Friday, November 15, 2013

Indigenization of Military Hardware is necessary for India to establish itself as a World Power to reckon with

Indira Mukherjee
Irrespective of whether we consider India as a developing country or an "Asian giant", it would not be a terminological in-exactitude to say that our nation has made its presence felt in the global arena owing to strong economic indicators. It is widely believed that this increased visibility will cause India to dabble more in military matters so as to tackle security issues and gain a solid footing in the international platform. If one does a survey of India’s external security challenges in South Asia, the outcome is that of concern – Indo-Pak skirmishes, long outstanding border dispute with China, Tamil issue in Srilanka, precarious political upheavals in Maldives, an un-ending constitutional crisis in Nepal, withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, an illegal drugs-arms nexus across Myanmar etc. This current geopolitical quagmire with respect to India's borders and the global notion of equating diplomacy power with military strength, make its imperative for us to decide on a path that India should eventually undertake to showcase its might. Atal Bihari Vajpayee once famously said that –

"You can change friends but not neighbours"

And it is largely because of this fact that India has, in a slow but steady pace, indulged in activities related to military expansion, capacity building, technology upgrade and increase prominence in the international arms market. This continues even today and in future will gain pace for sure.
However, the moot point is that in this era of economic globalization and rapid changes in the security paradigm, should a country like India rely on procuring military hardware from other countries to save time crunch, ramp up world-class military stockpile or focus more on indigenization to buttress sovereignty, reduce costs? The answer to this is embedded in the historical backdrop, cold war experience, political mindset and complexity of current world economic coupling. While it might be an easy option to acquire arms from other countries with reasonable expertise in this field, not giving enough incentive and encouragement to domestic military hardware production will enervate India’s self-reliance in the long run. Overseas procurement and indigenization of defence equipments are two sides of the same coin and needs to be balanced carefully for making a strong, mighty and calculative India. To understand the complexity of arriving at a decision with respect to the preferred avenue for enhancing military capabilities, the following aspects should be considered:

  • ·         Legacy of military restraint
  • ·         Stimulus for defence ramp up
  • ·         On indigenization
  • ·         Benefits and problems of foreign purchase
  • ·         The way forward

Legacy of Military Restraint
Reticence in the use of force as an instrument of state policy has been the dominant political condition for Indian thinking on the military [1]. Be it the delay of sending troops to Kashmir in 1948 or the slackened pace of indulging into nuclear testing, India has always reacted with immense amount of restraint in military matters. One might argue that this approach adheres to the words of Isaac Asimov that – the last refuge of the incompetent

But many a times, this slowness gives out a wrong signal to the other side. After all, there is no gainsaying in the fact that the world reacts to and observes muscle flexing with hawkish eyes and not to mere promises or ideology only. 

Individual leadership has also led to the evolution of this thought process – India under Jawaharlal Nehru was an example of unified idealism [2]. He was a firm believer in peaceful coexistence and exercised extreme caution before resorting to any military involvement. The case was that of intermittent realism under Indira Gandhi, who waited long for the escalation of the refugee problem before sending troops to East Pakistan. However, India’s stance in 2013 is an example of economic pragmatism and that probably outweighs any other idea, including restraint. A delay in reacting to issues of security undermines the relative strength of a country and India does not wish to be in that category.

This policy of restraint had its own set of ramifications – immediately post independence, the Indian establishment focussed on high ideals and gave less importance to military build up. Once it was struck with the drag of 3 wars in quick succession in 1960s-70s, a quick realization dawned which caused the upper echelons to devise a strategy to scale up military hardware. Socio-economic needs of the country were so pressing during this time that buying arms from other countries seemed to be the quickest way out. This restraint coupled with the polarisation of world support during the cold war and the lack of Indian technical expertise in niche areas, in a way led to a reduced emphasis on indigenization. Thus, to compensate this disadvantage, loss of time and slow pace of research in the previous decades there was a greater zeal to purchase world-class weaponry, especially post 1980s.

India has definitely started moving away from this ideology of restraint, especially owing to its growing affluence and greater presence in the world arena. However, any dramatic changes seem to be at bay because India is a country where the military preparation receives far less attention than it deserves due to the socio-economic dynamics of the political compulsions. Hardly any party manifestoes talk about defence related matters and to be honest, common people are more attracted towards issues that affect them directly, on a daily basis and not issues related to external security. However, it needs to be firmly ingrained in our minds that drawing the attention of the political class towards the increasing precarious situation in south Asia has become ever important. Once this is understood and practiced, India might be able to start shifting from the legacy of restraint and hasten its pace of defence production and procurement – both locally and globally.

