by Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar

The recent Galwan face-off in Ladakh brought to the fore the momentous shift in policy, posturing and power of India when it comes to China, relative to the situation in 1962 in Nehru’s India: a strong, yet measured military response by the Fire and Fury Corps of the Indian Army to the misadventures of Chinese troops in Galwan, assertiveness by Indian diplomats and politicians, cancellation of tenders and deals with Chinese entities in railways and communications, and the banning of well-known Chinese apps such as TikTok.

This may have been India on a measured offensive, but the brazen attempts at intrusion by the Chinese in Galwan brought two worrying issues to light: the major power gradient in Asia between India and China, and the willingness of China to use its clout, on the ground and off it, to make its points and assertions heard.

This clout stems from myriad sources — from its preeminent position in world geopolitics to its investments across the globe (and the economic clout thereof), and its troops on the ground. While India has been fast-catching up in the first two, the last avenue of power-dynamics needs a little more work, as I see it.

The challenge India faces from its neighbourhood on the ground is significant, with China, Nepal and Pakistan recently posturing aggressively against India. China has been misusing the ambiguity of the Indo-China border with around 23 disputed regions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to its advantage for decades, with them going so far as to claim even the undisputed and very-much-Indian Galwan Valley as their own this time!

India may have been on a measured offensive, but the brazen attempts at intrusion by the Chinese in Galwan brought two worrying issues to light.

Military Strength of China And India

Second only to the United States and Russia, the Chinese military today continues to grow alongside a local expanding Military-Industrial Complex. For 2020, China received a Global Firepower (GFP) PwrIndx of 0.0691 (with 0 considered perfect) and is ranked 3rd in the world. They have 26,93,000 total military personnel, 1,232 fighter jets, 281 attack helicopters, 3,500 tanks, 33,000 armoured vehicles, 3,800 self-propelled artillery, 3,600 towed artillery, 2,650 rocket projectors, two aircraft carriers, 36 destroyers, 52 frigates, 50 corvettes, 74 submarines and a defence budget of $237 billion.

On the other hand, we have a GFP PwrIndx of 0.0953, with 35,44,000 total military personnel, 538 fighter jets, 23 attack helicopters, 4,292 tanks, 8,686 armoured vehicles, 235 self-propelled artillery, 4,060 towed artillery, 266 rocket projectors, one aircraft carrier, 10 destroyers, 13 frigates, 19 corvettes, 16 submarines and a defence budget of $61 billion.

The United States and Russia still sit on top of the ladder, with GFP PwrIndx of 0.0606 and 0.0681 respectively. Pakistan has a GFP PwrIndx of 0.2364 and is 15th in the world. Bangladesh has a GFP PwrIndx of 0.7066 and is 46th in the world, and Nepal has a GFP PwrIndx of 2.9891 and is 122nd in the world.

The military strength of India gives us the capability to handle threats from any hostile neighbours by ourselves, especially with the cold-start doctrine and the aversion to ‘hot war’ due to nuclear deterrents in the hands of India, China and Pakistan. There is, however, one glaring issue that needs to be addressed to help bridge any military power gradients, especially between India and Chine — the indigenisation of military equipment and defence infrastructure. This is the key to self-sufficiency and building strategic capability.

Need To Indigenise Indian Defence Machinery

In light of the Galwan face-off, India sought its defence purchases to be supplied by their allies, such as France, with a sense of urgency. However, the time between when that actually happens to a possible escalation later, or a second standoff with China over Pangong Tso or Galwan, leaves us in a precarious situation.

While war must be averted at all costs, one must be ready and equipped with the necessary equipment, weaponry and infrastructure to stand up against any level of escalation by the increasingly brutish People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China. The Indian defence-industry complex has developed significantly over the past few decades. As per the Defence Production Policy of 2018 (DPrP-2018), the Indian defence industry has a goal of becoming among the top five global producers of aerospace and defence manufacturing with an export target of $5 billion per annum by 2025.

