Without cutting-edge defence technology, India cannot boast of a powerful military
Lt Gen. Rameshwar Yadav (retd)
National power is an aggregate of hard and soft power quotients of a nation in reference to her reckonable influence over other countries to pursue their national aims and objectives. While the soft power is the derivative of the inclusive and integrating pull of the socio-economic virtues, the hard power is the coercive punitive potential of the military alongside the economy itself. Amongst these two main parameters, it is the economy which is central to the national interests irrespective of the format of the type of governance.
Uplifting the quality of life and secure environment are the essential responsibilities of the governments of the day in all the countries. The welfare of the subjects is the function of the economy, and security is sum total of all the features of public safety with military as the main national institution. In that, the military ensures sanitising the environment to pursue the national economic interests neutralising the inimical forces impacting on or impeding the pursuance of national objectives.
The edifice of national power lies in the strength of a country to make other nations agree to their point of view through power of economy alongside persuasive diplomacy duly backed up with coercive military content. Therefore, a nation needs to nurture her economy as well as the military capabilities so as to ensure high strategic stature and political space to pursue national policies. Therefore, the military plays a vital role in building up the gross national power, hence deserves utmost indulgence of the government.
The military of a country is as strong as its technological outreach regarding her defence production capabilities. A country which is dependent on import of weapon and equipment is always vulnerable due to the underlying insecurity of denial of the equipment when needed, besides syphoning out scarce national financial resources. Therefore, defence technology is a priority area of concern for any country who aspires to retain their political autonomy and secure a high strategic pull amongst the community of nations.
The US, Russia and China, the big three as on date have strong militaries and they have used it for their politico-economic expansion with impunity. The overt display of their political will to use force beyond their borders lies in their strength of strong economy as well as their technological prowess to sustain their militaries. India, despite being a large economy and possessing substantial technical manpower does not come up close to these countries as she does not have the requisite defence technology to be self-sufficient for her military needs.
Yes, India has a strong military, but she is dependent on imports amounting to almost 70 per cent of her net requirements. Therefore, a distinctly identifiable objective for India to attain the rightful place on the world stage is to focus on acquiring defence technology and creating a robust defence production structure as the priority national aim. While there is an existing elaborate mechanism, it has not yielded the desired results despite all the possible support by the government over the last seven decades plus. Hence, there is a need to change the entire policy matrix to make it more responsive to military requirements and that too in a short time and space.
The existing technology gap cannot be filled up by starting afresh and reinventing the wheel all over again. We have no choice but to seek the help of foreign countries alongside indigenous efforts which in turn would require a multi-dimensional and multi-level approach to meet this strategic requirement. In that, a judicious mix of top-down, bottom-up and lateral induction of technology would be the appropriate approach. Top-down would primarily envisage import of cutting-edge technology from foreign sources. The lateral induction would entail expediting developmental activities already being pursued as a parallel mechanism for import substitution by the Defence Research and Development Organisation/ Ordnance Factory Board/ Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DRDO/ OFB/ DPSUs) and private industry. Lastly, the bottom-up approach would involve project-oriented research by the R&D establishments of public as well as private industry including the start-ups.
The government, in right earnest, has started the ‘Make in India’ scheme but it has not taken off so far as the foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) seem to be unwilling to invest with preconditions of transfer of technologies as it would impact on their businesses in a big way. Moreover, the Indian private industry does not have the structures, capital and experience to augment the public sector which itself has its own fault-lines. We need to face the existing business situation squarely and change the policies with attractive incentives to motivate the foreign industry as a first step. In that, it may be more appropriate and sensible not to insist on transfer of technology in all the cases.
To make up for technology deficit, it may be prudent to acquire cutting-edge technologies from foreign countries at whatever cost they demand and establish the production structures on a turnkey basis with their help. Alternatively, the concept of ‘Make for India’ should be acceptable given the incapability of our industry to absorb high-end technologies as on date. Few of the visiting foreign dignitaries have also expressed their willingness to support this theme by making India their production base.
There is no harm in encouraging foreign OEMs to set up their global manufacturing hubs in India with high equity for their freedom of operations, management and marketing of their products world over. India would be benefitted even if we continue acquiring arms from these companies due to lower production and logistics costs besides political leverages. Moreover, the degree of assurance of continued supplies would also increase in such a format.
