Prime Minister Modi’s desire that we must focus more on ‘Make in India’ initiatives, more than Rs 3.5 lac crore worth of projects in the defence sector—which could translate eventually into ‘Make in India’ options— still lie awaiting approval of the vast bureaucratic maze of the defence ministry (MoD) as per a news report (Times of India dated 31st October’17). Apparently, the new defence minister, Ms. Sitharaman, has been trying to clear this log jam, but the defence ministry is now a victim of the very rules it has framed under the DPP (defence procurement process) which makes it mostly time consuming and at times impossible to clear the ‘wish list’ of our armed forces, even for equipment they desperately need to remain war worthy.

Here are some examples. Apparently, a fifth generation fighter aircraft pact signed with Russia in 2007 worth $25 billion (Rs 1,62,500 crore) is still awaiting approval a decade later for a final R&D contract as the IAF now seems disinterested in the project, despite a $295 million preliminary contract signed in 2010. Thus, there is strong push by the Americans to sell the F16 fighters—with a make in India option eventually — if an initial consignment is ordered and inked by New Delhi, out of the 90 aircraft that the IAF still needs, following a deal for 36 Rafale fighters that was approved sometime ago. In this case ‘Make in India’ will happen only after New Delhi first buys for India, whatever the assertions of Lockheéd Martin and their partner the Tata group in India.

Then there is the Naval wish list for 123 multi-role helicopters (for Rs 19,500 crore, 200 Kamov helicopters worth Rs 6.500 crore, mine counter measure vessels (worth Rs 32,000 crore) and Stealth submarines (worth Rs 70,000 crore) all awaiting approval for the last decade or more. And finally, a proposal for future infantry combat vehicles (FICV) worth Rs 60,000 crore is now caught up in a dispute on whether two or all five contenders should make a detailed project report before the MoD takes a call. Here, the current governments ambitions particularly in the maritime space to both provide the US a respectable strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean and to counter China’s ambitions is going to take a blow, since the Indian Navy is far from well equipped to deal with the challenges of the future.

A major problem with defence purchases is the incompetence of the bureaucracy in understanding the needs of the armed forces, and hence their inability to take a decision, because most of them at the senior decision making levels, while dealing with this subject have had no prior interest in dealing with matters military. Add to that is the fear of the ‘Bofors syndrome’ and now the Augusta Westland scandal. However, it is not just fair to blame the civilian establishment for the delay or the absence in decision making. The fault also lies with the respective service headquarters. Most service officers have a three year tenure at most in Delhi, and in that time frame they have to understand the procurement process, make GSQRs and follow up on existing deals; a tall order, even though many have an impressive service record. Perhaps we can take acue from the US, where courses are offered at Universities on defence procurement. And finally, those who champion the cause of make in India must understand on a scale 1 to 10, India’s ability to absorb technology and to reproduce it to the exacting standards of the armed forces is less than five, as per experts on the subject. Whereas, top end technology which our military craves for, since they buy products once in several decades and it has to last for 25-20 years, requires technological ability of a scale of 8-9 out of 10 to absorb, which rarely if at all exists in India. In short therefore, make in India is easier said than done.

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