Books | Lessons in Self Reliance

RAdm. Sudhir Pillai (retd)Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai (retd)

‘Reading is critical thinking and critical thinking is reading’ is an apt statement from Professor Robin Goodman. While many of us read for comprehension, the necessity to read and learn to evaluate others’ ideas can be crucial to expanding one’s horizons. As one conceptualises, analyses, and assesses the information presented in a book, one becomes more adept at big-picture thinking, and one thinks more deeply about the world in which one lives.

Here, I recommend four books that seek to expand on the concept of Atmanirbharta. The buzzword has caught on since 12 May 2020, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a clarion call kick-starting the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan. The defence ministry recently announced a third ‘negative’ list to encourage Make in India and have as a policy sought to ensure that many requirements are met from indigenous sources. The success of such policy prescriptions can be vital to military efficiency and military modernisation. Here’s a short-list of books that can help expand horizons on the vital subject.


Rich Nation Strong Army: National Security and the Technological Transformation of Japan by Richard J Samuels looks at how Japan in the post-World War II era, despite the ‘Peace Constitution’ of 1947, rebuilt its defence and aircraft industry with its ‘private sector’ driving the Japanese ministry of international trade and industry and finance ministry for capital allocations as a prerequisite to rebuilding their defence industry. Japanese leaders understood that economic strategy is as important as military power and technology is an essential enabler for both pursuits.

India can learn from three constants that led to Japan emerging Atmanirbhar: the struggle for independence and autonomy through the indigenisation of technology; the national commitment to diffuse this learning throughout the economy; and the national, regional, local, and sectoral effort to sustain Japanese enterprises by diffusing technical knowledge to them.

Contrast this to India’s penchant for creating monopoly/ monopsony than competitive enterprises, our lack of support for strategic initiatives like the SP model and even allowing the collapse of strategic value creation entities such as Reliance Defence.

To understand concepts as followed by the Japanese, one would do well to read about similar international experiences from across the globe.


Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: An Ambitious and Uncertain Course edited by Andrew S. Erickson and published by China Maritime Institute and the Naval Institute Press in 2016 synthesises the collective insights of sailors, scholars, industry professionals and governmental specialists. The book describes how China leveraged work done in the US and across the globe to leapfrog naval, engineering, and product development techniques and achieved tremendous cost and time savings. PLAN aims to have a combat fleet that is quantitatively and qualitatively on par with the US Navy by 2030.

Since 1978, China’s shipbuilding industry has been transformed and progressed through the corporatisation. The Sixth Ministry of Machine Building was abolished in 1982 and its assets reconfigured into the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC). To introduce competition and impose greater efficiencies, in 1999, CSSC’s shipyards and other assets in northern China were split into a second conglomerate, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC).

In 2019, China remerged the CSSC and the CSIC to create a shipping firm that competes with global heavyweights in the maritime industry, including South Korean Hyundai Heavy Industries which is in the process of acquiring Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering. The merger will manage massive shipbuilding and repair facilities within China. Supported by its shipping research and development capacities, the company now fulfils global technical standards and safety agreements.

Can India also take similar steps to free her shipbuilding and even aerospace PSUs from the embrace of the ministry of defence and corporatise the entire department of defence production? Can DRDO also be evolved in the manner that China did its R&D through what’s been called integrated innovation?

Lessons in Self Reliance

Westland and the British Helicopter Industry, 1945-1960: Licensed Production versus Indigenous Innovation by Matthew RH Uttley

While India can be proud of the design and development of the Advanced Light Helicopter by HAL, many lessons can be learnt from Britain’s helicopter manufacturing experience after the post-war British aircraft industrial policy.

After 1945, the objective of the UK ministry of supply (MoS), responsible for implementing post-war British aircraft industrial policy, was to establish and foster a strong (indigenous) helicopter industry with the design and production capacity to cater for all home markets and export. The rationale was that a self-sufficient helicopter industry founded on domestic R&D and manufacturing would generate economic, strategic and ‘political’ benefits. Implementation involved the MoS giving R&D contracts to indigenous firms on the explicit assumption that public funding and ‘buy national’ procurement policies would generate ‘all-British’ helicopter technology to meet domestic and export requirements.

Given these policy imperatives, British helicopter R&D and production between 1945 and 1960 is a paradox. By 1960, Britain had built a significant helicopter production capability. But 75 per cent of British helicopter unit production was attributable to Westland Aircraft Limited which concentrated on ‘licensed production’ of helicopter technology developed in the US by Sikorsky. This despite receiving negligible British government R&D funding. Westland came to dominate the UK helicopter market, while Fairey, Cierva, Bristol and other companies bound by UK MoS helicopter policy largely failed to enter commercial production. This indicated a failure of the UK government’s industrial policy to achieve its stated objectives of developing commercially viable indigenous helicopter technology, leading to a reliance on overseas (American) design.

India needs to evolve beyond HAL and RW R&DC if we are to create broad-based capabilities for diverse end uses from Siachen to Sea State 5/6. Nurturing private capacities through licenced production and innovative funding models may be essential given the necessity for the government to manage the political economy.


Military Organisations, Complex Machines: Modernisation in the US Armed Forces by Chris C. Demchak

This book by Chris Demchak, a political scientist, looks at pitfalls encountered by the US military in its modernisation efforts and examines how militaries have to evolve to absorb and adapt to complex technologies. In this study, she focuses on the M1 Abrams Tank and demonstrates that complex systems produce complexity in organisations like the military and heavily influence aspects like reducing the size of armed forces, savings and modernisation. The book looks beyond what modern technology can deliver and targets diverse fields such as management and organisational theory. The learning we need to take away is that constrained organisations will always have difficulty in buying the knowledge needed to operate complex machines successfully and reliably. If closer synergy between the user and the developer eludes, then constrained organisations like the military end up with great difficulties in operating complex weapon systems. The result is that despite large military budgets, losses in wartime can be large, thus defeating the very purpose for which development was undertaken.

India has an archaic system of military research, development and acquisitions. Vertical hierarchical stove pipes than horizontally integrated matrix organisations are sure recipes for failure when complexity has to be tackled and fielded on diverse battlefields.

Such readings expand our horizon, and we need to evolve to structures now used worldwide. The exploitation of Global Value Chains over hard Atmanirbharta is what is needed so that we are not reinventing the wheel. The role of the private industry in sourcing financial support from foreign direct and portfolio investors is all needed such that not just financial viability, but the commercial and technical risks are managed through best international practices. The role of licence production vis a vis indigenous R&D hold major lessons not just from the UK-Westland experience but many such lessons are available in each of the books cited for reading. Evolving professional acquisition systems manned by professional acquisition and programme managers, horizontally integrated and managed through efficient and sufficient funding models are all lessons for Indian efforts at Atmanirbharta.


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