On being asked if the new proposal for fighter jets will be a rerun of the MMRCA, ministry said, “It is a fresh RFI"

India’s Make in India defence policy is at a nascent stage and expecting further orders under it is a “little premature”, a top defence ministry official said at the first day of the DefExpo-2018, even as he assured that the first Request for Information (RFI) under the model on procuring 110 fighter jets is not a rerun of the scrapped Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) project.

The development was shared at Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s press conference, which deliberated upon a main feature of the DefExpo to showcase India’s indigenous production capabilities. It was also here that top defence ministry officials explained that the ministry is examining comments from the public on the draft Defence Production Policy-2018 and will later be placed before the government for approval. The DPP aims providing a thrust to development of defence design and production capabilities in the country.

On being asked on what kind of orders are being expected under the Strategic Partnership model in view of the reduced defence budget, Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra explained: “The Strategic Partnership model is at a preliminary stage and we have brought out the RFI (read for fighter jets). We have to evaluate it, look at transfer of technology and Make in India aspects. The question on orders next year I am afraid is a little premature.”

While the current term of the NDA regime will end next year when the general elections are held, there has been no major movement on the model and important strategic projects such as the Project 75-I submarines is on hold. This also indicates that a major push in Make in India defence production will take time and focus remains on imports. International think tank, SIPRI, on March 12 stated that India again emerged as the biggest importer of weapons in the world, with around 70 per cent of its weapons being imported.

The defence secretary also added that the first RFI under the Strategic Partnership model has been rolled out and this is just the first step. On being asked if the new RFI will be a rerun of the MMRCA program, he replied, “I don’t think we need such apprehension. It is a fresh RFI and we should look at it that way.”

The MMRCA for procuring 126 aircraft was scrapped and replaced with a different project of procuring 36 Rafale jets. Meanwhile, the latest efforts to procure more fighters for the IAF to make up its depleting fighter squadron strength comes in the wake of the defence ministry scrapping its two year old plan to produce 114 single-engine fighter jets with foreign collaboration at an estimated cost of Rs 1.15 lakh crore. The fresh efforts for procuring fighters could pit single and twin engine aircraft against one another.

What also needs to be understood is that every procurement costs money. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence in its reports tabled in Parliament recently had raised the issue of inadequate defence budget, stating that the Indian Army does not have enough money to pay for ongoing schemes, emergency procurement, weaponry for 10 days of intense war, future acquisitions and also strategic roads along the China border.

When this point was put across to Sitharaman she responded that the reports also mention the good work being done by the ministry such as giving emerging powers to the Vice Chief to procure spares and ammunition. “I want to remove the doubt that nothing is happening in the ministry...decisions are being made and the army has utilised 98 per cent of its budget,” she said.

Mitra also added that resources are adequate. “Thirty three per cent of the GOI’s capital expenditure has been reserved for defence and that’s a high number.”