The recent announcement by the Defence Minister, with respect to the decision to ban the import of 101 items required by our armed forces in a phased manner, has numerous implications and incentives for India. Undoubtedly, this is a long-overdue step to reduce the vast sums that are spent on arms imports. It is estimated that an additional amount of Rs 400,000 crore would be required to fulfil the necessary demand in the next few years.
Hence, it is logical to assume that this money would be best spent by ploughing it back into indigenous military platforms, instead of buying weapons from abroad. But are we ready for it?
Delivery challenges for India
Purchase of defence systems from abroad is resorted to—as seen recently with the defence minister’s visit to Russia following the Chinese incursions across the LAC—because India doesn’t yet produce military platforms that are ‘operational force multipliers’. This, despite the fact that India has 41 Ordnance Factories (OF), and nine DPSUs (Defence Public Sector Undertakings), which produce artillery guns, armoured vehicles and ammunition—so crucial for war-fighting—plus uniforms and boots, etc. However, with the exception of the Indian Navy that has a fine indigenous track record, there is a major trust deficit between the other services and the DPSUs.
The current Defence Ministry run OF and DPSUs have had a poor record in meeting delivery schedules and in quality control, but our armed forces cannot be absolved for their part in these delays. They repeatedly change the GSQR guidelines, leading to ‘crucial’ military purchases by the fast-tracked FMS (government to government) process, as we’ve seen in recent years. Thus to change this, the government has placed 69 items under the import ban effective from December 2020, to include combat aircraft and helicopters, light transport aircraft, and simulation systems, cruise missiles, radars, satellites, etc. Most of these are already being manufactured in India, and some may be purchased before the end of this year.
The changes that need to be underway
The ban itself may not be enough. Clearly, the current state of affairs in the country needs to change. This policy announcement isn’t a magic wand per se, to energise our DPSUs and OF to become more efficient. They require a complete overhaul of their management practices. And that won’t happen in six months. Above all else, if the aim is to finally achieve 100 per cent indigenous capability, then our private sector needs to be involved and given a level playing field.
India’s software industry must be engaged more in building our future defence systems. And this could even help with the further growth of our IT industry.
While the OF and DPSUs will remain in business as government-owned entities, hopefully duly reformed for efficiency, our private industry players, with or without a foreign partner, must be allowed to provide our armed forces with their necessary wherewithal too, in the future. Also, as the trend is shifting towards greater dependence of military systems on micro-chips, India’s software industry must be engaged more in building our future defence systems. And this could even help with the further growth of our IT industry.
But indigenisation apart, a question that has no answers yet, is how does India hope to draw diplomatic mileage—as it has done in the past—if it stops the imports of big-ticket weapons systems? Until now, India has been the chosen destination of the global arms manufacturers, earning it the dubious reputation of being among the world’s largest arms importers. Through it, India has often garnered diplomatic support mainly of the US, Russia and France, all of whom also hold veto powers at the UNSC. But if we don’t buy their products—as President Trump has often insisted on—then will you end up buying their wrath?