India’s defence Aatmanirbharta advances; Many more roads yet to travel ET News 05 Mar 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


India’s defence Aatmanirbharta advances; Many more roads yet to travel ET News 05 Mar 2024

          Addressing the 41st DRDO conference in Oct 2019, General Bipin Rawat, then army chief, stated, ‘India is one of the largest importers of weapons and ammunition, and after 70 years of independence, it is not a very proud statement to make.’ He added, ‘We are confident that we will fight and win the next war with indigenous weapon systems.’ Last week, General Manoj Pande, the current army chief, mentioned that the army is collaborating with 340 indigenous defence industries to fulfil 230 contracts by 2025 with an outlay of Rs 2.5 Lakh Crores.

          The Indian navy issued a statement ahead of its senior commanders’ conference in Oct last year, mentioning, ‘A detailed roadmap to enhance indigenisation through ‘Make in India’ with the aim of achieving ‘AatmaNirbharta’ by 2047 will be undertaken by the Commanders.’ The current navy chief, Admiral Hari Kumar, endorsed the commitment last month when he said, ‘We have committed to our national leadership that by 2047, we will become AatmaNirbhar, and for that, we require the help of industry.’

          In an interview to Indian Aerospace and Defence in Oct last year, the air chief, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, stated, ‘IAF aims to create an ecosystem which fosters innovation and encourages technology development in Defence by engaging Research and Development (R and D) institutes, academia, industries, start-ups, and even individual innovators.’

The armed forces have realized the necessity of supporting the domestic defence industry. Depending on imports for capability and capacity building implying outsourcing national security, which is unacceptable. Speaking on lessons learnt in the Ukraine conflict, General Anil Chauhan, the CDS stated, ‘We cannot be dependent on supplies of our weapons from outside. That’s the one big lesson we take from the conflict.’

           All recent conflicts have given one major lesson, a nation must largely be self-sufficient in defence, with weapons designed for its specific terrain and operational requirements. Ukraine is dependent on the west for its defence needs and shortfalls in supply have been largely responsible for its recent reverses on the battlefield.

The weapons being provided by the west to Ukraine, have been designed for operations elsewhere, impacting its full exploitation, a reason why US Abrams tanks have not been very successful. The US Congress, by temporarily shutting the tap, had pushed Ukraine into a crisis. Europe, by itself, is unable to meet Kiev’s demands, benefitting Russia. Russian defence industry is robust enough to fulfil most of its defence needs thus giving an edge to their armed forces, with North Korea, Iran and China meeting its shortfalls.

Manufacturers also have the ability to turn the tap off on either new procurements or spare parts whenever they desire to apply pressure upon the recipient. Pakistan’s F 16 aircraft are monitored 24X7 by the US. Its armament can only be procured from them. The US denied GPS services to India during the Kargil conflict compelling the DRDO to develop its own. Thus, was born Navigation for Indian Constellation (NavIC).

In addition, import costs are high. The same, if expended in India, could open employment avenues as also enhance the economy. Further are reports of corruption in defence deals.  

          Aatmanirbharta in defence production began slowly in 2014 gaining steam over the years. The opening of doors to the private sector as also corporatizing the Ordnance Factory Board changed India’s defence manufacturing landscape. India’s defence production has been witnessing a steady increase. It grew from Rs 740 crores in 2017 to over One Lakh crores in 2023.

A central government press release of May 2023 mentions that, India’s defence exports rose from a paltry Rs. 686 Crore in FY 2013-14 to nearly Rs. 16,000 Crore in FY 2022-23. In Nov last year, PM Modi laid down his target for achieving defence exports of Rs 35,000 crores in the next five years, intending to make India into a major exporter of defence equipment.

The press release also mentioned that ‘expenditure on defence procurement from foreign sources reduced from 46% of overall expenditure in 2018-19 to 36.7% in December, 2022.’ A subsequent release mentioned that 75% of defence procurement budget in the last financial year was earmarked from domestic sources, up from 68% the year before. The past three financial years have resulted in signing of 122 contracts for defence equipment of which, 100 contracts have been with indigenous suppliers.

Initiatives like ‘Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX),’ aimed at encouraging innovation and technology development have proved to be a success. With the issuance of four indigenous defence production lists, the government has built confidence within the domestic industry. These items are uploaded on the SRIJAN portal. Currently, over 30,000 items have been uploaded.

Simultaneously, India is convincing global manufacturers to establish production facilities in India. While the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy for the defence sector has been revised from 49% to 74% via automatic approval, SAAB was the first company which was permitted 100% for the manufacture of its Carl-Gustaf M4 anti-tank rocket systems. Thus far, FDI totalling Rs 5077 crores have been received.

India’s BrahMos missiles, developed in collaboration with Russia, are being evaluated by a number of countries with deals signed with a few. Other notable exports include Akash missile systems, radars, simulators, armoured vehicles, and artillery guns.

India, in collaboration with global concerns, currently manufactures aero structurers for Apache helicopters, wing sets for F 16 Block 70 fighter aircraft, C-295 Medium Lift transport aircraft, amongst others. Lockheed Martin has selected India for the C130J assembly, sales and marketing location, the only one outside of the US. The aircraft is employed by seven countries.  

A recent report mentioned that the Hyderabad-based Adani-Elbit Advanced Systems India Ltd, a joint venture between Adani Defence and Aerospace and Israel’s Elbit Systems, delivered 20 Hermes 900 medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs to Israel.

India is also likely to ink the Security of Supply Arrangements with the US opening doors for access to their defence markets as also integrating Indian companies into the global supply chain. The Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM), the apex body of Indian defence industry, is setting up an Export Promotion Council to facilitate exports. This would be in addition to the government’s initiative of conducting defence expo’s and empowering its defence attachés to project Indian equipment.  

          India, flanked by two adversaries, both of which have the ability to join hands, can never let its guard down. With technology being the order of the day, the nation needs to induct equipment which can meet its requirements of the modern battlefield specific to prevailing terrain and threats. The development of such equipment would only flow from domestic R and D.

The DRDO budget has been slowly increasing and the organization is itself likely to undergo restructuring based on the report of the K Vijay Raghavan Committee. Its future projects will be monitored directly by the PMO. However, India’s investment in R and D is low. While the Indian private defence industry is nascent, it too must invest in R and D. Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, addressing the North-Tech Symposium in Sept last year stated, ‘Though R and D is a risky venture as it requires out-of-the-box thinking and sometimes does not give desired results, it still remains one of the basic elements for the development of any country.’

If India’s defence requirements are to be domestically met, then R and D needs to be funded. For R and D to succeed, there must to be closer linkages between the scientific community, the user and the academia. This will need an all of government approach. The better the products, the more the global demand.

We have come a long way in the past 10 years. The Indian industry has displayed it has the ability to deliver but at the same time needs support. The defence industrial complex has many more roads to travel, as also hurdles to overcome to achieve a global status. They can succeed provided the government takes a positive approach and holds their hands.