The year 2022 has been a significant year for the Indian Navy. The highlight of the year was the commissioning of the country’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, which showcased India’s technological and industrial skills besides greatly enhancing the Navy’s blue water capability. This was followed soon after by the successful firing of a ballistic missile from the country’s first indigenously built ballistic missile nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, which reinforced the effectiveness of the country’s nuclear triad and strategic deterrence capability. Before the end of the year, naval force levels will receive an additional boost with the likely commissioning of the first of the four Type 15B destroyers and the fifth of the six Project 75 submarines.
The navy also continued to maintain its impressive operational tempo with its mission-based deployments; the highlight was the hoisting of the tricolour by seven Indian Naval ships at different ports across six continents; Australia, Asia (Oman and Singapore), North America (USA), South America (Brazil), Europe (UK) and Africa (Kenya), on 15 August to commemorate 75 years of India’s independence. Besides its symbolic significance, this also underlined the Indian navy’s ability to deploy across the globe. The Indian Navy is also exercising bilaterally and multilaterally with a large number of navies. Its efforts at enhancing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in the Indo-Pacific region have strengthened the regional response mechanisms. This is a very positive reflection on the professionalism of the service, and has not only reinforced India’s standing as the pre-eminent naval power in the Indian Ocean but also highlighted its credentials as a “combat-ready, credible, cohesive and future-proof force”, as described by the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral R Harikumar.
The wide spectrum of maritime security challenges, described by him as a ‘complex security landscape’, makes it imperative for the Indian Navy to ensure a favourable maritime situation for the country in the Indian Ocean at all times. While at present there may not be any immediate threat to the country, the future is unpredictable. Besides the omnipresent non-traditional threats including maritime terrorism, the Chinese naval expansion and emphasis on a blue water power projection capability with a steadily increasing footprint in the Indian Ocean is obviously a matter of concern. This has been flagged by successive Chiefs of the navy and merits serious consideration. China is not only increasing its naval deployments in the Indian Ocean but is also carrying out oceanic research and collecting important oceanographic data through its research vessels, which also monitor Indian activity in the Indian Ocean including its missile launches. China is exporting modern naval platforms including submarines to its partners and proxy states and is also developing a chain of bases and port facilities to ensure adequate logistic capability for a sustained presence to project power in the Indian Ocean.
This year was also marked with a renewed emphasis on ‘Atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance in which defence was identified as one of the key sectors. Self-reliance in defence preparedness is critical for a country like India, which is seeking a place on the global high table; dependence on imports is a strategic vulnerability the country can ill afford. ‘Atmanirbharta’ is often confused with indigenisation and therefore gets inextricably linked to the ‘Make in India’ vision, which was launched with much fanfare in 2014. Make in India too was never aimed at only enhancing indigenisation but was intended more to encourage the world to come and make in India, which would give an opportunity for Indian industry to get the requisite skills and help develop India into a manufacturing powerhouse. Hence self-reliance, self-sufficiency and indigenisation, though not mutually exclusive of each other, have different connotations in terms of defence manufacturing and developing high-end technology.
Linked to this spirit of Atmanirbharta, India’s biennial Defence Expo was held in Ahmedabad from 18 October to 21 October. Originally scheduled in February when it was postponed at about a fortnight’s notice (with many exhibitors incurring considerable losses), the re-scheduled dates clashed with Europe’s leading naval exhibition, the Euronaval, in Paris. This year’s DefExpo, therefore, focussed on showcasing the country’s indigenous defence capabilities and on attracting export customers with the aim of meeting the MoD’s targeted figure of US$ 5 billion in defence exports by 2025.
The export of military hardware is essential for the attendant political and economic benefits, which accrue and provides an opportunity for the country’s MSME sector to showcase its capabilities and become an integral part of global supply chains. From a naval perspective, the export of naval hardware and naval platforms makes an important geopolitical statement and provides both, political and military leverage. Unfortunately, we have not been able to effectively exploit this as yet to blunt the dragon’s growing maritime footprint in the Indo-Pacific.
