Beyond Brahmos

Written by Debabrata Mohanty | Updated: Sep 4 2014, 06:26am hrs
Prime Minister Narendra Modis appeal to the global manufacturers in Independence Day speechto manufacture in India and sell here in India and elsewherehas generated varying degrees of attention at home and abroad. Whether such an avowal is a byproduct of a crafted political vision or a mere popular adventurism is a matter of debate.

Immediate reactions to such a statement have, among others, made certain section of stakeholders stand and take note, especially the defence manufacturers, both domestic and foreign ones. It must be noted here that both domestic and foreign arms manufacturersinterested in investing knowledge and manufacturing in the Indian defence sectorhave been disappointed for the past decade or so, thanks primarily to three core factors: directionless politico-executive roadmap for the industry reflected in ad-hoc policy pronouncements, complicated procedural mechanisms (defence procurement procedure, or DPP) whose revisions adopted just cosmetic changes and, a disconnect among key stakeholders (armed forces, administration and industry) of the Indian defence sector.

Primary government policy pronouncements and periodic notifications related to the defence sector reveal several changes in policy and procedural arrangements. For example, while defence offsets had been introduced as a mandatory clause in any procurement tender worth more that R300 crore whereby a standard 30% of worth of the contract must be ploughed back to Indian industries, there are efforts to put a strict timeline on stages of the procurement procedure. Neither defence offsets nor the cosmetic changes in DPP have brought in any desirable results. It is learnt that while defence offsets work value till date is less than $5 million with a promise of offsets works worth $10.1 billion in pipeline, timelines of most of the on-going military acquisition projects are in various stages of approval for delays. Consider this: the RFP (request for proposal) for 126 MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) tender was floated in 2008 and the project is yet to see the light of the day! In sum, the equipment-driven, ambitious military modernisation plan has been hit more by scandals, policy paralysis and administrative inaction than any thing else.

While all these issues need serious deliberations, the most important aspect of Indian defencethe issue of import dependencyneeds urgent attention. Consider this: not only is India one of the top arms importers in the world, with an ever-increasing capital acquisition budget (pegged at $8 billion this year), but also its import dependency is considered to be of nearly 70%. Except for a few low-key items sourced domestically, the Indian armed forces largely possess foreign-made equipment, sold to them by OEMs who refuse to part with knowledge associated with those systems. This has serious implications for the armed forces, especially during conflicts, when suppliers have the prerogative to stop supplying systems or spares.

The DPP, in order to encourage participation from the private sector and foreign OEMs, has stipulated three types of acquisitionbuy global (when the technology is not available in India), buy and make (collaborative arrangement between foreign OEMs and Indian companies to produce systems within India, through transfer of technology), and make (systems produced through indigenous means by Indian companies). The story of make projectsonly half a dozen low-key projects have been awarded to Indian private companies thus farhas been disappointing, while the thrust on buy and make has yielded below par results. Bulk of the acquisition projects go to the government production agencies while the private sector has been practically kept outside the defence industrial eco-system despite braggart assertions from the government.

Both buy and make and make routes are important for eventual goal of reducing import dependency. While more make projects be conceptualised for the domestic manufacturers, it is the collaborative route which needs to be encouraged. This is where PM Modis appeal must be translated into action.

Collaborative models like the one followed for Brahmos cruise missiles,

FGFA (fifth generation fighter aircraft) and transport aircraft project with Russians have given India a good start. However, India must go beyond the Brahmos model to appeal to the larger global defence industry to come and participate in Indian defence industrialisation process. Proposed projects like M777 ultra light howitzers or Maitri, a next-generation quick-reaction Surface-to-Air Missile (QRSAM), can be considered as the next phase of defence industrial collaborative arrangements. Politics may resist such projects, where domestic players interests could be hit. For example, indigenous Akash missile project could be hit, if Maitri happens. But, such arguments do not hold, if larger arms market dynamics are taken into consideration both missiles have lucrative Indian as well as export markets. Similarly, M777 could face stiff competition from Indian firms like Bharat Forge or ordnance factories who claim to have developed similar systems at a lower cost. Another collaborative proposal for Javelin anti-tank guided missiles, proposed by the US under the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative between the two countries, also needs to be examined. Many such future collaborative proposals could come up if India shows seriousness.

The bottom line in military industrial politics suggests that foreign OEMs may always have the upper hand. However, if India plays its arms card well, benefits could outnumber weaknesses in the long run.

The author is a New Delhi-based defence analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]