Paving way for `Atma Nirbharta’ (self-reliance) in defence sector, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, on May 16, 2020, announced policy and structural reforms, which include : gradual banning of imports of select weapon systems ; corporatisation of Ordnance factories; enhancement of Foreign Direct Investment in defence sector on automatic route; and faster defence acquisitions based on `realistic’ General Staff Qualitative Requirements of the services. A few days earlier, the Chief of Defence Staff also made similar assertions.
Both these policy pronouncements have one common theme, the need to reverse the trend of defence imports and become self-reliant. A laudable idea which has been articulated and experimented before! We know what we desire, but need diligence and persistence to put the building blocks in place. Endeavour is to highlight some imperatives.
The Indian defence planners face a peculiar paradox. On one hand is the need to keep the armed forces operationally ready at all times, to combat perpetual threats along active borders and to respond to national and regional situations. The process of indigenisation however entails diligent perspective planning, assured budgetary support, and patience for design, development and manufacture, including allowance for some inevitable failures. Also, at initial stages, the indigenous procurements come substantially more expensive, till the development and capital costs get amortised and economies of scale begin to emerge. It is for this reason that even the most developed nations, indigenise defence systems selectively.
The first step therefore is to implement this policy in segments in which we already have proficiency Eg. Artillery guns, missile, multi barrel rocket launchers, some categories of radars, munitions etc. Alongside, identify areas in which we desire to become self-reliant, with time lines. In these spheres, we may acquire one-time operational requirements and thereafter embark on a 10-15 years budget supported, design, development, technology acquisition and production program. Abrupt moratoriums can be self-defeating.
A perspective has been put forth by the CDS about `tying up with foreign partners for concrete transfer of technology’, to enable Make in India. It merits appreciation that, even the basic technology transfers often come tied to acquisitions. Acquiring stand-alone technologies in niche areas like aero engines, marine engines, seekers, electronic warfare equipment etc pose even bigger challenge, since such technologies, considered `crown-jewels’ of industry are not shared even `at a cost’.
The rationale for introducing the Strategic Partnership model in Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2016 and of `Buy Global (Manufacture in India), proposed in DPP 2020, are based on leveraging this interlinkage. Mapping of technology voids jointly by users, DRDO, private industry and formulation of a pragmatic plan to develop or acquire these is the basic building block for the edifice of defence indigenisation.
In recent days, the Services have also been called upon to ‘set realistic GSQR’, which it is assumed are deliberately pitched high. A suggestion has been made to accept weapons meeting only 70% of the GSQR for promotion of indigenous defence industry. This concept is flawed on considerations of operational edge and cost of human lives. What is acceptable however is the concept of `spiral development’, in which, during the course of development, lower, but operationally acceptable variants, can be inducted as Mark 1 and progressive upgrades offered thereafter. This indeed has been the practice for indigenous inductions like: Nag ATGMs, Akash Missiles, and even Tejas aircraft.
Another misconception is that of the armed forces `misrepresenting their operational requirements to import weapons of their choice’. This needs urgent correction.
Firstly, the armed forces acquire weapons to operate in the geostrategic construct defined by the political leadership and the battlefield environment visualised by the top military leadership. Procurements are made to achieve identified military objectives, in the context of National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy (enunciated or implicit).
Secondly, it is the CDS led HQ Integrated Defence Staff that heads the committees which feed acquisition proposals to the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), leaving little scope for the services to `misrepresent’. India as a credible `pole’ of the multi-polar Indo- Pacific also needs to share regional responsibilities and our weapon acquisitions need to factor in politico-military objectives enunciated.
Finally, the hallowed structures like the Defence Planning Committee, CDS, the Department of Military Affairs, which have been put in place recently, require robust integral staff of professionals for institutionalised in-house diligence. Hurried decisions taken at the highest levels, in ad hoc manner, can be unsettling for the armed forces and counterproductive to national security.
This needs to be complemented by a reorganised Defence Acquisition Organisation and pragmatically refined Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2020. Changes that take away HQ IDS from feeding the `acquisition funnel’, as evident in draft placed in public domain, will be detrimental both, to capability development and to the functioning of the office of CDS itself.
Our intent is laudable, the higher defence organisation structures are in place but ultimate success will lie in how diligently we address the basics, without undue haste.
(The Author is a former Corps Commander and Deputy Chief (Policy Planning & Force Development) at HQ IDS. [email protected])
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