There is no doubt that indigenisation and self-reliance are essential for an emerging power like India, which cannot afford the vulnerability of being dependent on imports, particularly with its strong foreign policy commitment to strategic autonomy. This was recognised by the Indian Navy soon after independence. The first Indian-built warship INS Ajay was commissioned way back in 1965. However, it was the commissioning of INS Nilgiri in 1972, the first of the six Leander class frigates built at the Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd that effected a transformation in the country’s warship building landscape and in fact predates the Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ vision by many decades. It is a matter of national pride that of the 39 ships and submarines on order, 37 are being built in the country and another 40 odd, which have been accorded the ‘Acceptance of Necessity’ by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), will also be built in the country.
This is a remarkable achievement in itself and with each successive programme, the indigenous content on board is increasing; the INS Vikrant is reportedly 75 per cent indigenous. However, both indigenisation and self-reliance are part of a progressive continuum that should be monitored with distinct milestones en route. It requires a long-term political commitment and budgetary support, an enabling policy framework, a scientific culture and a robust domestic industry to not only encourage indigenous development but also seek to bridge the widening technology gap with the contemporary equipment being procured by our adversaries. Neither self-reliance nor indigenisation can be effectively achieved by waving a magic wand. It is incumbent on the bureaucratic and R&D establishment in the MoD to acknowledge this, accept the challenge ahead and suggest credible solutions towards addressing the deficiencies and shortcomings instead of being in a state of perpetual denial and self-congratulation.
At the very beginning of this year, the Prime Minister reportedly directed that all planned foreign procurements are reviewed and indigenous solutions are found. This led to many programmes that were at an advanced stage of discussion and negotiation being put on hold. While this was understandable, the misplaced zeal to comply also led to certain equipment that had already been contracted also being put on hold. This has been to the detriment of the country’s credibility as a reliable customer and raised doubt about its reputation as a business-friendly destination.
Unfortunately, this embargo (for want of a better word) is not only proving counter-productive in ensuring the desired outcome of making India a globally competitive exporter but is also further widening the technology gap; it is also affecting the operational capability of existing platforms and leading to delays in the ongoing shipbuilding programmes. It is also ignoring the fact that as per the country’s Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP 2020), all proposals for foreign procurement (also called the ‘Buy Global’ category in the Defence Acquisition Procedure) underwent strict scrutiny and were extensively deliberated at every level in the MoD including at the SCAPCC and SCAPCHC meetings before being recommended for ‘Acceptance of Necessity’ under the ‘Buy Global’ category and further reviewed by the MoD before getting the approval of the DAC, chaired by none other than the country’s Defence Minister.
However, this is not to suggest that there will be no imported equipment or foreign design support at all. It will be foolhardy to do otherwise. The key to ‘Atmanirbharta’ will lie in ensuring that adequate transfer of technology takes place in the process to ensure that the country becomes self-reliant and self-sufficient in providing the life-cycle support for these platforms including their future upgrades, thus reducing the dependence on foreign OEMs. While there is no doubt that the country has made impressive strides in defence manufacturing and technology, the decision-makers should not lose sight of the fact that considerable technology gaps in many critical areas still exist in the country’s indigenous effort vis-a-vis contemporary global technologies. That is the reason why careful consideration and extensive deliberations take place on deciding the categorisation of equipment acquisition and the desired level of indigenisation with outright import being the last resort and only when adequate justification can be given for doing so.
When viewed in the context of indigenisation and self-reliance, the induction of INS Vikrant has brought to the fore two significant perspectives, both of which will be briefly discussed in the subsequent paragraphs. The first is that the deficiencies in indigenous defence technology and manufacturing should be realistically assessed and remedial measures introduced well in time so as not to compromise the Navy’s warfighting capability. The second is the importance of retaining the industrial and technological skills that have been developed with great effort and at considerable cost.