Stimulus for Defence ramp up

Though early Indian nationalists such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale saw military service as a means to secure home rule; Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the two Indian leaders with the greatest influence on the direction of independent India, saw military spending as a burden imposed by the British in defence of their empire. In 1938 Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that India did not face any significant military challenge; the only military role he saw for the Indian Army was in suppressing the tribes of the North-West Frontier Province, who were, in any case, too primitive in his view to fight a modern military outside the tribal areas [3].

The first major stimulus came with the 1962 China war. The debacle was too much of a blot on the face for India at that time which was trying to tread the path of non alignment. The economic and political crisis during 1960’s was so enhanced that India started tilting towards Soviet Russia for its military needs. Developing own hardware during that time was a distant dream, so purchasing arms from friendly nations seemed to be the most practical solution. This pace increased till 1991 when India had to look for alternate sources. Once the economic liberalization regime kicked off, procuring arms from abroad helped in achieving the objective of saving time, ensuring global presence and acquiring the most advanced weaponry of the time. In the 21st century, new actors cropped up for India’s military needs – products of Boeing, Israeli Aerospace Industries [IAI] and MIG started entering Indian soil at a rapid pace. This was coupled with conducting joint army-naval-air exercises with other countries so as to assess comparative strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, threats and eventually, devise the roadmap for increasing military hardware. This included foreign purchase as well as indigenization efforts. However, imports have gained an upper edge over local production. In fact, in 2013 India was declared the world's biggest weapons importer, ahead of China [4].

South Asia might not have witnessed any large scale military event after the 1999 Kargil crisis but it has always been simmering with security issues. In recent times, it has escalated to a different proportion all together, and that too simultaneously – the beheading of Indian soldiers in Pakistan, the lurking head of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the ethnic strife in Myanmar, the political coup in Maldives or the incessant constitutional crisis in Nepal. India lies at the centre of all this and is left with no option but to focus on its external security situation. Piracy along the Indian Ocean is another important root of this equation especially because most of India’s imports and exports are routed through international waterways. A strong and self reliant India with a strong arms base is thus a “sine qua non” - not for attacking but for defending ourselves and assisting our strategic partners.

Another very important reason for India to step up its defence production/procurement process is its geographical proximity with China. It is interesting to note that both India and China achieved their independence at roughly the same time, they have similar population but after about 65 years of their free existence, there is a huge difference between their military capabilities. A relative comparison between the two may be tabulated hereunder [5]--> 

Total Aircraft Strength
Total Helicopter Strength
Total Mortar Strength
Anti-Tank Weaponry Strength
Total Navy Ship Strength
Submarine Fleet Strength
Active Military Personnel

The numbers speak for themselves and a fuel to this, is the discussion in foreign policy think tanks on “String of Pearls”. At the ground level, it means that China is indulging into an encirclement strategy across the Indian coastline by setting up points of strategic influence like Coco Islands off Myanmar, Hambantota port in Srilanka and Gwadar in Pakistan; this has created an immense pressure on the military establishment of India to resort to different means to catch up with the military inventory of China – be it via local production or via importing arms from other players in the world.

On Indigenization

Indigenization of military hardware is a conscious effort on the part of the defence establishment to develop products which suit Indian needs, circumstances and demands. In recent months, our Defence Minister, Shri A K Antony, has been repeatedly exhorting the armed forces to procure their weapons and equipment from indigenous sources. It is a well-established fact that no nation aspiring a great power status can expect to achieve it without being substantively self-reliant in defence production [7]. It is widely held that the growing influence of India in the African continent and in Latin America will hugely be enhanced, provided India is able to tap their arms import market and sell off its indigenously developed military hardware. There is a strong local lobbying force in India which wishes to garner the benefits of investment and production in this sector. Also, it is also commonly believed that indigenization of defence equipments is the best possible way to move away from the corruption at the top-level owing to inter-country defence deals.

One of the earliest initiatives towards indigenization is the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme [IGMDP]. India has gradually achieved self reliance in the area of ballistic missiles and the epitome of this feat is the successful testing of the Inter-continental Ballistic missile [ICBM] Agni V. Similar efforts in this regards are the Main Battle Tank Arjun, HAL’s Light Combat Aircraft Tejas and INS Sunayna - India’s largest Offshore Patrol Vessel OPV. A very seminal role in this regard is played by the Defence Research and Development Organisation [DRDO], which is an arm of the Ministry of Defence [MoD]. It caters to the research needs of all the three wings of the army-navy-air force and develops products on a pilot basis for onward mass production by the Ordnance factories.

