India was the second-biggest importer of defence items between 2014 and 2018. This despite decades of efforts to make India self-reliant in defence.
During the NDA regime, many headways were made - the Department of Defence Production took initiatives such as creation of defence manufacturing corridors and innovation & technology development centres, release of revised make-II procedures, mission Raksha Gyan Shakti, setting up of defence investor cells and third-party inspections. This was apart from streamlining procedures for defence exports and steps to enable contribution from SMEs.
The positive side of the story is that a large number of major products have been developed. In addition, a number of products and equipment are being produced through transfer of technology. The result - defence production in India increased to over Rs 70,000 crore in 2017/18. The share of defence PSUs and ordnance factories was Rs 58,183 crore.
Among the defence forces, Indian Navy is the best example of focus on indigenisation. INS Nilgiri was built in '70s. From then, most of our warships and submarines are being built in India. But most products for the air force and the army are being imported from foreign original equipment manufacturers.
During the '60s, we almost developed an indigenous fighter aircraft in the form of HF-24 Marut. Services of a German aeronautical engineer, Kurt Waldemar Tank, were hired, but the project was shelved after partial success as imported MIG-21 had started arriving. In another case, HPT-32 were suddenly grounded. A country must own the technology it needs. The premier need of all three services is equipment for wars of future. Some steps that need to be taken over the next ten years for this are:
First, like in the Navy, engineering exposure at officer entry level and continuity of thought/strategic process need to be adopted in other two forces as well. Second, in the last four years, 150 contracts worth Rs 1,27,500 crore were awarded and 164 proposals valued at Rs 2,79,950 crore granted AoNs (Acceptance of Necessity). The capital budget available for defence acquisition is normally below 0.5 per cent of GDP. If we want to realise the goal of self-sufficiency, this needs to be gradually increased to 1.75 per cent of GDP, with significant focus on R&D. Third, the services must look for indigenised products and make long-term plans for technology and system induction. Some people feel that LTIPP (long-term integrated perspective plans) are only a wish list with no financial/time schedule. This needs to change.The policy of strategic partnership in defence manufacturing also needs to be implemented on priority.
Fourth, the acquisition wing of the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Defence Production need to be merged. The two work with diverse priorities but have a common objective. Creation of a permanent cadre of technocrats in a unified set-up also needs to be considered. Fifth, technologies such as drones, missiles, network centres and space command forces will play a decisive role in future wars.
All the three forces must re-examine their technology requirements. It is high time we consider an organisation like DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) of the US where a group of 140 technology specialists/leaders (half of them taken from relevant defence industries) work on future technologies and systems. The American defence industry is involved in technology projects from the inception/conceptional stage. Last, and most important, for effective indigenisation in defence manufacturing and timely induction of technologies of future wars, the continuity of enabling leadership is important. We need to create a supervisory team of good leaders with experience for each national project like LCA, submarines, etc., with direct access and feedback at the highest level of the National Security Agency and the Ministry of Defence.
The writer is President, Aeronautical Society of India, ex-chairman Hindustan Aeronautical Ltd., ex-CMD, Pawan Hans Helicopters