Is it rather early in the life of the Indian state for us to expect a comprehensive capability to meet our defence needs through indigenous development and production? My short answer to this question is ‘No’, Indians have proved their capability in two crucial sectors – Nuclear technology and Space. Even with complete technology denial, Indian Nuclear and Space scientists have developed capabilities which only a handful nations have been able to achieve. Indian scientists constitute a major part of the NASA team. Since economic reforms unleashed the entrepreneurial energies of the private sector, Indian corporate have become globally competitive and proved their mettle by acquiring global entities. India’s information technology, pharmaceutical and automobile industries have amply demonstrated the success of Indian talent. The pace of India’s economic growth over the last two decades has attracted world-wide attention.
We should expect indigenous capability also because India’s national interests must now be viewed not only from the point of view of its sovereignty and integrity, but the protection of its strategic autonomy, core values, economic interests which include trade and energy routes and resource requirements. The global security environment today is not longer as favourable as it was during the last two decades. New challenges and threats are looming on the horizon. Thus, more than ever before, if India is to preserve its strategic autonomy, it must increasingly depend on its own resources for critical technological and manufacturing capabilities.
There are no free lunches in the sphere of national security. Only allies or junior partners can be the beneficiaries of freebies in defence. Hence, we need and must expect that our critical defence needs are met through indigenous capabilities, to the extent it is prudent to do so without foregoing the benefits of global supply chains of the twenty-first century. India today has the dubious distinction of being one of the largest importers of defence equipment. For a country of India’s size and capabilities this state of affairs is indefensible.
And yet, it is exceedingly difficult to achieve defence self reliance in India in the near term. So far India has not achieved self-reliance in fully designing and developing a single major platform. We do not yet have an indigenously developed, state-of-the-art submarine, main battle tank, self-propelled artillery gun or fighter aircraft. Our dependence for vital components on foreign sources for submarines MBT Arjun and LCA makes us acutely vulnerable.
According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, between 1999 and 2006 India topped the list of arms exporters among developing countries. It is estimated that India’s annual defence imports will amount to about U.S. $ 5-6 billion. The vast infrastructure of our defence public sector undertakings and ordinance factories operates for below its potential. Their percentage share of value addition to the total of value of production declined from 51 per cent to 38 per cent between 1997-98 and 2006 – 2007. They are heavily dependent on import of technology, components, rawmaterials and spare parts, on foreign sources. Of the eight DPSUs, four do not spend any money on R&D; the R&D expenditure by other’s ranges between less than one percent to around eight percent.
According to calculations made by Laxman Behera, a Research Fellow at IDSA, the labour productivity of the top five arms manufacturers in the world is 0.3 million whereas that of eight defence PSUs in India is a mere $ 0.06 million. Exports are an important indicator of the quality and competitiveness of defence products. Owing to poor R&D effort, indifferent quality of products, and inadequate organisational agility as well as effective marketing strategy, defence exports by DPSUs and Ordnance factories remain negligible. Our Armed Forces remain, by and large, dissatisfied with DRDO’s R&D effort, although the organisation has achieved some significant successes.
India’s R&D eco-system remains underdeveloped with our universities and research laboratories doing little by way of innovation and cutting-edge research, so vital for state-of-the-art defence capabilities. The Times World University rankings do not place even one Indian university among top 200, whereas China has six in the list. Chinese authorities are making determined efforts to lure back the finest hinese scientists and offer them world class facilities. In 1995, publications by Chinese scholars were about half of those published by Indians. This number has now increased by four times. India lags behind leading nations in the number of patents taken out. Thus the broader environment is not conducive for higher education in basic science and cutting edge research, an essential requirement for world-class human resources, who can develop the defence capabilities needed by India.
Unfortunately, the enormous energies of the private sector which can contribute significantly to India’s defence capacity remain shackled. The private sector needs information on India’s defence capability requirements, greater policy clarity, assurance of orders on competitive basis to justify high-risk and large investments, a level- playing field vis-a-vis government undertakings and at the initial stage, some degree of hand-holding.
There is need for much greater interface between the Armed Forces, DRDO, Defence Acquisition Organisation and the Industry. The latter needs to be treated as partners in the mission rather than as mere recipient of orders. In our buying of defence equipment we need to fully exclude the national options first and be ready to make trade-offs on cost and performance to the extent prudent. All developed countries do this. And we also need to leverage our huge clout in the global defence market to acquire technological capabilities whenever possible.
To come back to the original question, we have the potential to develop comprehensive defence capabilities on our own, but definitely not in the nearterm. And we need to remove the policy, structural and implementation constraints to fully realise this potential.
Finally, self-reliance should not be taken to mean producing everything ourselves, but avoiding dependence in the critical areas which may endanger our national security.
The author retired from the IAS in 2005
from the post of Secretary in the Ministry
of Finance. Earlier he served two terms in
the Ministry of Defence. He was also
additional Secretary in the National
Security Council secretariat and the
cabinet Secretariat. He has also served as
Vice Chancellor, University of Udaipur.
After his retirement, he was appointed as
Director General, IDSA. He has been a
member of the National Security
Advisory Board and was on a Task Force
setup by the Government of India to
recommend measures for self –reliance in
defence. This article however, reflects his
personal views and not that of the Task-