India is a growing regional power and an emerging security partner in the contested Asia-Pacific region and has the third largest armed forces at its disposal. Traditionally, India has been plagued by highly unstable neighbours and has fought several high intensity wars. This sole reason has prompted India to enter into an arms race. Over the years, India has successfully outpaced Pakistan and has attained a credible deterrence status.

However, the concern for the top echelons of the government today lays in catching up with China. In the late 90’s, the Chinese economy witnessed an unexpected boom and it succeeded in attaining a global power status. On India’s front, the economy was under the dark shadow of recession and soon lost its positive trend. Encasing on these factors, China ramped up its military might by acquiring newer platforms and constituting multiple research and developmental programs.

India started importing weaponry systems in masse to check the flying dragon. In the process, India became the biggest arms importer with almost 60% of its requirement being met through imports. Initially, this move helped in catching up with China but India soon felt the brunt of having invested heavily in imported systems.

If India was to catch up with global powers, the path ahead was to indigenously master the technologies. The import only allowed Indian industries to have a ‘know-how’ knowledge and not the ‘know-why’ about these cutting edge systems. If India had to flourish in the competitive and highly unsecure world, weapons had to be locally made in India.

Successive governments taking over the power seat at New Delhi ever since independence have tried various programs to change India’s status. The latest magic wand to be introduced in this effort is the ‘Make in India’ initiative by the NDA government.

Under the initiative, Indian industries will be absorbing and reciprocating the development and production for weapon and support systems. The expected scope for investment in the lucrative defence sector by 2022 is around US $ 250 billion. The government is fortifying the investment paths for international vendors to cash in on the prevailing trend.

Even though problems with Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and off-set clauses have been worked out, very minimal investments have been made in India over the years. These issues on a broader prospective have bled the forces off essential systems.

Has India failed to provide the forces with basic needs? If so why?

Status of the forces serving at frontiers!!!!

A quick check across the frontiers reveals quite a few disturbing facts. Starting with the army; Forward deployed infantry forces lack reliable ballistic bullet proof shield. The INSAS rifle introduced by the OFB which is the mainstay of Indian forces, has largely failed to meet the demanding operational requirements. The artillery has its share of concerns as not a single gun has been inducted since the past two decades. The situation however is expected to revert as BAE manufactured M777 howitzers are expected to join service later this year.

The T-90 MBT manufacturing line at HVF, Avadi; Due Credits to Col. Ajai Shukla.

This story continues across every front of the forces. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) has emerged as the need of the hour for the forces. Nishant UAV developed by DRDO has received luke warm response from the Army.

Nothing impressive can be drawn in from the stables of the Air force; Tejas a longing dream of India’s aeronautical fraternity has finally landed in IAF’s lap after almost two decades of development. The induction of the aircraft is no doubt a major achievement for the developmental agencies, but not much ice has been broken. Mass induction is the need of the hour.

The Kaveri project constituted to develop a dry thrust jet engine for Tejas was recently shelved half way. The amount of indigenous technology that has went onboard the aircraft is debatable. But what stands clear is that the developmental agencies have amassed large amounts of technological knowledge to take on any future challenges head-on.

On the Navy’s front a bit of high graph can be drawn. Navy has successfully acquired multiple locally manufactured platforms. Till date, the Navy has inducted more than 200 Indian made ships and submarines. Another 46 combatants are under construction in Indian shipyards.

CNS Sunil Lanba speaking about the Navy’s headway in the Make in India initiative said “The ship primarily consists of three segments; afloat, to move and to fight. In the float component i.e the skeel and all that it is 100% built in India. In the move component which includes the engines and other things it’s about 65%. And in the weapon and fight component its now 40%”.

A major red flag raised by the end users about the indigenous platforms, is about the pace at which these platforms are being outdated. These systems which have to be futuristic and have to serve the forces for decades are being outdated before induction.

A constant issue raised by the forces is the reliability issue. INSAS was a rifle locally manufactured by OFB. The program initially matured and the system was mass produced and was eventually put to play in the Kargil theatre. Unfortunately, the system failed to fire at such high altitudes and often chocked up, leaving the infantry men fighting the enemy with their own hands. Army cried foul and claimed they weren’t part of the developmental cycle.

Analysing these factors it is evident India has to rapidly change the developmental and procurement process. The prime reason for the lack of futuristic weapon systems is forethought. This forethought into the future can be brought only if all the players in the arena are engaged. It is evident that India till date has failed to engage even the base players of the game. Engagement rules have to be drawn up to make these programs more successful.

Till date, Indian forces have relied on DRDO, India’s premier research and development organization for the development and production of defence equipments. Weaponry systems acquired through Transfer of Technology (ToT) have also been routed through DRDO; this meant only a single organization has the knowledge of production. DRDO further engaged Public Sector Undertakings (PSU) for mass production or assembling of the acquired technology.

DRDO, no-doubt is one of the leading developmental agencies in the world. The agency has over 52 laboratories under its direct purview to meet the rising demands of the forces. These laboratories have been a stepping stone in conquering technological barriers. DRDO using technologies of these labs has developed one of the best delivery systems (Missiles) in the world.

However, it has failed to answer the basic needs of the forces. Ranging from rifles to aircraft, DRDO is yet to roll out reliable products from its production lines. Prerequisite to the development of any technology is a solid technological knowledge and financial resources. India unfortunately lacks both of these elements to a certain extent. DRDO or PSUs cannot be considered ‘white elephants’ or ‘incapable bodies’, but have to be credited to the technological knowledge and infrastructural base they have amassed during developmental cycles.

A view of Tejas production line in HAL’s Bangalore facility.

A roadmap for futuristic weapon system!!!

The journey for acquiring these weapon platforms starts with the constitution of a high-powered institution that can chalk out a long-term acquisition roadmap. These institutions are crucial for identifying the need of forces and then further gearing up the industry for the production of these systems. The institution has to involve all developmental agencies under a single umbrella.

The developed products are always put to work by the armed forces or simply the end users. Hence it is critical that all developmental plans involve the end users at multiple stages. Merging all the stakeholders under a single developmental umbrella will bring about a renewed accountability in the programs.

This umbrella should necessarily include the developmental agency, international firms, production, financial & review agencies and also critically the end users. A newer and advanced project management system also has to be employed to extract the most out of the developmental cycles. It is very critical that the developmental agencies review the current and future needs of armed forces, as is the global practice.

Russia in the early 2000’s put into place an institution to foresee its position in the world arena after a decade. All developmental agencies and production firms were brought under a single roof with the forces forming the epicentre. Later, each of the forces need was taken into consideration and was then addressed through a meticulous progress. Today, Russia has caught up with the west which had once raced past it.

Russia actively involved ‘private firms’ to achieve a deadline that seemed unmanageable. The role of private industries in India for development of defence oriented systems is extremely minimal. India has failed to exploit the private sector.

[In Part – II : The role of private sector in boosting defence manufacturing and the road-map for creating an defence manufacturing ecosystem.]

© Karthik Kakoor