A precondition for employment of Indian workforce alongside their core team in the initial years of their operations would be a reasonable proposition. With such an arrangement, Indian engineers would become familiar with the new technologies and the technicians would learn higher skills and production processes in due course of time. In addition, large number of ancillary units would also come up as supporting mechanism to produce sub-systems and take care of the offset obligations. Having acquired adequate experience and skills to absorb the new technologies, the Indian industry, then, may gradually plan to switch to ‘Make in India’ theme.
Regarding lateral induction, there is large number of existing production lines with OFBs and DPSUs which were set up with the help of foreign countries. The aerospace, shipbuilding, missiles and mechanised forces are the major beneficiaries of these indigenous manufacturing hubs. However, there is a need to upgrade the technologies and modernise production techniques in these factories. Besides these, there are companies in the private sector which are also involved in defence production, albeit at low scales as of now.
The government has come out with a policy of strategic joint ventures between the Indian companies and foreign OEMs to give a boost to defence production. The scheme is still in the initial incubation stage and has the potential to upgrade the production due to positive synergies of private enterprises and resultant competitive environment for the public sector also. However, there is a need to provide level playing field to the private sector to facilitate a fair market competition with the public sector.
In that, all the possible avenues should be gradually opened to the private enterprise in line with the practice in vogue in most of the weapon producing countries. The government may retain control over the export of select sensitive products by private companies in national interests. However, the government should continue to retain control over strategic level weapon and equipment for security reasons, alongside the need to protect the indigenous intellectual property.
The bottom-up approach entails giving shape to the new ideas altogether by the R&D establishments and the academia. To do that, the private industry and academic institutions need to be incorporated in a big way to move forward in the field of research and development. The government and the industry should allocate funds to such institutions to increase the research base at par with the financial assistance to public sector establishments. It is a successful model in the western countries who are known to have developed state-of-the-art technologies by their universities and private R&D institutions. This would infuse much needed competition and dynamism by involving many more creative minds for our national efforts to be self-sufficient in the field of defence manufacturing.
The concept of start-ups is yet another emerging layer which is proving to be a source of transformation in the field of scientific research arena. The defence industry is a reasonably unexplored domain with possibilities of providing opportunities to give expression to the creativity of such young minds. Not to forget that quite many inventions in the industrial revolution of the 20th century owe their origin to the research for military products by young scientists which later found dual use in the civilian field also.
The emerging digital environment is bringing about a new revolution in military affairs with robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, digital communication and IT outreach as the drivers of the new technological horizons. India has a large pool of qualified individuals in all these fields waiting for suitable opportunities. The digital world has transformational connectivity across the globe which is not bound by the boundaries and confined to spaces opening avenues of research and development by the individuals and small teams any time anywhere.
Unlike olden days, the OEMs these days are outsourcing the supply of the sub systems and operating software from smaller enterprises with restricted inventories and lower overhead costs. The start-ups are normally focused on creating smaller supportive technologies and products required for fabrication of the weapon systems and platforms. Therefore, the ancillary units would be the biggest beneficiary of the start-ups as they have potential to provide technology and consultancy to meet their industry objectives. The start-ups also have a potential for substituting import of expansive technologies from foreign countries as quite a few scientists in the start-ups have an international exposure.
As per a recent media report, ISRO is planning to set up 12 centres to promote R&D which would include six incubation nodes and six research centres within a year. These centres would help the start-ups to develop prototypes of components for the space systems. This speaks of confidence of the one of the most revered scientific organisations of the country in the concept of start-ups and their utility for the overall good of the nation. The start-ups have a potential of becoming a catalyst to take the Indian defence production industry to the next level. Given the innovative DNA of our young scientists, the start-ups have promise to fill up the existing gaps in the technology and manufacturing processes.
India has missed out on nurturing the indigenous defence production industry despite availability of all the requisite ingredients within the country. The basic fault-lines can be traced to the policy of restricting the private sector due to security reasons, and consequent monopoly of the government-controlled R&D and manufacturing establishments who have failed to deliver to the expected levels, sans accountability. It resulted in an unending cycle of imports in absence of seriousness and sensitivity of the organisations and individuals mandated to keep the armed forces in fine fettle.
The silver lining is that there seems to be a move forward with signs of much needed change of direction and seriousness of the policymakers. Involving the private sector and academia would go a long way in harnessing the potential of the Indian scientific community to fill up the existing technology deficit and create a world-class defence manufacturing structure. It would require an enabling environment, level playing field, and encouraging leadership to make the private sector a viable participant in the nation building alongside well entranced and experienced public sector. Defence technology is the essential denominator of the national power to retain our strategic autonomy, and we must remove all the stops to acquire it.
(The writer is former Director General Infantry)