China’s belligerence, its hegemonistic behaviour in the Asian neighbourhood and its strategy to establish a ring of military bases in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) call for a well-coordinated and determined response from India’s military planners. China’s refusal to restore the status quo ante on the LAC in the Demchok, Gogra and Hot Springs regions is of a piece with its policy of using the unresolved border issue as a potent weapon to rattle India’s political establishment and to stymie India’s economic growth.
Any Chinese incursion on the LAC is bound to be interpreted by critics of the government and by the noisy Indian media as a failure of the government of India and such a narrative irrespective of its veracity or otherwise puts any government on the defensive.
China, which scoffs at India, calling it a noisy and chaotic democracy, will continue to use the undefined border as a weapon to keep India preoccupied and to distract it from its nation-building tasks. As demonstrated by the Doklam crisis and the recent face off at the LAC, India’s compulsion to take recourse to extensive military deployment has imposed severe constraints on its defence budget. The scramble for weapons and ammunition at the eleventh hour derails medium-and long-term planning for capability building and the heavy costs of logistics erode the shoe-string revenue budget exacerbating the chronic resource crunch of the ministry of defence (MoD).
Apart from the formidable resource challenge, the widening technological gap between India and China should also worry military planners. To bridge critical gaps in the short run, India has no option but to shop hurriedly for new-generation equipment. This anxiety is already visible with the MoD contemplating the purchase of Guardian drones and UAVs and even lease of equipment. While this is necessary in the short run for attaining a satisfactory level of preparedness, it has the potential of seriously jeopardising the ‘Atmanirbharta’ mission, whose major plank is a gradual phasing out of imports.
While ‘Atmanirbharta’ lays emphasis on the early adoption of weapons or equipment developed by the DRDO even by lowering the stringent qualitative requirements (QRs), such adoption should not compromise combat effectiveness. Simultaneously with adoption, performance gaps will have to be closed through quick up-gradation. This will necessitate reforms in the way DRDO prototypes are ‘productionised’. Even when prototypes are developed by DRDO with time and cost overruns, the downstream manufacturing process gets entangled in myriad problems leading to inordinate delays in induction. There is a dire need for DRDO to decentralise by smoothly transferring technologies to private firms to get them manufactured and then upgraded expeditiously to the next generation.
Therefore, the mere ban on imports of 209 items will not automatically lead to capability development. As such the ban on imports is a very bold step, which will put an end to wanton rejection of prototypes by the services on flimsy grounds. But if these progressive steps are not backed by downstream reforms, the desired results will not follow.
One of the best things that happened in the MoD in the recent past was the boost given to innovation through the institution of the Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO) with the Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDEX) as its executive arm. Today, innovators of merit – be they enterprising individuals, small-sized firms or institutions – can easily showcase their innovations and get funds for incubating them. This is no doubt a wonderful opportunity for the services to indigenise solutions, develop sophisticated systems and to nurture domestic manufacturing of products hitherto figuring in the import list. But serious problems could crop up if the iDEX innovators are not enabled to manufacture the product through a simplified procedure backed up by a long-term contract that should also include the development of the next generation product.
It is true that the latest defence acquisition procedure (DAP 2020) provides for application of Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured (IDDM) in priority acquisitions. But between the good intentions embedded in the rule book and the actual procurement there yawns an unbridgeable gulf. As a matter of course, whenever there is a single supplier negotiations become tortuous and could put the endurance of the vendor to severe test. The procedure relating to the procurement of these categories need to be liberalised and streamlined thoroughly. Another area of conflict could be competition from the DRDO itself, which may not clear a good iDEX product if they themselves have sunk money in developing a similar one. If innovators are given a raw deal foreign firms could step in and hijack the product. Therefore a liberal approach towards the innovator backed by a strong IPR regime will be necessary to make it a win-win situation.
Making India’s war machine future ready will require R&D policies and initiatives with vision and dynamism. Among the factors that impede India’s progress in R&D are DRDO’s near monopoly, its failure in forging enduring partnerships with premier institutions and the lack of a robust framework to involve the private sector in defence research. Defence research within a bureaucratic framework and failure in inducting the finest Indian talent available globally as research leaders have been the bane of India’s technological progress. There are examples galore of poorly managed research. Take the case of the Kaveri aero engine or the development of high performance alloys and materials, including the rare earths; or the development of artificial intelligence (AI), cyber security, robotics, 5G, quantum computing, autonomous weapon systems or high-resolution surveillance systems. Precious time has been lost. How do we make up for the lost time? The only way out is for the government to launch at least a dozen cutting edge technology mission mode projects led by a group of dynamic hand-picked technologists working in a public-private partnership format with the fullest autonomy and flexible procedures. Even in the USA there are people who cry for another Manhattan-like project for AI.
The pace of defence reforms will be a crucial factor in capability building. The need to convert the ordnance factories into state-of-the-art entities capable of producing smart ammunition of the future deserves top priority. The MoD has embarked on the first steps like corporatisation and the decision to create seven independent entities has been announced but at least four of the entities in the new formation (opto-electronics, parachutes, ancillary group and troop comforts item that could be easily manufactured in the private sector) could be hived off to the private sector or to joint ventures. When the government’s intention is to privatize PSUs and retain only a few strategic units, creating a large number of corporate units may not be ideal. Resistance of the trade unions notwithstanding, the government has little choice but to move ahead without pandering to labour unions. As and when restructured the newly resurgent ordnance factory establishment needs to set up a strong internal R&D system.
The mission to manufacture the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) in sufficient numbers to fully replace the MiG 21s may take several years (or decades) if enhanced manufacturing capacity is not created by the HAL beyond its annual capacity of 16. It will be a good idea to transfer technology to a strategic private sector partner that could be licensed to manufacture the aircraft in a parallel facility. Similarly, strategic partnerships for manufacturing single-engine fighters, submarines and utility helicopters have to take off if India’s defence industry ecosystem has to take roots deep enough to make the country truly self–reliant.
Nowhere is reform more urgent than in capital acquisition with its labyrinthine procedures and painful delays that thwart capability building. The practice of treating acquisition as mere purchase of equipment at the lowest price has to give way to highly integrated capability building that will transform acquisition to an engine of growth for the domestic defence industry in keeping with the goal of self-reliance. The system has to work proactively with the industry, start-ups and research institutions in an open manner to promote innovation, facilitate product development, manage offsets, forge strategic partnerships with technology leaders and to push self-reliance aggressively. It should also have professionals of various hues, including legal experts.
The ownership of capability acquisition has to lie with the armed forces, which are the prime stakeholders, and not with the bureaucracy. The acquisition system has to be reorganised elaborately to make it autonomous and professionally led, reporting to the Defence Acquisition Council.
In advanced countries like the USA, the UK and France, tens of thousands of professionals work in their defence acquisition systems but the MoD does not even have a hundred of them. The department of military affairs (DMA), which deals with core war-fighting issues and capability building, is currently isolated from capital acquisitions. This has to change and the services have to lead. The MoD had done a lot of groundwork in the past by studying the restructuring issues in depth and preparing expert reports but there has not been any follow-up. Delay in ushering in this reform is bound to defeat the outcome of many of the progressive measures introduced in the recent past.
–The writer is a former Defence Secretary. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda