India’s dependence on weapon imports remains a serious security concern, begging the larger question: why have our policy makers been tardy in embarking upon a holistic indigenisation programme, to enable the country to achieve a modicum of self sufficiency in this vital aspect? Arms imports drain the national exchequer, consuming valuable resources better spent on poverty alleviation and strengthening the economy. Military strength can only be laid on the foundations on a strong economy, which must precede the development of military power. More importantly however, a thriving indigenous defence industry, by itself would boost the economy by at least a couple of percentage points in GDP terms, besides creating huge employment opportunities within the country. Indigenous weapon systems would cost just half or even lesser than that of imported ones, their maintenance and repair would be simpler and cheaper and their would also be spin off benefits to Indian industry arising from military technological developments.
Indian policy has for long been couched in pacifist terms, which begs another question: has this been a deliberate ploy? The defence budget is rarely discussed in Parliament and purchase of military hardware from foreign vendors is surrounded by very high levels of opacity. This gives the political establishment and the civil service mandarins in the ministry of defence the opportunity to seek huge kickbacks through defence deals with foreign vendors. Is it possible then that the nation’s defence has been compromised by a deliberate policy of emasculating the indigenous defence sector? India’s space programme proves that the country has the requisite technological skills to be a world leader. If we can send a mission to Mars, why do we lack capability to manufacture world class weapon platforms for the armed forces? We have even been found wanting in producing an acceptable small arms family of weapons system for the infantry and are looking into importing rifles! Something is evidently wrong somewhere.
The AgustaWestland helicopter scam is merely a symptom of the larger malaise that afflicts the defence sector. It is not surprising that the names which emerge in the murky deal are of senior politicians and the entire decision making hierarchy in the Ministry of Defence, to include the defence secretary, the DG Acquisitions, the financial advisors in the MOD and a few officers of joint secretary rank. Even a section of the media appears to have been bought to promote a specific viewpoint. That a politico-bureaucratic nexus exists in defence deals is no secret. Such a nexus however can only thrive when indigenous manufacturing capability is weak. In the name of national defence, huge purchases can then be made to benefit the rent seekers. Is this then the reason that the DRDO is emasculated and the DPSUs continue to underperform? The import of Tatra vehicles is a case in point, where the concerned DPSU was simply passing off as indigenous, an imported product assembled in India.
There is a thriving mafia in the defence sector which has its tentacles well spread within the Indian system. It will not be easy to empower the indigenous defence sector and truly establish defence economic zones within the country to cater to most of our defence needs, as many powerful vested interests will get hurt. A start has been made in this field by the present government, but undoing the damage caused by decades of neglect will not be easy. Serious reforms are required in the MOD, which must first start with having a professional as the defence secretary. The DRDO and the defence public sector too need to be run on professional lines. More importantly, accountability must be the benchmark. Mr Manohar Parrikar truly has his work cut out for him. He must succeed, if the Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ initiative, is to see fruition in the defence sector.