Self-reliance in Defence – Better Late Than Never

Self-reliance in defence - beyond doubt - is one of the best solutions for a nation to defend itself and ward off the evil design of its green-eyed neighbours, but at the same time, it is something that has a price. Is India ready to do so?

By Neeraj Mahajan


There is a saying – better late than never. This seems to be perfectly crafted for the Indian defence and aerospace sector. In 1990 the Kalam Committees on Self Reliance Self Reliance Review Committee (SRRV) led by Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the then Scientific Advisor (SA) to Raksha Mantri and representation from the three services, had recommended a 10-year self-reliance plan to increase the self-reliance index (SRI) or percentage of indigenous content in total defence procurement expenditure to 70% by 2005.

Echoing almost similar sentiments the Government of India floated a non-profit organisation called Indigenous Defence Equipment Exporters Association (IDEEA) under Section 8 of the Companies to act as the nodal agency to handle exports of Indian military equipment.

The idea behind all this was to make India “one of the top three defence equipment exporters in the world.” The IDEEA’s primary task was to process all enquiries from global customers of Indian military equipment and act as an interface between Indian military equipment producers and global customers.

Likewise, the Defence Production Policy, 2018 spelt out the target to be among the top 5 global producers in aerospace and defence manufacturing with an annual export target of US$5 billion by 2025.

Unfortunately, while the Government of India has been pushing for greater indigenisation of military hardware, it remains a rosy picture that looks good only on paper and a distant dream even today. The Ministry of Defence has been releasing indigenisation lists of equipment and platforms which need to be completely indigenised by December 2025, but many of them take a long time to fructify – if at all because of tedious testing procedures and red-tapism. For instance, the trial of even something like the bulletproof jacket has been going on for years without any tangible results. Similarly, the MoD has been toying with the idea to procure and induct the much-needed Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV), Battlefield Management Systems (BMS), and Tactical Communications System (TCS) for over a decade without a prototype in sight.

The Battlefield Management Systems (BMS) project to facilitate faster decision-making by the commanders was unceremoniously foreclosed in Nov 2018. Likewise, even though the army projected the urgent need to buy 2000 odd Future Infantry Combat Vehicles (FICV) to replace the outdated Russian BMP-2, the MoD has not been able to select the Indian vendors to develop the FICV platform. The project to procure the Rs 60,000 crore Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) has been initiated with much fanfare at least thrice but ended up each time raising more smoke than fire.

In 1990 the Kalam Committees led by Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, recommended a 10-year self-reliance plan to increase the indigenous content in defence procurement expenditure by 2005. The idea was to make India one of the top defence equipment exporters in the world. However unfortunately it remains a distant dream even today

Some of the other bitter experiences include the project to develop the Kaveri Engine for the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The project was launched in 1989. However, it was delinked from the Tejas Programme in September 2008 as it failed to satisfy the necessary technical requirements.

There was a time when a handful of slow and sluggish government-owned companies monopolised the Indian defence market and the private sector was deliberately left out of the race. The scenario began to change in early 2000 when the defence market was thrown open to the private sector.  Over the years, the Indian defence sector has witnessed phenomenal change. Today the aerospace and defence sector, is an Rs 80,000 crore industry, out of which the private sector contributes about Rs 17,000 crore. Both the public sector and private companies are allowed to design and develop a wide variety of tried and tested defence platforms and world-class weapon systems based on the latest indigenously technologies and freely export them with the support of the Government.

This favourable market condition has attracted many international giants like Airbus (France), BAE India Systems (UK), Pilatus (Switzerland), Lockheed Martin (USA), Boeing India (USA), Raytheon (USA), Israel Aerospace Industries (Israel), Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. (Israel), and Dassault Aviation SA (France) to set up manufacturing and MRO facilities in India with the help of local players in the market.

This is nothing less than good news for many Indian companies like Dynamatic Technologies which is now making aerostructures for global conglomerates like Bell, Airbus and Boeing. Likewise, Larsen and Toubro (L&T) are making guns, warships and hulls of nuclear submarines while Tata and Bharat Forge are producing artillery guns.

Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest military equipment company has joined hands with Tata Group to float Tata-Lockheed Martin Aerostructures Limited (TLMAL) to make parts for the C-130J planes. Elbit Systems (Israel) has tied up with Bengaluru-based Alpha Design Technologies Limited (ADTL), an Adani firm to form a joint venture company called Vignan Technologies to develop high-end solutions for the Indian and global defence & aerospace equipment market.

