Defence indigenisation has been an avowed goal of the Government of India for many decades.
By Commodore Anil Jai Singh
India has finally shed the ignominious distinction of being the largest arms importer in the world after over a decade, having been pipped by Saudi Arabia to second place. In the latest figures released by SIPRI (Stockholm Peace and Research Institute), India’s share of defence imports during the period 2014 to 2018 is pegged at 9.5% (as against Saudi Arabia’s 12%) with a substantial reduction of 24% between this period and the one immediately preceding it (2009-13). However, this has been more due to deliveries of high-end hardware having slowed down than any indigenous effort at self-reliance bearing fruit.
This figure could well change again in the next five year cycle since India has recently signed some big-ticket contracts while others are being negotiated. Payments for these will commence as they progress. These include the 5.4 Bn USD contract for the S-400 System, the 3.3 Bn USD lease of the Akula class submarine ( two of the largest ever contracts signed with Russia), the Ka-226 helicopters, the recent contract for the AK-203 assault rifles, induction of four Type 1135.6 stealth frigates, delivery of the 36 Rafale aircraft and commencement of the P-75(I) submarine programme etc and many more at an advanced stage of discussion. In most of these the indigenous content is minimal.
Defence indigenisation has been an avowed goal of the Government of India for many decades. Successive Defence Ministers have highlighted this and assured a reversal of the 70:30 ratio of imported hardware to indigenous hardware but little has changed. When Prime Minister Modi launched the Make in India programme in 2014, defence was identified as one of the key sectors but has fallen far short of expectations. The reasons for this are many, not the least being the inability of the defence ministry to create the required enabling environment towards encouraging the development of a robust military-industrial complex in the country. The abysmal FDI in the sector despite India being one of the biggest markets in the world raises serious question marks about the credibility of the system. The track record of the numerous policies brought out periodically by the Ministry of Defence, be they the JV Guidelines, the Offset Policy or the Defence Production Policy itself speaks for itself.
This apathy has been compounded by the steady decline in the defence budget over the years. This year’s budget is the lowest, both in real terms and as a percentage of the GDP since 1962 when Indian troops were pushed into a border conflict with China in the icy heights of the Himalayas poorly clothed, pathetically equipped and inadequately armed. Infact, contrary to the political assurances that the defence needs of the country will never be compromised and money will be made available when required, unspent money has actually been returned at the end of the financial year on many occasions because important programmes were processed slower than they should have. Sub-optimal utilisation of the defence budget, slow decision making of the Govt, the inefficiency of the Defence Public Sector Undertakings, the DRDO often flattering to deceive and the lack of accountability of all these combined has not only led to the Armed forces getting short changed year after year but has also led to a cascading effect thus now requiring funds far in excess of those available. The Indian Armed Forces are in dire need of modernisation and alarming capability deficits exist across the three services. These have been highlighted at various fora by the senior brass of the Army, Navy and the Air Force but haven’t got the necessary traction from the political leadership. The committed liabilities due to procedural delays and time and cost overruns threaten to swamp the annual budgetary allocations leaving little room for new programmes to be initiated.
Dependence on foreign military hardware is a serious strategic vulnerability for a country like India which is seeking to play a larger role on the world stage. This aspiration will be accompanied by greater security challenges for which the country will have to be prepared. It is therefore imperative that India focusses on defence indigenisation and self -reliance by encouraging Indian industry, both public and private to forge collaborative partnerships with foreign OEMs to ensure our Armed Forces are equipped with contemporary hardware and progressively indigenise. While ensuring a favourable investment environment, the Government must also send out a strong signal that these OEMs integrate with the national defence-industrial complex and not remain mere suppliers of equipment.
If India has to indeed meaningfully reduce its defence imports without compromising the combat capability of its Armed Forces, the Defence Ministry has to walk the talk on indigenisation and self-reliance.
(The author is Vice President at Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are his own)