Last week I attended my zillionth seminar on defence indigenisation and, for the zillionth time, found myself lamenting the Indian strategic community’s mistaken belief within that we would be largely self-reliant in defence if our current indigenisation ratio of 70:30 could be improved to 30:70. In other words, India imports 70 per cent of its defence requirements, while building only 30 per cent in the country; reverse that ratio and things would be fine.
This notion is fallacious. It is like saying that the Electronic Warfare systems on a Royal Navy battleship are not British because most of the chips inside were made in Taiwan. The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is an Indian fighter, even though 90 per cent of it comes from abroad. What determines whether a fighter or tank is Indian or foreign is not how many foreign commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) sub-systems and systems there are inside. Rather, it is design expertise and the key components and systems that money cannot buy.
Another falsehood about indigenisation is the argument that allowing more foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence production would bring to India a rush of technology and manufacture from global defence giants. The current FDI cap of 26 per cent, it is argued, makes foreign investors reluctant to transfer high technology, and allows them only a meagre share of the profit. These are flawed notions. Governments, not companies, control defence technology and its release is based on strategic considerations more than profit. For Western governments, with declining defence budgets, the need to safeguard high-tech defence manufacturing jobs at home overrides any argument their companies make about labour arbitrage in India.
To manage success in indigenisation, the complex defence planning landscape must be reduced to four key players. First there is the military, which must be made to understand that dependence on foreign weapons systems is at least as great a long-term strategic threat as is Pakistan or China. For too long, the services have held out the prospect of “imminent threat” to persuade the defence ministry to import foreign weaponry instead of adequate Indian systems that are available. This was seen in the case of the Akash air defence missile, the Arjun tank, the Tejas fighter, and now an artillery gun. The defence ministry must muster the political courage to flatly say, “War is not imminent. Operational readiness today is less vital than building our own weaponry tomorrow.”
Secondly, once the need to drive hard at indigenisation is internalised, stock must be taken of resources for pursuing this goal. The much-vilified Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is now an increasingly ambitious player, emboldened by success in developing technologies, systems and entire weapons platforms. But the DRDO cannot realistically be responsible for the whole gamut of development.
With an energised private sector waiting in the wings, the DRDO must focus on basic research and enabling technologies, while the public and private sectors can translate those into systems and platforms. The new DRDO chief, Avinash Chander, says he is forging partnerships with academic institutions that would allow DRDO scientists, academics and research students to work in community, developing far-reaching technologies that would be “transplanted” onto DRDO laboratories. For DRDO diehards, who developed entire platforms (and a credible missile arsenal) while defying international technology denial regimes, the suggestion to stay confined to a corner of the playfield will seem heresy. But the DRDO’s long-term good lies in being canalised into carefully chosen avenues rather than in dissipating energy needlessly.
The third crucial component is the private sector, where top-drawer managerial and technological expertise waits to be allowed into the lucrative field of defence development and production. Holding them back is the question of finance: a defence ministry that has spent lakhs of crores on nine defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) and 40 ordnance factories (OFs) finds it politically risky to allocate government money to the private sector competition. The defence ministry would rather the private sector paid its own way. Earlier this year, Defence Minister A K Antony called on private defence companies to abandon their “miserly attitude” towards R&D. There is something to Mr Antony’s uncharacteristic outburst; even big players like the Tata group and L&T have hesitated in investing in defence, waiting for the defence ministry to pick up the tab.
Fourthly, the defence ministry must realise that the avoidance of decision making cannot be its only policy in this landscape of competing interests. With the military demanding immediate overseas procurement; the DRDO looking to spread its wings; the DPSUs/OFs pushing the frontiers of cronyism; and the private sector waiting for a perfect policy environment before making a grand entrance, the policy makers cannot confine themselves to risk-free decisions aimed at shielding officials from accusations of mala fide.
A multidisciplinary body, led by the DRDO, must carry out a Technology Gap Assessment to identify a development road map for the future. Specific technology projects must be allocated to industry, with design houses being set up by groups that would share costs with the government. The defence ministry’s fear of being seen as favouring a particular business house cannot block targeted involvement. Modalities must be evolved for funding design and development. Individual projects can be funded through the American DARPA model. And major design centres can be set up – envision the Tata Design Centre, or the L&T Submarine Research Bureau – for which companies submit proposals, which will be evaluated by a DRDO-led decision-making body.