The MoD seems to have boxed itself into a corner – erring on the side of 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' without taking into account the lead time, technological inputs and financial implications of designing indigenous weapon systems

by Rahul Bedi & Amit Cowshish

There is little earth-shatteringly new that the list of 101 military platforms, munitions, missile systems, assorted materiel and ordnance released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for indigenisation late 2020 onwards can really do to localise defence production and reduce import dependency.

MoD insiders and defence officials believe this could easily have been achieved previously had existing measures and procedures – especially those sporadically taken in the recent past such as introduction of the strategic partnership model – been implemented in a timely and systematic manner by successive governments.

The uncharacteristically bold decision taken by MoD to keep the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) out of contention for the manufacturing of transport aircraft could have singlehandedly ushered in a new era for the private sector aerospace industry, had the contract with Airbus-Tata been for the manufacturing of C-295 transport in India been finalised in time.

Other than the MoD, promotion of local manufacturing requires enhanced co-operation between the military and domestic defence industry, which simply has not acquired the traits of collaborative partnership that propels the defence industry in the western world and the US. Mutual trust is missing, with all concerned parties working at cross-purposes with one another.

Besides, this catalogue of 101 high and middle technology items like howitzers, transport aircraft helicopters, assault rifles, submarines and corvettes – whose import amongst other items, will be steadily embargoed till final termination in 2024 – is merely a regurgitation of similar, albeit more elaborate inventories issued by the MoD first in 2013, and thereafter in 2018.

Both these were indulgently designated the Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap (TPCR), by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance coalition and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, but little was acted upon thereafter to accomplish a greater degree of materiel self-sufficiency.

The more recent TPCR-2018, for instance, details a comprehensive overview of 221 pieces of military kit to be indigenised for induction into service by the late 2020s, as part of the overall ‘Make in India’ initiative that, so far, has exhibited limited success. In its preamble, TPCR-2018 declared, much like its 2020 avatar, that it sought to provide direction to private and public sector industry to pursue the goal of Atmanirbhar Bharat or self-sufficiency in meeting the country’s military requirements.

Conversely, the latest policy announcement deemed imports as being part of a ‘negative list’, which has its own adverse connotations, defence industry officials told The Wire. “The use of such combative nomenclature can prove damaging in the long run,” cautioned a senior executive with a large European defence corporation.

What, however, is even more ironic is that TPCR-2018’s extensive list too was simply an adjunct to an even earlier one issued by the MoD’s Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) in April 2013, also parroting self-reliance in the military field.

The tri-service IDS was created in late 2001 as the nodal agency to foster military coordination and prioritise acquisitions. It is now part of the newly created Department of Military Affairs or DMA headed by Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, that is responsible for issuing the 101-list, taking its cue from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call for a ‘self-reliant’ India, the MoD declared.

But the 2013 document was even more expansive in its scope of self-sufficiency, which is too detailed to itemise here due to space constraints. Even the financial scale of the self-reliance detailed in this roadmap was, at the time far higher than the modest goal of the 2020 announcement.

For while the IDS’s Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap stated that the indigenisation market was worth around $100 billion, the August 2020 Atmanirbhar initiative is pegged at a modest Rs 4 trillion ($53 billion) between 2025-27 or little less than half the 2013 estimate.

Of this, the Indian Navy’s (IN’s) share is estimated at Rs 1.4 trillion, while the combined stake of the Indian Army and Indian Air Force is projected to be Rs 1.3 trillion. The balance Rs 1.3-odd trillion is for meeting assorted defence equipment needs.

Meanwhile, the MoD’s statement raises more questions than it answers, as it fails in clarifying whether joint or collaborative ventures between local private and state-owned entities and foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), will be embargoed or not. It’s remains unclear whether the OEMs, being foreign, would be placed on the ‘negative list’ or not, although some media accounts have assumed that these are exempt, but without attribution.

This is because in its statement the MoD had categorically declared that the proposed Atmanirbhar Bharat enterprise “offers a great opportunity to the Indian defence industry to manufacture items in the negative (embargo) list by using their own design and development capabilities or adopting the technologies designed and developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to meet the requirements of the (Indian) Armed forces”.

In consonance with this logic of furthering indigenous ‘design and development’, does it inevitably follow that Indian companies will, for instance, now design their own submarines, that too are included in the exhaustive list of embargoed platforms and prohibited from being imported?

Does this, in effect, mean that endeavours over the past several years to progress the long-deferred Rs 450 billion Project 75I programme to licence build six conventional diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) with air-independent propulsion for the Indian Navy, will be suspended till designs for these platforms are developed locally?

Or will the two shortlisted companies – Larsen & Toubro and the state-owned Mazagon Dockyard Limited (MDL) – be permitted to licence build the boats on offer from five OEM’s from Europe, Russia and South Korea?

Furthermore, will other potential licence-built equipment like transport aircraft, howitzers or even assault rifles too be proscribed? And will the import of vital components like engines, avionics, weaponry for the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, the Rudra Light Combat Helicopter, the IN’s locally designed aircraft carrier or the army’s Arjun tank, be circumscribed?

The formal government order, as and when issued, must contain appropriate explanation to clear the air over all such contentious issues.

Also, the MoD will need to clarify how it will manage the military’s urgent operational requirements in the event of delays by the DRDO, with its questionable developmental track record, in designing platforms, ammunition, missiles, torpedoes and a host of other critical equipment. Military analysts said the ministry will need to put in place oversight measures to alert it to delays in order to effect remedial measures, so as not to compromise the defence forces war fighting capacity in a turbulent neighbourhood.

In the meantime, all that that the MoD seems to have achieved over the weekend is to have boxed itself into a corner – erring on the side of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ without taking into account the lead time, technological inputs and financial implications of designing indigenous weapon systems. And if the indigenous design and development of platforms, now occupying pride of place in the 101 list and on the MoD’s website do not materialise in time, does the MoD have a Plan B in place?