As per Colonel Bikramdeep Singh (Senior Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies), in his work published in the CLAWS journal in 2013, the Self-Reliance Index (SRI), defined as the ratio of indigenous defence procurements to the total expenditure on defence procurements in one financial year, is only 0.3.

India was also the largest importer of arms, by value, having imported 12% of the total global arms imports, for the period between 2013 and 2017. It’s quite an irony that even though India is among the top 15 producers of defence hardware internationally, the existing defence industrial base is still unable to meet the requirement of equipment, ammunition and infrastructure of our armed forces.

However, things have changed in recent times, for the better, with the Make in India Defence initiative by the Narendra Modi government. Under the aegis of this flagship programme, the development of a roadmap for promoting indigenisation and self-reliance in defence, efforts to reduce red-tapeism and bureaucratic delays to increase ease of doing business in the defence sector, establishment of Defence Corridors (in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) for the creation of a Defence Industrial Complex, and replacement of the Wassenaar Arrangement List of Munitions with a Defence Products List that helped private-sector entities to help produce defence equipment were some of the measures taken.

Research and Development in defence in India has grown significantly over the decades, with the DRDO developing indigenous products: the BRAHMOS (a universal long-range supersonic cruise missile system that can be launched from land, sea or air), AKASH Weapon System, Varunastra (electrically-propelled anti-submarine torpedo), 125mm FSAPDS Mk-II ammunition for T-72/T-90 tanks, the Main Battle Tank Arjun, Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) family, Under Barrel Grenade Launcher (UBGL), Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), 75/24 Pack Howitzers (first artillery gun system developed indigenously), Ishapore Self-Loading Rifle (SLR), Multiple Launcher System (MLS) with three 84 mm Light Weight Launchers (LWLs) on an automated platform, Extended Range Anti-Submarine Rocket (ER-ASR) and the guided Pinaka rocket system. India also recently developed our its light combat aircraft – TEJAS.

Research and Development in defence in India has grown significantly over the decades, with the DRDO developing indigenous products: the BRAHMOS, AKASH Weapon System, Varunastra and the Main Battle Tank Arjun among others.

Even with all these achievements, there is still a long way to go. One of the major flaws in our drive to indigenisation has been overdependence on the public sector, for both research and development, as well as manufacturing. The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2020 goes some way in laying the groundwork from procurement from private sector entities as well as looking towards Private-Public Partnerships.

The Road Ahead

I feel the armed services must be given this initiative, albeit with high standards of accountability, in procurement and improvement of products, acquired preferably from indigenous market players. As a nation, we can look towards making defence PSUs more competitive, corporatizing ordnance factories, and using the PPP model in various avenues of defence production and procurement.

Private sector entities must be encouraged to acquire (or ideally, develop) better technology through collaborations with international defence behemoths — the original equipment manufacturers — and actively look at generational improvements in technology through dedicated pursuit of cutting-edge research and development (R&D) in defence. In low-technology manufacturing segments, the joint venture (JV) approach with international manufacturers can be adopted. This was done last year in the case of Kalashnikov rifles with the launch of the Indo-Russian Rifles Private Limited rifle-manufacturing facility in Korwa (Amethi, Uttar Pradesh).

Recently, the government of India imposed a ban on the import of certain weapons used by Indian armed forces, and increased limits Foreign Direct Investment in defence manufacturing from 49% to 74% in a bid to boost Make in India Defence production. However, while eight selected ammunitions have been cleared for production under the flagship programme since 2017, there are various other such as ammunitions for anti-material rifles that are still being imported. This needs to change.

MSMEs and start-ups must come up with sophisticated technological solutions to the military challenge, with such technological developments potentially being used concurrently in civilian application to offset financial burdens that may be accrued. The iDEX Defence India Startup challenge initiative may help encourage this.

Larger enterprises and major private players must act as hubs of research and development, with an emphasis on the three areas highlighted by the Ministry of Defence (No.1(18)/02/Indigenization/DP(Plg-ES)/818) — electronic chips technology, materials technology and engine technology, and manufacturing — while smaller enterprises can provide ancillary support and spur competition to create a healthy, efficient, optimum and self-sustaining defence production and procurement ecosystem in the country.