One of the major and recent most efforts towards indigenization has been the F-INSAS project which is meant to equip the Infantry with state-of-the-art equipment. F-INSAS means Futuristic Infantry Soldier as a System.[8] It basically aims at "converting an infantryman into a fully-networked all-terrain, all-weather, weapons platform with enhanced lethality, survivability, sustainability, mobility and situational awareness" for the digitised battlefield of the future. Most of the equipments are being developed by DRDO.

However, there are some basic issues surrounding this, and for that matter any military hardware indigenization program in India which has to go through the unavoidable process of trinity - DRDO "creates" on a pilot basis, Ordnance Factories "produces" on a mass basis and the Army/Navy/Air Force expects on "State-of the Art" basis. DRDO complains of not having quality engineers owing to “brain drain” while Ordnance factories complain of getting impractical solutions from DRDO and the latter is unable to understand the bottlenecks in a mass production assembly line. Thus, there is a disconnect between the DRDO and Ordnance factory board. Quality control, adherence to specifications, bureaucratic hassles and corruption are additional bottlenecks.
Another aspect related to the Government of India’s official policy towards purchasing military hardware is the procurement process. The Defence Procurement Procedure [DPP] manual was introduced in 2005 and was amended once again in April 2013 to reflect the current thinking on ‘buying Indian’. However, the emphasis on self-reliance remains wishful thinking at present as most weapons and equipment continue to be imported. Thus, even if products are locally made, the dependency on foreign countries continues as the constituent parts are often made abroad. Moreover, the lack of clarity on guidelines for local procurement, differences between the political establishment and military personnel with respect to the percentage of private participation and relative dichotomy of their approach towards indigenization makes the situation complex.

Benefits and problems of foreign purchase

The two world wars and the arms race during the cold war gave an obvious advantage to US and USSR in terms of accumulating military stockpile and investment in defence research. For countries like India, purchasing arms from these countries was an attractive deal and still is. Be it Akula-II nuclear submarine or INS Vikramaditya or AWACS or Sukhoi or Brahmos cruise missile, each purchase/joint venture has acted as a feather in the military cap of India – it has given India a relative edge in the world military stage. The Indo-US nuclear deal has also led to an enhancement of Indian presence in the global nuclear arena and with India winning the confidence of the Nuclear Suppliers Group [NSG], the possibility of a nuclear foray into the military sector in near future cannot be ruled out all together. Moreover, generally speaking, an increased military trade relation between two countries is advantageous to the economic prowess of the constituent parties. It boosts the global economic cohesion and strengthens the pan-world business network.

A special mention in this regard is to be made with respect to the rising stature of India in the world arms market as a buyer. Very recently, India floated the tender for 126 Medium multi role combat aircraft MMRCA in which the finalists included the French Dassault, American Lockheed Martin, Euro-fighter, Sweden’s Saab and Russian MIG. The deal after rounds of discussion on technical specifications, cost implications and suitability of requirements, was clinched by the French manufacturer Dassault’s Rafale. This is the biggest defence deal that India has floated and is meant to inflate the image of India as one of the countries which are to be taken as having a no nonsense attitude towards stepping up their military hardware. An enhanced co-operation in military matters has a domino effect on other sectors as well leading to cost optimization for the receiving country. For e.g. – the Dassault deal is allegedly clubbed with the French Areva nuclear reactors in Jaitapur. It also gives some kind of fuel to the items of track II diplomacy, be it in cultural or social or educational initiatives.

However, an indiscriminate buying of foreign military hardware has its own set of issues. While India has been manufacturing Russian fighter aircraft and tanks under license for many years, the Russians never actually transferred weapons technology to India [7]. For any problems, maintenance and upgrade, we have to depend on Russian technicians. Additionally, with respect to US, any arms purchase is tied to a host of agreements like End Use Monitoring Agreement [EUMA]. EUMA is rooted in the extraterritorial application of U.S. law, which demands “reasonable assurance” that the recipient state is complying with American regulations regarding the use and security of defence articles and services. The avowed aim is to enhance American national-security and foreign-policy objectives [9].

