A robust indigenous defence industry can only be developed through a strategic procurement planning agency within the ministry of defence

German general Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s remark—‘The battle is fought and decided by the quartermasters long before the shooting begins’—highlights the central role of logistics and supply chains in conflict. The outcome of a war hinges on a country’s industrial might and ability to quickly convert technology into engineered products. India’s current strategic planning and defence acquisition suffer a lack of processes to map requirements and incorporate a realistic estimation of technology and engineering capabilities while developing a roadmap.

Arming without Aiming—the title of this 2013 book by Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta sums up the conundrum of India’s defence development and procurement process. Bureaucratic lethargy and lack of focus have left us unable to leverage our skills as an IT-ES (information technology-enabled services) powerhouse. In stark contrast, China has not only deployed such equipment in its exercises, it has also realised the impact of this technology on operations. During the development of its aircraft carrier-killing missiles like the DF-21, it fielded an entirely new satellite navigation system, BeiDou. This also provides it enormous advantages in mountainous terrain. Similarly, while developing technology for cyber warfare, it put its entire domestic internet behind a firewall, making it enormously difficult to attack their digital information systems.

Clearly, the speed of development of complex systems demonstrates that the Chinese have mastered the systems engineering process. Historically, India has had a decent record too. Post Pokhran-II in 1998, Dr Kalam’s DRDO (Defence Research & Development Organisation) and its private sector partners, at the height of sanctions, fielded a complete range of Prithvi and Agni strategic missiles by 2012. However, India has yet to develop a well-established domestic military-industrial complex with a tiered vendor base. Narrow prospective planning and lethargy have been the hallmark of our defence acquisition processes. This has prevented the development of a robust defence industrial base.

Take the example of the indigenous Akash surface-to-air missile system. By 2008, a public-private partnership through a committee including the DRDO, DPSU and private sector firms (Tata Power SED and L&T), along with quality assurance agencies under the ministry of defence, had certified 11,800 parts and over 3,000 vendors for these weapon systems. To keep the supply chain alive, new orders were needed, as deliveries of existing contracts were to be completed that year. However, new orders did not arrive till 2019, a decade later. Such delays kill supply chains and prevent the development of a defence ecosystem around products—if supply chains have to be created from scratch when orders are placed, when will you upskill? It has taken India 17 years to move beyond RFPs (requests for proposals) to build diesel-electric submarines. It took 19 years for orders to be placed for Tejas fighters after its first flight. A rare but much appreciated success story has been the BrahMos missile, especially the recent success of integrating it with Sukhoi aircraft, with an Indian start-up executing the integration design analysis.

The Balkanisation of military organisation and doctrine described in Cohen and Dasgupta’s book is increasingly becoming a reality. The Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, has been tasked with creating theatre commands to integrate the three armed forces. This could be seriously impacted by the fact that various arms—infantry artillery, armour, air defence—still lack a secure tactical communication network.

We have seen a rush of hardware purchases in recent years—S-400 missiles from Russia and Rafale jets from France. Not enough attention is being paid to China’s giant strides in offensive cyber capability and its implications for India’s critical infrastructure—power, railways, traffic management systems, telecom infrastructure and others. Chinese-made routers and switches are ubiquitous in many networks, with potential security implications. These need to be replaced by Indian-certified secure products to plug these vulnerabilities, before we talk of future technologies like 5G. With China now a cyber superpower on the threshold of narrow autonomous AI weapons capability, we no longer have the luxury of incompetence and ostrich-like behaviour by the military, civil and political leadership.

The dream of an Aatmanirbhar Bharat—an India self-sufficient in defence production—can only be realised through a strategic planning and procurement agency within the MoD. There is a need for a professional and permanent acquisition agency, with industry experience and access to expertise to participate in and facilitate Acceptance of Necessity (AoN, the very first stage of a defence contract) processes. What is happening now is that service HQs, with their focus on platform or product acquisition (not capability acquisition), have found AoNs cumbersome. They have now diluted this process down to just two months prior to RFPs being issued. A military platform or product life cycle is 15-30 years. No successful acquisition with field performance as desired can happen without the techno-engineering roadmap of a proper AoN. With the increasing threat of cyber warfare and narrow AI-based weapons from China, there is an urgent need to bring the private sector onboard. Sourcing and keeping supply chains healthy are a critical corporate function in any company.

Though FDI (foreign direct investment) in defence is now at 74 per cent, this has not triggered any major announcements. FDI is a consequence of market realities, not a precursor to them. To become an attractive investment destination for defence contractors, we need simple and transparent rules, competitive skills and the endorsement of the government of India collaboration. In the defence sector, most countries look at the origin of equity and vet investors; they may also require local directors and CEOs. But once approved, these companies become fully competent to address defence and homeland security market needs. In India, with the current restrictive definitions, this is not allowed.

Our goal has to be to increase real value creation in defence. For this, India needs to position its capabilities with our partner countries and benefit them with cost reduction through frugal Indian engineering. Without urgent action on these aspects, we will continue to aim without arming and arm without aiming.