Even though India has been among the largest weapon importers in the world for over a decade—with a wish list of its armed forces going into USD 200 billion or more—the oft repeated desire to make India a ‘global manufacturing powerhouse’ on par with China has yet to reach the ambitious targets set out by successive Indian governments. One reason is that the purchases to make up the critical deficiencies are delayed so much that weapon systems have to bought when alarm bells begin to ring across the country. This leaves little room to implement a long term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP) and thus no room to innovate and absorb.
Also, as there are no restrictions on purchase of top of the line weapon systems, India’s establishment has purchased whatever it could. But as India has faced restrictions in the purchase of missiles, India’s scientists have produced state of the art missiles. Thus, those who support indigenisation say that a self imposed time line to move away from big external purchases is perhaps the answer. But critics of this line of thinking feel that a number of locally made items like even the 5.56mm rifles, that has a dubious reputation, inspire little confidence amongst our soldiers.
So, can there be light at the end of the tunnel? Yes. But only if the Raksha Mantri and the top bureaucratic-military leadership are willing to re-invent the wheel and demand time bound delivery on projects, once specifications are agreed and frozen. And simultaneously overhaul our defence PSUs which reek of nepotism.
However, with successive governments insisting that our public sector undertakings be allowed to develop almost everything that our forces need, the private sector has largely been denied the opportunities to enter this domain. Apparently, one reason why the Rafale fighter jet deal has been endlessly delayed is because the French want to have the bulk of these jets manufactured in partnership with a private sector Indian company, but the government insists this should be done with a PSU. And even if some Indian companies can rise up to the challenge—and that could take several years—there is an urgent need to address the critical gaps in India’s military capabilities. For instance, the collective requirement of helicopters for the three services and the para-military forces itself is for 800 helicopters of various types, and it requires an immediate investment of USD 12 billion. By 2027 India will need over 450 fighters and aircrafts, and over 200 warships to acquire some serious blue water naval punch. Add to that the Army’s immediate need for tanks, missiles, artillery systems, and better assault rifles to match the global favourite of terrorist, the AK-47. The demand for rifles itself (to replace the sub-standard INSAS) could be in the range of at least half a million rifles. All this requires billions of dollars in capital investment.
Ironically, despite being a huge market for arms sellers, it isn’t easy to crack defence deals in India. Plus the reluctance now of politicians and bureaucrats to finalise deals for fear of investigations post a scandal, along with dwindling capital funds outlay for purchases, barely allows India to counter a two front threat from China and Pakistan, which are both increasing their offensive capability by the day. And even though an Indian Parliamentary committee report had stated that 3 percent of GDP must be spent on defence, we currently spend about 1.6 percent of GDP. In fact a western study suggests that India must spend from 4 to 6 percent of its GDP, to have a world class military force. But will that ever happen?