Self-reliance in defence should be based on strategic needs

Late last month, on July 23 to be precise, the ministry of defence enabled the private industry to enter the field of defence aviation by announcing ‘a-buy-and-make’ decision in respect of 56 transport aircraft at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore. Good news.

At last, the need for indeginisation and private participation has been recognised. However, this in itself does not guarantee a real business opportunity for the private sector, given the traditional pro-PSU bias in governmental attitudes. Nor does it make for strategic self-reliance.

Our DRDO, defence PSUs and ordnance factories have come under severe criticism in recent times. But a lot of this criticism is perhaps unrealistic and unfair. Can we blame them for sitting on their haunches for all of the 65 years since 1947, when till the mid sixties state ideology opposed a militarily strong India; not to mention strong defence forces. Self reliance was but a vague idea till western sanctions post Pokhran –II. Private industry participation was allowed only in 2002. 

So the lost window of opportunity is more like two decades. In any case, where was the money for investment in long term defence related research till after the economy picked up towards the end of the century? Yet what the country has managed to achieve in areas like nuclear weaponry, missiles, space technology, communications, ship building and armoured vehicles technology is by no means insignificant. The issue has become urgent after China demonstrated its defence muscle and the Government of India was hustled into taking cognizance of its potential significance.

Hysteria has been added after the former COAS, Gen V K Singh’s now famous letter to the prime minister was leaked. 

This is not to say that all is well with our defence procurement policy or that our defence PSUs and DRDO etc are working optimally to meet our strategic imperative of strategic self-reliance in defence. Notwithstanding the good news that certain steps to make up for lost time are now being discussed, typically, the Indian polity and bureaucracy wakes up only when kicked hard and then blunder around in a stupor. There is no gain lamenting that vested interests in outright defence purchases offer opportunities for corruption, cribbing about our defence PSUs being treated as milch cows by their political and other bosses, highlighting DRDO’s penchant for focused research on green latrines etc or that our private sector industry is risk averse and will tend to avoid R&D in defence. 

Now that the defence production and acquisition strategy has been reviewed and it stands agreed that India cannot afford to continue as hitherto fore. 

Vibrant technological base 

Several policy imperatives have been identified, DRDO is on board, India has a vibrant technological base and our public sector has amply demonstrated its capabilities in several areas like missiles and space. MBT Arjun has proved better suited to Indian conditions than the Russian T-90. Our private sector is capable of taking up the challenge with a little hand holding through public private partnership. An offsets policy worth $30 billion is in place. Proposal to set up a Defence Technology Commission has been accepted. DRDO has constituted four area specific research boards to synergise available ideas, research talent and facilities. What is needed is execution of agreed ideas with a strong political will, dispatch in decision making and prioritised application of human and financial resources. These being our weak points, a few suggestions may need to be heeded. 

First, India needs a strategic long term vision and our military needs should be forecast on the basis of that vision. Self reliance in defence is not a one-time exercise. Our strategists and military planners must work together and define their projected needs not on a five year plan horizon but on a multi decadal frame. Then they can categorise these needs into immediate, short term and long term lists.

Second, DRDO, technological institutions and private sector research establishments should then be tasked to focus on specific long term strategic needs and be given targets and matching resources. This would require buying and absorbing best available technology in targeted areas, innovating to optimise such technologies for our specific conditions and developing upgrades in keeping with international trends on a continuing basis. These missions will need to cover critical strategic systems like cyber warfare, rocket and space applications, electronic warfare, NBC warfare systems, avionics, fighter aircraft, ships and submarines. Each will need to be pursued in mission mode with dedicated resources. Development of subsystems can initially be assigned to private industry as collaborative projects either with the DRDO or a foreign partner.

Third, production should by and large be assigned to the private sector with suitable financial support and incentives. It may be too much to expect that Ordnance factories can revitalise their rotten work culture and may need to be protected at least initially, against foreign competition and assisted in achieving economies of scale by export promotion effort. The offset policy should be intelligently utilised through sectoral clubbing where necessary and feasible.

Fourth, a very important area of policy is that of user involvement in need identification, defining performance parameters and constant review of design progress and optimisation. This alone will ensure timely remedial measures and minimise last minute re work and rejections.  Investment has to be found as a national priority. FDI beyond 26 per cent should not inhibit decisions except in very sensitive areas.  Given national will and determination, India can surely do at least as well in the next decade as China did in the last one.

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