Ensuring Operational Readiness. There is no doubt that Vikrant has greatly enhanced the Indian Navy’s ability to project power on the high seas, but it is still some distance away from operating at its full potential. A month before its commissioning on 2nd September 2022, the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Satish Ghormade had stated at a press conference that Vikrant will begin aircraft operations by the middle of 2023. This is not unusual because operating aircraft from a carrier is a complex and streamlined operation with adherence to 100 per cent risk-free procedures, which require the crew to be working seamlessly in tandem across each department on board. Now that the ship is commissioned with its full crew on board, it is being put through its paces at sea; it is integrating into Fleet operations and also consolidating internally as a well-oiled fighting machine. This notwithstanding, the ship still lacks some critical capabilities, not least of which is its full complement of aircraft. Vikrant is designed to carry up to 30 aircraft including 15 or so fighter aircraft and a combination of rotary-wing aircraft. It was expected that the naval version of the indigenously built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) will be operational by the time Vikrant gets commissioned. However, despite the ship taking 13 years to build, the naval LCA remains unfit for purpose. As a result, Vikrant will have to operate the Russian MiG 29K fighter, which also operates from the other aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. Hence the limited number of these aircraft will now be shared between two aircraft carriers. In the meantime, an interim solution is being sought through the import of 26 fighter jets. The Boeing F-18 Hornet and the Dassault Rafale are the two contenders, of which one will be selected. Since the contract is yet to be signed, even the most optimistic guesstimate will suggest that the first of these aircraft is at least three to four years away.
The indigenous development of a twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF), now underway, is at least a decade away. The requirement to seek an interim option because of the lack of judgement on the progress of the indigenous solution has added an extra aircraft to the navy’s inventory with the additional attendant costs of developing a maintenance infrastructure and logistic supply chain to support these 26 aircraft. The situation with the rotary wing capability is not very much better. For over a decade now, there have been talks of the indigenous manufacture of over one hundred multi-role helicopters to replace the ageing Seaking helicopter fleet for meeting the future requirements of the navy. However, in over a decade, there has been little progress. The Seakings are now a decade older and much reduced in numbers to an extent where the Fleet’s integral airborne anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare capability is sub-optimal. Once again, as an ‘interim’ measure, the Navy is getting 24 Sikorsky MR-60 helicopters to meet the immediate requirement for which too, they will barely suffice. The first two of these have been delivered and the rest will follow over the next few years.
In addition to its airborne capability, Vikrant is meant to be armed with missile and anti-submarine warfare systems primarily for self-defence against air, surface and underwater threats. Photographs of the ship indicate that the Long Range Surface to Air Missile system (LRSAM), combined with the MF Star radar and the ship’s sonar system has yet to be installed.
Vikrant is not an isolated case. While it may be argued that the drive from import dependence to ‘Atmanirbharta’ will have to factor in delays and in many cases technology deficiencies, this is not a valid justification for compromising the armed forces’ combat capability. This is particularly true of the maritime domain where capital-intensive force development requires an enabling policy framework and a long-term political and budgetary commitment. Atmanirbharta cannot happen overnight. There are critical contemporary technologies that are simply not available in the country and, therefore, require foreign collaboration. In some cases, the country is not ready to make the investment in these at this particular point or lacks the ability to absorb these and, therefore, needs to be sourced from abroad.
In the last two years, the country has promulgated four ‘positive indigenisation’ lists. Each of these has for the most part been well thought out and has given a timeline for ceasing the induction of imported equipment depending on the current indigenous capability. Adherence to these would give time for collaborative arrangements between foreign and Indian OEMs to be formalised and provide the Indian OEMs adequate time to develop the required infrastructure and make the capital investment required to enable such collaboration. It would also provide time for both entities to establish a suitable mechanism for the transfer of technology and a long-term commitment to a partnership restricted not just to one procurement but an enduring arrangement. Regrettably, the current embargo and the subsequent ongoing review of ‘Buy Global’ cases has led to many programmes where discussions were at an advanced stage and which are required to meet the immediate needs on board ships and submarines unlikely to be realised.