Mahindra is making the ULH M77 guns in collaboration with BAE systems. Boeing has a joint venture with Tata for making aero-structures of helicopters.

One of the first such joint ventures was an inter-governmental agreement between India and Russia in 1998 to produce Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles.

In 2011 India sold Barracuda – a 1,300-tonne Kora-Class offshore patrol vessel to the Mauritius National Coast Guard as part of a $58-million (Rs 365 crore) deal. It was the first warship to be exported by an Indian shipyard.

The MoD has been toying with the idea to procure the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV), Battlefield Management Systems (BMS), and Tactical Communications System (TCS) for over a decade without a prototype in sight. The BMS project was unceremoniously foreclosed in 2018. Likewise, the MoD has not been able to select Indian vendors to develop the FICV platform

Subsequently India gifted several warships to smaller Indian Ocean countries like Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius. This is apart from a series of 140-tonne Fast Patrol Boats for the Vietnam Navy and used vessels like Sukanya-class OPV which now serves as the Sri Lankan navy’s flagship.

In 2017, India finalised a deal to sell lightweight indigenously developed torpedoes to Myanmar worth US$37.9 million and sold similar naval platforms to Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

In due course, the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) secured its biggest export order to sell 155 mm artillery shells to UAE.

That was just the beginning as India has since been exporting different types of missiles, light combat aircraft, helicopters, multi-purpose light transport aircraft, warships, patrol vessels, artillery guns, tanks, radars, military vehicles, electronic warfare systems and other weapons platforms to many friendly Indian Ocean region nations.

Some of the ongoing indigenisation projects in the defence sector include:

  • Dhanush, India’s first indigenous 155 mm/45-calibre long-range artillery gun
  • Nipun anti-personnel land mines
  • Project 75 to build six advanced stealth submarines for the Indian Navy
  • F-INSAS – Future-Infantry Soldier as A System weapon.
  • Agni V: The ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile)
  • Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher
  • Brahmos supersonic cruise missile
  • Arjun tank- third-generation main battle tank
  • AK-203 Assault Rifle (range 300 meters) to be produced in Amethi, as a part of an India-Russia Joint Venture.

According to conservative estimates more than Rs, 1,75,000 crore worth of these weapons will be procured by the Indian defence forces to boost the domestic manufacturing industry over the next 5-10 years.

To date, India’s track record as an arms exporter has been modest due to export restrictions on the manufacturing organisations like OFB which has been exporting Arms and Ammunition, Weapon Spares, Chemicals & Explosives, Parachutes, Leather and Clothing items to more than 30 countries worldwide including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt, Oman, Israel, Kenya, Nigeria, Botswana, Chile, Suriname and USA.

However, there has been an increase in India’s defence exports since 2014 due to the liberal policies of the Modi government. According to the statement in the Rajya Sabha, Indian defence exports have spiralled upwards by over 700% in just the last two years.

According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) three Indian companies i.e. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Ordinance Factory Board (OFB) and Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) rank among the top-100 exporters and account for 1.2% of the total defence exports.

Some of the other prominent public sector organisations in the A&D segment include Munitions India Limited (MIL), Armoured Vehicles Nigam Limited (AVANI), Advanced Weapons and Equipment India Limited (AWE), Troop Comforts Limited (TCL), Yantra India Limited (YIL), India Optel Limited (IOL) and Gliders India Limited (GIL).

In all about 50 Indian private sector companies including Adani Aero Defense Systems & Technologies, Tata Defence Systems, Godrej & Boyce, Bharat Forge, Reliance Naval Shipyard, Kalyani Group, Kineco Limited, Larsen & Toubro, Ashok Leyland Defence Systems, Mahindra Aerospace, Mahindra Defence Systems, Alpha Design Technologies, Punj Lloyd, Torus Robotics, and ideaForge have been exporting defence products to Italy, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Russia, France, Nepal, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Israel, Egypt, UAE, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, Poland, Spain and Chile etc.

The major defence items being exported include personal protective items, offshore patrol vessels, ALH helicopters, SU avionics, Bharati radio, coastal surveillance systems, Kavach MOD II launcher and FCS, spares for radar, electronic systems and light engineering mechanical parts etc.

-The writer is a seasoned media professional with over three decades of experience in print, electronic, and web media. He is presently Editor of Taazakhabar News