February 2014 provided a much needed reality check for India’s overall defence preparedness and coincidentally this month also marks the end of the current Lok Sabha and by extension, the decade long tenure of the Congress led UPA government. To that extent two defence related developments which unfolded in February offer an insightful perspective into the current profile of the Indian military .
The first was the defexpo India, a major international exhibition held in Delhi in early February and this was followed by the interim budget presented by the UPA II government before the country moves to general elections.
Defexpo India held in New Delhi (Feb 6 – 9) showcased a wide range of land, naval and internal security systems with as many as 624 companies participating – both foreign and Indian. While Indian companies accounted for 256 participants – public sector and private, the 368 foreign companies were drawn from 30 different nations who collectively represent the global arms suppliers cluster.
Republic Day parade. Whether it is tanks and artillery guns for the army, ships and submarines for the navy or fighter and transport aircraft for the air force, the stark truth is that India is totally dependent on imports – in the main from Russia – since the indigenous capacity to design and build such platforms is very modest.
Notwithstanding this critical dependency in the military sector, India is striving towards acquiring ‘strategic autonomy’ in the emerging global politico-diplomatic domain and this is a Holy Grail that is as elusive as it is desirable. While it is averred that in the next two decades or less, China will emerge as the world’s number one economy with the USA as a close second and India as a distant third – the military profile of these three nations is a sharp contrast.
It is pertinent to note that while the USA will remain the world’s most capable military power for the next two decades at the least – China is determined to close the gap and is making the necessary financial investments. For both these countries, arms manufacture and exports is a national priority and the figures are self-evident. In 2011 the world’s four major arms exporters were (in US $ billion ): United States 9. 98 bn ; Russia 7. 87 bn; France 2. 43 bn; and China 1. 35 bn. India is at the lower end of this spectrum and had total exports of less than 10 million US $.
Against this backdrop it was intriguing to note the claims being made at a FICCI organized defexpo panel by representatives of the DRDO and some public sector units that Indian defence production has now come of age – and that if only the government eases the restrictions on arms exports – India could emerge as an credible exporter of military inventory.
This I am afraid is a case of wishful thinking for the reality is that currently India does not design and produce a single item of military combat significance – be it small arms and personal weapons or more complex ordnance and surveillance systems that would be deemed to be truly ‘exportable’. And even if India were to reach that level of design and production, the current Indian skill-set is woefully inadequate and underprepared to effectively market and sell its military inventory in a cut-throat market.
But the defexpo was not devoid of its silver linings and some of the items on display may provide the breakthrough that is being sought. India continues to struggle with design and production challenges for the inventory of the Indian Army and here the main battle tank (MBT) and the artillery gun are case in point. Begun in the mid 1970’s, the MBT has had a chequered trajectory and it was only in 2004 that the first batch of Arjun tanks were inducted into the Army. Upgrades have since been made and the latest mark II version has performed reasonably well when compared with the Russian tanks. Hopefully by 2020, the Indian tank would be a viable product and the time lines are instructive. Conceived in 1974, the Indian tank would have reached a successful plateau in about four decades plus.
The artillery gun for the Indian army has had an even more depressing trajectory. The Army signed a deal for the 155 mm Bofors gun from Sweden in 1986 and very soon the issue was mired in a corruption scandal that led to the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi led government. Ever since the acquisition of a replacement for the Bofors has been caught in a political void and 28 years later the Indian army is still waiting – having fought a brief Kargil war in 1999 with cannibalized artillery.
But here again there is a silver lining by way of three indigenous options that were on display at the defexpo. The Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) has produced an improved Bofors variant named the Dhanush and this gun is expected to complete winter and summer trials in 2014. Concurrently the DRDO has an advanced towed artillery gun (ATAG) in advanced stage and hopes to involve the private sector and have the gun ready for trials by 2017. And the most encouraging development apropos artillery guns is the plunge taken by a private sector manufacturer – Bharat Forge – to produce the 155 mm Kalyani gun based on a Swiss design. If the required parameters are met by all three guns during trials, hopefully the Indian Army will have more than one indigenous option to redress the gaps in its artillery inventory.
Yet the road ahead is uphill for the Indian effort to indigenize and then export its military wares given the fiscal constraints that currently obtain. Here the interim budget presented in mid February is illustrative. While the Finance Minister announced an ostensible increase in the defence allocation from Rs. 203672 crores in financial year 2013 – 14 to Rs. 224000 crores for 2014 – 15, the enhancement is notional. Given the depreciating rupee, the dollar value has actually shrunk from US $ 38. 4 billion in the last fiscal to US $ 36. 7 bn in the current allocation for defence. Thus the money available for foreign acquisition where the dollar rate is applicable would be even lesser than what it was last year.
The dis-aggregation between the revenue and capital expenditure for the three services in 2014-15 reveals an even more lean future. The capital budget which is the litmus for future acquisitions is under strain to pay for previously acquired inventory and very little will be available for any significant induction.
Thus the macro-challenge for India over the next decade is unambiguous. An appropriate and enabling design and manufacturing eco-system has to be nurtured for the Indian defence sector. Certain sectoral strengths do exist but they need to be burnished assiduously by those responsible for national security. The Indian engineer and entrepreneur can deliver if they are given the empathetic support they have been denied for decades.
The defexpo provided a glimpse into the varied potential that the Indian arms manufacturers are capable of but the critical enabling has to come from Delhi and the politico-bureaucratic combine that controls both purse-strings and national policy. Absent this institutional harmonization, the Indian penchant for ‘strategic autonomy’ will have an even more hollow ring to it.
February 2014 is a reality check in more ways than one.
Commodore C Uday Bhaskar VSM
(Retd) is an eminent security analyst