Indian Armed Forces require a ‘positive import list’ for defence equipment

June 08, 2021 11:30 AM

The list designated 101 defence products and a time frame beyond which there would be an import ban on the equipment that could thereafter only be manufactured domestically.

Indian armyThe DAP therefore gives priority to the ‘capability development’ over ‘indigenous procurement’specifically if time is a constraint and security cannot be compromised. (Representational image: IE)

By Captain Vikram Mahajan (Retd)., 

In May 2020, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a clarion call for an ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ or a ‘self-reliant India’.The announcement found favour in all sectors, including defence. Following the announcement, a ‘negative import list’ of defence equipment last year was released. The list designated 101 defence products and a time frame beyond which there would be an import ban on the equipment that could thereafter only be manufactured domestically. The ‘list’ also found mention in the new Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP), which was released in October 2020.A second list containing 108 items, rechristened as ‘positive indigenisation list’ was released this month.

The scope of Atma Nirbharta has expanded to segregate the defence budget into ‘equipment mandated to be manufactured domestically’ vs ‘equipment that will be imported.’ According to the defence capital budget, the allocations for domestic manufacturing has been increased from 58% amounting to Rs 51930 crore($ 7 Billion)} for the year 2020-21, to 63% {amounting to Rs 71438 crores(around $10 billion)} for the year 2021-2022.

Many other initiatives have been undertaken in the defence sector since the call for Atma Nirbharta, including, the draft ‘Defence Production and Export Promotion Policy’ (DPEPP) mentioning the doublingthe share of ‘domestic procurement’ over a period of five years. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) released a separate list of 108 systems and subsystems which will be designed and developed exclusively by the Indian industry. The government and defence experts have held seminars and webinars on ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ to discuss the impact. Additionally, the AeroIndia 2021 held earlier this year focused on the ‘vibrant defence manufacturing ecosystem in India.’

As the government and its agencies focus on the concept of self-reliance, two critical areas have taken a back seat: overall capability development of the armed forces and the role played by the 40 percent of the defence material that will still be procured from abroad.

Capability development of the Indian armed forces comes from the Integrated Capability Development Plan (ICDP), a document that lays down the planned procurement of desired equipment over a span of 10 years. ICDP lays down the military equipment that the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force requires, but does not define the ‘source of procurement’. The prioritisation of the source of procurement is summed up in Chapter 2 of DAP 2020, as:

“Preference will be given to indigenous design, development and manufacturing of defence equipment. The time required for the procurement and delivery from foreign sources vis-à-vis the time required for making it within India, along with the urgency and criticality of the requirement will be examined before deciding to proceed on categorisation. Therefore, wherever Indian Industry is capable of manufacturing the required equipment within the timelines required by the Services, the procurement will be made from indigenous sources….”

The DAP therefore gives priority to the ‘capability development’ over ‘indigenous procurement’specifically if time is a constraint and security cannot be compromised.

Let us take a step back and identify the products that were procured through emergency powers, or were being expedited, after the Balakot skirmish in 2019 and during the Indo-China standoff in 2020. Other than speeding up the purchase of 21 MIG-29, 12 SU-30 fighters, there were BVR missiles, precision bombs, anti- radiation missiles, anti-tank missiles, Sig Sauer rifles and light tanks amongst others. All were procured from foreign countries. Procurement of the equipment was in immediate response to the threats at the border. However, as the threat subsided, the acquisition of indigenous equipment has taken priority over capability development.

This change is evident from the signing of the six Pinaka Rocket Launcher regiments and 118 Arjun MK-1 tanks for the Indian Army, 83 Tejas Mark 1A fighters for the Indian Air Force, and the SDR radio for the Indian Navy. However, any major procurement from 42% of the balance budget has been conspicuous by its absence. The last big contract signed from the balance budget was the 24 MRH in February 2020.

The only other induction of significance is the ‘leasing’ of two Sea Guardian drones by the Indian Navy. The decision on the purchase of around 30 drones, 10 for each service, has been pending for over two years. It is pertinent to mention that a similar request for purchase of 18 MQ-9Bs by UAE (a country one fourth the size of the state of Maharashtra) was approved by the U.S. Government earlier this year.

There is no doubting the skill of the Indian citizens, or the capability of Indian industry to develop equipment with advanced technology. Afterall, when the U.S. downgraded the Indian request for a supercomputer for weather prediction from CRAY XMP-24 to CRAY XMP-14 in 1987, India built its own supercomputer PARAM. However, high technology equipment takes time to develop, and the Indian armed forces need to always be equipped given the current geo-political and strategic challenges at its borders.

It is imperative that the equipment that falls under critical requirements should be identified and when needed imported without delay to enhance the capability of the Indian Armed Forces. Just like the ‘negative import list’, a ‘positive import list’ with a timeline should be released to ensure Indian forces have what they need for other near-term contingencies. This would provide foreign vendors foresight of the procurement plan, requirements, and will prevent situations where the Indian Armed Forces has to resort to emergency purchases or leasing defence equipment.While it is critical that procurement and production of military equipment in India should continue, it is key that a balance between domestic manufacturing and import of weapons is maintained, to keep up with the required ‘capability development’ which is decided by the technological prowess of the adversary.

(The author is Director, Aerospace and Defence, USISPF. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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