There is no such thing as a “free lunch” – quid pro quo is one of the biggest realities of today’s world and it works in the field of defence deals as well. When a country wishes to export its top class military products to India, it usually ends up engaging itself in a lobbying practice in India. Unhealthy competition in this area leads to corruption, which is the most dangerous predicament of such foreign defence deals. Military scams like Bofors, Tatra, Scorpene deal, Chopper gate etc have grossly tarnished the image of the Indian political establishment which often pushes such deals in return of kick backs. At the end of the day, it is the poor tax payer’s money which goes to a waste. Billions are spent on such deals and many a times it does not serve the purpose of strengthening security as most of the equipments need to be frequently sent abroad for non-adherence to performance expectations, retro-fitting and upgrade. This process traps us in the loop of everlasting foreign dependence.

The way forward

The Security scenario around us is so volatile that we cannot afford to take any risks. We are living in dangerous surroundings, so armed forces need the most modern equipments at the earliest. Our armed forces is the most vital asset of the country – disaster management during floods, earthquakes, tsunami or prevention of communal riots or efforts towards counter insurgency operations; none of these work without their assistance. There is a perceived feeling in the political circles that the armed forces have a mindset of relying on imports to meet operational requirements [10]. This is primarily because of the displeasure shown by the Tri-services towards delay in indigenous production coupled with non-performance of locally made military hardware. While this cannot be entirely denied but it simultaneously undermines the vast potential that the domestic defence production sector has and the kind of long term stability that it can impart to India’s military sector. In the short run, procuring arms from abroad might be the preferred route, but for long term sustainability, there needs to be an equal stress on indigenization of military hardware.

As the largest buyer of arms in the world, India should stress on joint ventures and partnerships with the foreign arms suppliers and should not restrict itself as a buyer only. A successful example in this regard is the Indo-Russian joint production of the Brahmos cruise missile which is the fastest supersonic missile in the world currently. Such collaboration helps in achieving technical expertise and knowhow in a stepwise fashion leading to gradual self reliance. Arranging for simple clearance rules for FDI in selected sectors of defence production will also act as an incentive to the foreign players. Popularizing defence expo to showcase the latest military equipments and clubbing associated deals with offers in other sectors will also act as a booster for India’s military image.

Additionally, with the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014, India will have a larger role to play in South Asia and a stockpile of the best of world weaponry will actually help us in protecting the Central Asian country from relapsing into chaos. Considering the piracy threat along the littoral states of Indian Ocean, acquiring sophisticated naval equipments from the big players of the world will help us in curbing the menace of piracy with even more alacrity.  Organizing naval, army or air exercises with other countries on a regular basis will help us in assessing our situation, preparedness and learn the best practices across the world. This will fall in place once the constituent parties indulge in trade related to military hardware.  

As far as local production is concerned, there should be more synthesis between the interests of the armed forces and the political establishment towards improvising indigenization, maintaining transparency and continuous monitoring. Ensuring some kind of tandem via collaborative research between the creativity of the DRDO, the capability of Ordnance Factories and the demand of armed forces will surely help to reduce the friction among the stakeholders of the defence establishment. Additionally, it is very important that India steps up its defence budget. Indigenization cannot happen overnight and hence, a strategic plan should be formulated by the tri-services to map short term and long term interests, assumptions, constraints, issues and risks so as to align them with the defence procurement policy of India. In fact, the procurement process should be simplified and made into a “single window” business. The PSU’s and private sector should be encouraged to deliver efficiently and effectively so that India can come out of the vicious cycle of reliance on foreign technicians.

Our defence minister recently said that –

Import is the last resort not the easiest resort [10]

Striking a balance between indigenization and foreign purchase is the key to ensuring India’s military stability and capability. The approach of the political establishment towards army needs must be more focused and pragmatic. The government must give a firm commitment in terms of funds and the MoD should streamline its procedures and processes for speedy procurement of high priority weapons and equipments. On the other hand, the tri-services should appreciate the political compulsions and set forth their agenda and roadmap very clearly so as to extract maximum assistance from the political class. A seamless coupling between the two will lead to a stronger, mightier and resilient India. After all, a synergy between a theoretical plan and implementation of the same in the field of arms purchase and indigenization of military hardware is the key to making India a global power to reckon with.


[1] – Arming without aiming; Stephen P Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta
[2] – Can the Elephant Dance? David Malone
[3] – The Indian Army: Its Contribution to the Development of a Nation; Stephen P Cohen
[4] – ; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
[6] – ; International Institute for Strategic Studies
Indira Mukherjee is an IPS probationer of the 88th FC at LBSNAA, Mussoorie. This post is a replica of her entry for the essay competition.

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