The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict closely following on the heels of the Covid pandemic, which has led to high rates of inflation across the world, a shortage of critical commodities, the deficiencies in the supply of chips across the globe that have affected practically every area of electronics-related manufacturing and severe disruption of global supply chains has been a double whammy. Therefore, seeking additional time from the foreign OEMs and requesting for extending the validity of their bids without revision in cost, while the bureaucratic prevarication continues in the corridors of power, which in the past was often acceptable to the foreign OEMs (because of low rates of inflation in the West) and taken for granted by the MoD is simply not an option anymore and is now a thing of the past. Hence, as and when this review of ‘Buy Global’ finally ends, the Indian Armed Forces are going to be paying a lot more for equipment that they urgently require in addition to the delay that has been caused in its procurement and operationalisation. Strangely, there are voices in the establishment, who for reasons best known to them, are in denial about this inevitability.
In the case of some equipment, a technologically advanced indigenous solution is simply not an option. Co-development and co-production with a foreign OEM offer a viable alternative for developing self-reliance with a bespoke ‘Made in India’ option, compatible with the operating medium in our area of interest; however, this does not seem to be getting an adequate degree of traction.
Retaining Expertise is the key to Atmanirbharta. The second issue highlighted above relates to the ability to retain and optimally utilise the manufacturing ecosystem that has been painstakingly developed. INS Vikrant’s 75% indigenous content which speaks volumes for the effort to establish a robust industrial capacity of Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 vendors (largely comprising MSMEs) and to give them the confidence to make the necessary investment in material, manpower and machinery to deliver the desired quality of precision machinery required by a complex and sophisticated platform like an aircraft carrier, despite an initial low Return on Investment.
If indeed Atmanirbharta is the desired intention of the government, it is important to nurture the development of these vendors by enabling them to retain their skills and expertise through a follow-on programme. This will enable economies of scale, amortisation of capital investment and a steady supply chain of spares for lifecycle support.
One of the reasons for the 13 years it took to build Vikrant was the time and effort invested in developing a suitable vendor base and qualifying the vendors to ensure both quality and quantity at a competitive cost. Now that this has been successfully achieved, retaining this capability is of the utmost importance. The Indian Navy has been projecting the requirement of a third aircraft carrier for over a decade if not more to meet its operational need for two operational Carrier Battle Groups at all times, one each on its west and east. This is not a luxury but an operational necessity if India wishes to retain its pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean in the next decade. However, the proposal continues doing the rounds in the MoD with little clarity on its future outcome. As a consequence, the shipyard which has invested heavily in developing the infrastructure, skilling the manpower and building the capability has no follow-on order to ensure that this resource is effectively and optimally retained and utilised for a follow-on aircraft carrier.
The lack of a follow-on aircraft carrier programme, or at the very least the next carrier will result in the infrastructure lying unused, the skills getting lost or diluted and the resource utilisation getting marginalised as time passes. It may be recalled that India had built two conventional submarines indigenously in the first half of the 1990s. The programme was terminated thereafter due to political expediency taking precedence over national interest. Thereafter, it took 12 years for an indigenous submarine building contract to be signed and another 12 years before the first submarine of this programme (Project 75) was commissioned (in December 2017) 30 years after the first indigenously built submarine was commissioned in collaboration with Germany (INS Shalki in 1992), India is no closer to designing and building a conventional submarine without external help. It would be a severe blow for the national effort towards Atmanirbharta in the defence sector, and more so in the naval domain if this was to be repeated in the case of aircraft carrier construction which encompasses almost every aspect of naval indigenisation.
-The writer is a veteran submariner with over three decades service in the Indian Navy. He is now the Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda