The ultimate aim ought to be to develop technologies and weapon systems indigenously

by Lt-Gen Harwant

India has the third largest military in the world and the largest importer of weapons and equipment, with 70% of these requirements being met through imports. An import lobby has existed within the government, which controls the development of weapons and equipment within the country for those who have much to gain from imports.

Earlier most of the weapons and equipment came from the USSR, where no information ever leaked about any wrongdoing by the buyer. Internally in India, no misdeeds were ever brought to light. In the two well known cases where malpractices occurred to strike deals for the import of equipment, information relating to bribery was leaked only from the countries that provided the equipment. One of these was the Bofors gun and the other Augusta Westland helicopters.

In both cases the names of defence secretaries surfaced. In the case of Bofors, the defence secretary could not be chargesheeted as he had been moved to a governorship, placing him beyond the reach of law, and in the case of Augusta Westland the defence secretary was re-employed as Comptroller and Auditor General. Now his arrest awaits clearance from the defence ministry even though he has retired. In this case the Air Chief was also chargesheeted.

Indigenous weapons development can enhance technical knowhow, provide jobs, result in foreign exchange savings, and when exported can earn foreign exchange. The development of defence weapons and equipment is at the very core of the Union government’s vision of an Atmanirbhar Bharat or Self-Reliant India, or its earlier vision to Make in India.

It is possible to create the necessary capabilities within the country to meet military requirements and achieve fully the goal of self-reliance, provided we bring about radical changes to the existing procedures and setup. The thrust should be to initially Make in India, followed by Made by India, rather than merely Made in India by Foreign Businesses.

India has enough entrepreneurial potential and technical skills and if given the required incentives and push it can measure up to military demands. In the case of foreign businesses, production facilities that are established should as far as possible be joint ventures with Indian ones.

57 DRDO establishments, 11 Defence PSUs and 41 Ordinance Factories have been in existence for over six decades and yet the Indian military continues to depend so much on imports. Before any attempt to promote the indigenous production of defence equipment is made, it would be appropriate to examine why these institutions’ efforts have fallen so miserably short of meeting the requirement for weapons and equipment.

In all our import of defence equipment, we have been paying additional money for transfer of technology and yet have never been able to fully absorb it, and so could not take it forward. We even failed in the field of reverse engineering.

The recent DRDO push towards self-reliance by the raising limits of advance payment and awarding contracts to the second-lowest bidder etc (through its Procurement Manual 2020) hardly amounts to a push for self-reliance in high-end weapons and equipment.

For long there have been unmet demands for an independent science audit of our DRDO and other defence establishments. Internal so-called ‘Expert Panels’ can hardly be expected to come up with radical proposals which run counter to the interests of the Ministry of Defence, on whose turf these establishments run. The Director General Qualitative Assurance too is part of the same setup, consequently the quality of products from these establishments remains indifferent.

While some of these DRDO etc establishments have done reasonably well, such as those dealing with missile technology etc, most others have little to their credit. A science audit should be completed within three months and those who have failed to accomplish anything worthwhile should be sold off to the non-government sector.

Given the top-of-the-line equipment these establishments possess, private entities buying them will have a good start in setting up their business.

While we did away with the Licence and Permit Raj, what was left out was the issue of ‘clearances’, and curtailing the predatory functioning of ‘The Inspector’. Clearances involve traversing the bureaucratic jungles of Indian government. So in place of ease of doing business, in India one has come to need ‘grease for doing business’. Single window leads to many more windows.

One foreign business did find a solution to this hurdle by appointing a bureaucrat as company chairman, who not only could, with ease, navigate the company through these jungles, but help it corner all future tax benefits by coming to know of such plans years before they were officially announced. The ultimate aim ought to be to develop technologies and weapon systems indigenously. In some fields of advanced technology, however, inviting foreign businesses to set up production facilities in India in collaboration with Indian businesses is unavoidable. They cannot be expected to part with all of the technologies of weapons under production and pass these to Indian partners. Indian businesses will have to pursue their own efforts with vigour.

Most of the equipment being produced in India still has considerable imported content. Much effort is needed for India to move into the high-tech zone. Given the current geostrategic environment and the ongoing developments in the Indo-Pacific and Himalayas, the Quad governments and others are willing to give India access to high-end technologies in military weapons and equipment and it must make the best of such possibilities. Meanwhile we need to focus on developing anti-drone systems and capabilities in cyber technologies.

In this gun and man combination, the scale is fast tilting in favour of the gun, due to rapid advancements in the technology of the gun and its linking with advances in software development such as artificial intelligence. Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat is well off the mark when he advocates lowering the General Staff Qualitative Requirement (GSQR) to 70 percent. Perhaps he is not aware that as it is, 68 percent of the military’s equipment is of vintage category.

In framing the GSQRs what could be considered is that the DRDO be involved to an extent, so it could initially produce Mark-1 of the weapon/equipment, to be followed by Mark-2 which must measure up to the required performance parameters etc. For Ordinance Factories, there is no competitive bidding of their products, which results in the military paying much more than a fair price for the equipment/stores being provided. This impacts the overall defence budget. In addition these factories have been established far away from where equipment and stores are required, and transportation costs further escalate the defence budget.

To take just one of many cases, tanks are manufactured in Madras, while they are deployed on the country’s western borders. Later these tanks have to be taken back to Madras for overhaul, resulting in enormous expenditure in this up and down carriage of tanks. The tank ammunition factory has been located in Odisha on the east coast. All this adds up to wasteful expense.

For India to achieve self-reliance in defence weapons and equipment a major reshuffling of the existing setup is called for on the following lines:

a) To start with and on completion of science audit 50 percent of DRDO, defence PSUs and ordinance factories should be sold off to private businessmen. The next review of the balance of these establishments should be carried out after five years.
b) The Secretary Defence Production should be a defence services officer.
c) The DGQA should come under the Chief of Defence Staff.
d) A few selected establishments of the DRDO, defence PSUs and ordinance factories should be headed by appropriate defence services officers. The Indian Navy has done much better in the field of developing naval equipment because, of the two establishments dedicated to the navy, one is always commanded by a naval officer.
e) Factories should be relocated closer to where weapons and equipment are required to be deployed in order to cut down on transportation expenses.
f) Do away with the single-vendor case and that includes products from Ordinance Factories as well. With no competition, these factories lay down the price of their own choosing. In the absence of competitive pricing, the military ends up paying much more than a fair price.

The proposal doing the rounds to convert the Ordinance Factories Board into a limited liability Ordinance Factory Corporation will be a halfway house, leaving the military still dependent on a single vendor and products of indifferent quality.

Lt-Gen Harwant Singh is former Director-General, Weapons and Equipment