History bears testimony to the fact that all nations with a strong military-industrial complex had a strong military force, resulting in a strong and vibrant foreign policy to stand comfortably amongst the comity of nations.
It was the military industrial set-up of Germany that enabled it to launch its offensive practically against the entire western world both in World War I and World War II. The real strength of the military industry of Germany was obtained through its capacity for self-reliance. This is now true of the United States, Russia, and China, which though not fully self-reliant in defence, wants to emulate the former two mentioned.
As for India, the most serious shortcoming in our defence set-up is our poor standing in the sector of defence indigenization. So backward is India in defence self-reliance that for the last 65 years it has not produced an acceptable rifle for the Infantry, or a main battle tank, a satisfactory field artillery gun (155mm), any fighter aircraft (except for HF24, which was grounded due to external political pressures on our government), advanced jet trainer engine, submarine, attack helicopter, or other major weapons support systems.
Hence, now, as Indian Army and Air Force started moving to forward locations, confronting the Chinese forces in Ladakh from April onwards, what caught everyone’s attention was Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Russia and the scramble for an agreement on the immediate delivery of 12 SU30 MKIs and 22 MiG 29 fighter aircraft. This highlighted once again India’s near total dependence on imports of all major weapons systems, be it the fighter or transport aircraft, artillery guns, tanks, air defence radars or other tactical signal and communication equipment. According to a report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in the period between 2007 and 2011, India had met 80% of its defence needs by importing military hardware worth nearly US$12.7 bn. The situation was further compounded with a fall in the value of rupee and other economic constraints, which forced India to cancel some of its major defence imports like the indefinite postponement of the $20 bn 125 French Rafael fighter jets (MMRCA).
The matter is so serious that a number of Army Chiefs have clearly stated that India cannot sustain a war for even two weeks, because of the depletion of its war reserves. The only redeeming feature in India’s entire defence production is the progress made by the Naval Shipyards.
situation has improved somewhat under the present government, and the Rafale deal has been revived, with the arrival of five of these aircraft; 31 more are supposed to come in the near future. This should add, somewhat, to the dangerously depleting fighter squadron strength, which is down to 28 squadrons from the required 42. The Light Combat Aircraft now stands revived with 2 squadrons of Tejas on operational readiness after a wait of 30 years, though still powered by a foreign engine.
It goes without any doubt that the Indian military industry, consisting of nine PSUs like HAL, BEL, Naval Shipyards etc., along with 41 ordnance factories have not been able to meet even the basic demands due to late deliveries and cost overruns, which has forced the national defence set-up to depend on the foreign defence corporate sector, making us a puppet in their hands.
The Chinese along with India in the early 1960s, went in for Soviet weapons, when in 1963 India got its MiG 21s from Soviet Russia along with China. India further went for Sukhoi 7 in the late 1960s along with tanks, artillery guns and air defence radars. However, by the mid to the late 1980s, China literally stole a march on India when they, to the utter dismay of the Soviets, disregarded all rules and norms of intellectual property rights and went on to reverse engineer the Soviet MiG 21 and made it into their own F7M. This was supplied to Pakistan as F7P and further to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Similarly, China got Su 27 from the Russians, while after some time we got the MiG 29s, followed by Su 30s and Su 30 MKIs. Once again, the Chinese resorted to their “creative adaptation” by making the Russian-supplied Su 27 into J11, by retaining the airframe but putting their own avionics and fire control system.
In India, unlike China, manufacturing is separate from R&D and we can see very well how the defence PSUs in India would like to keep private manufactures out. And now the Chinese are boasting of J10, which is actually the reverse engineered Israeli Lavi, and the stealth J20 or fifth generation fighter at par with US F22.
In 1995, when former President Abdul Kalam was the senior advisor to the government, he propagated the requirement to involve private entrepreneurs in defence manufacturing. Though much effort went into this since then, nothing much came of it.
Now with the government talking of FDI with suitable offset arrangements—also suggested by the late President Abdul Kalam—it must be appreciated that defence manufacturing capability must come to India, and Indian manufacturing process should not only be able to sustain the supply for the demands forwarded by the three Services, but also be able to export defence equipment and arms to other countries, the way China is doing.
When we look at the official Chinese military budget announced in May 2020, it stands at $178.6 bn, which is a 6.6% increase from the 2019 budget of $177.5 bn, as against the Indian defence budget announced by Nirmala Sitharman of only $65.86 bn. This should make us realise why we are in such a situation. We can begin by allotting at least 3% of our GDP to defence, from approximately 1.52% as it is now.
With this background, Ministry of Defence’s Draft Defence Production and Export Promotion Policy (DPEPP 2020) on 4 August came as a pleasant surprise. The draft DPEPP stated that its aim was to reduce dependence on imports and take forward “Make In India” through domestic design and development, as also promote export of defence products as part of the overall “Atmanirbhar Bharat” policy. This too was suggested by Abdul Kalam and Dr Kelkar.
The government must now involve all political parties to arrive at a consensus and invite major industrial houses to take up defence manufacturing to see the emergence of a strong and brave new India.
Wing Commander (Retd) Praful Bakshi is a defence analyst.