe for American weaponry is soaring, it is doing so for small-ticket items such as shoulder-fired missiles, artillery and drones, which have proved themselves in Ukraine, rather than the big-ticket ones, such as jets and tanks. As a result, instead of the contactless war that has been talked about, the war in Ukraine has been a grinding man-to-man affair.

General Pande’s reference to asymmetric warfare is about the main lesson from Ukraine: Modern inter-State war need not be a short, sharp affair. If prolonged, attrition sets in. With three times the population of Ukraine and a sizable military-industrial base and weapons reserves, Russia has an edge that cannot be countered, no matter how much the West backs Kyiv.

In terms of asymmetry, China presents a similar challenge. Chinese military expenditures at $229 billion are three times that of India. While in terms of numbers, troops facing each other along the Line of Actual Control may be roughly equal, the Tibetan plateau, with its excellent infrastructure, enables the Chinese to double, if not triple, their numbers within a month. Indian infrastructure may be expanding, but it cannot equalise the geographic advantage that the Chinese have.

The Indian Army needs to expand its artillery — guns and missiles — manifold. More important is the need to integrate drones into the system. Unfortunately, the Defence Research and Development Organisation remains a laggard in drone development.

Another lesson from Ukraine is that in real wars, ammunition consumption is orders of magnitude above those in paper exercises. Equally important is ensuring that all critical ammunition is manufactured in India and has facilities that can be quickly scaled up.

Another vital area is space, where the Chinese have developed various counter-space systems that can be deployed in conflict. Ukraine was able to offset Russian dominance with American help, but such support may not be forthcoming for India, which must develop its digital resilience.

Speaking in Washington last September, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said India had not faced “any particular problems in terms of servicing and spare parts supply of equipment.” But reports suggest that there are delays of some spares for Kilo-class submarines, MiG-29 fighters and Mi-17 transport helicopters, as well as for the project to make AK 203 assault rifles and the supply of four Grigorovich (Talwar)- class guided missile frigates whose engines would have been made in Ukraine.

But contrary to reports, India has been receiving its S-400 missile regiments on schedule, with two delivered and a third of the five contracted to arrive soon. Recently Dmitry Shugayev, the head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical cooperation, claimed that India remains the world’s biggest buyer of Russian arms, accounting for 20% of its $15 billion annual exports. In the last five years, India has imported supplies worth $13 billion and has placed orders for Russian military equipment and weapons worth $10 billion.

Russia has taken the opportunity of the 14th international aerospace exhibition (Aero India 2023) that was held in mid-February in Bangalore to showcase its wares. Some 200 items of weapons and equipment had been brought for the exhibition. In April last year, India inducted the Igla S, a short-range hand-held surface-to-air missile. Russian officials hoped that India would sign a deal for the licenced missile production during Aero India. But there is no news of that so far.

Given all this, New Delhi realises it must be self-reliant in all significant areas relating to the military. Accordingly, it is working overtime to build its defence-industrial capacity, but it will not yield significant results for another two decades. At present, though, India remains in an awkward situation where it will remain reliant on Moscow for key capabilities for its military, even while its strategic partnership with Washington is getting even closer.

Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi The views expressed are personal

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