Distinguish between technologies to be developed independently, with allies, and by private players

by Gurmeet Kanwal

The procurement of defence equipment is an extremely important facet of preparedness for future conflict and must not be allowed to fester as a permanent sore

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by defence minister Rajnath Singh, approved the acquisition of indigenously manufactured weapons and equipment worth Rs 3,300 crore in October. The projects which include third-generation anti-tank guided missiles, and auxiliary propulsion units for main battle tanks, will boost India’s quest for self-reliance in defence production.

The aim of indigenisation of defence manufacture should be to make India a design, development, manufacture, export and servicing hub for weapons and defence equipment by 2025-30.

No country that is not substantially self-reliant in defence technology can aspire to become a dominant military power. India is hungry for state-of-the-art defence technology but has a low technology base. It can achieve self-reliance by acquiring defence technology through original research. The other option is to gain access to it through the transfer of technology (ToT). This is hard since defence technology is proprietary, guarded zealously by governments.

But here is a possible blueprint.

No country will give India strategic weapons technologies, such as nuclear warhead and ballistic missile technologies, know-how on building nuclear-powered submarines, and ballistic missile defence technology. Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) must continue conducting original research and development (R&D) into strategic technologies.

The development of hi-tech weapons platforms like fighter-bomber aircraft and sophisticated defence equipment like over-the-horizon (OTH) radars should be undertaken jointly in conjunction with India’s strategic partners. The route adopted should be to form joint venture (JV) companies between Indian private sector companies and international defence multinationals. The role of the DRDO and the Services HQ should be supervision and facilitation. An excellent example is BrahMos missile, jointly developed with Russia.

The design and development of low-tech items should be outsourced to the Indian private sector, with the DRDO monitoring progress. Services headquarters should establish their own design bureaus to inculcate a technology development culture. They should initiate R&D projects in their training institutions, especially for product improvement during the life-cycle of weapons systems and defence equipment.

At present, there are far too many DRDO laboratories. There is a need to close down those whose work can be outsourced to the private sector. Some R&D projects should be outsourced to universities and IITs.

At the policy level, many contentious issues remain to be resolved, including the privatisation of most of the ordnance factories and several defence public sector units. Publicly owned manufacturing facilities are inefficient, seldom meet production targets, and develop a risk-averse professional culture.

Though Foreign Direct Investment in defence manufacture has been increased from 26 to 49%, this is still not attractive enough for multinationals. Given the time and effort that goes into locating a joint venture partner, and the risks, they prefer to have a controlling stake of 51% or more.