Several prophecies and predictions estimated that India will become a superpower by 2050. While being a superpower may have no effect on reducing on-ground poverty, the ground reality is that India’s march towards that peculiar superpower status has halted for a while. The lack of domestic competence in arms manufacturing – technology, skill, manufacturing base, all included – and even in related parts production becomes clear. In consequence, the Indian defence industry has been much criticised for being too much dependant on arm imports rather than on domestic innovation.
Of course, one could tom tom India’s recent maiden mission to Mars (the Mars Orbiter Mission, launched on November 30, 2013) as being the stamp on India’s technical brilliance. But why has India been unable to replicate such skill at the defence manufacturing level? Take the example of the Tejas light combat aircraft and Arjun main battle tank – hyped up as domestically made, these two exemplars over the decades have added glorious feathers to Indian defence. But shockingly, more than thirty years post its induction, the Tejas is still only 60% indigenous. The Arjun is worse – 55% of imported parts. This is the sorry state of India’s so called domestic defence production. This fact also clearly indicates the failure of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which, despite being well connected with 50 laboratories as well as five defence PSUs, four shipyards and 50 ordnance factories, has not been able to master defence equipment making.
On another front, unlike what happens in other countries, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has broadly failed to encourage the domestic private sector to participate in defence production. The sector has failed to attract FDI. For instance, the defence production sector has managed to attract merely $5 million in the last 14 years. If that was the design of the government, then it seems to have backfired.
A Swedish research group, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently highlighted that India has taken the top spot replacing China as the world’s largest arms importer. India accounted for almost 10% of all global arms buying. Thus India acquires around 65% of military hardware and software from other nations. Uday Bhaskar, a retired commodore and leading strategic analyst, said in an ET article recently, “More than 60 years after becoming a republic and 50 years after the debacle with China, the opaque Indian defense production establishment does not [even] produce high quality clothing and personal inventory items like boots, let alone a suitable rifle for a one million army, or tanks and aircraft.”
If high import content in some prestigious indigenous projects was not enough, then consider the much-touted transfer of technology (ToT) contracts with foreign manufacturers to build large defence projects. A senior Army official pointed out in media that, “Indian PSUs focus more on just assembling knocked-down kits from foreign vendors instead of properly absorbing technologies... As per plans, HAL should have begun making Sukhois completely from raw material two-three years ago. But there has been a big delay. Moreover, the cost of each HAL-manufactured Sukhoi is almost Rs.1 billion more than if the same fighter was directly imported from Russia.” Shocking.
India can take a cue from China – domestic defence cannot be left at the mercy of foreigners.