Despite the pandemic, 2022 promises to be a watershed year for India’s goal of building a domestic military industrial complex — and becoming a global defence manufacturing hub

The new year looks set to bring cheer to India’s armed forces as the government strengthens its resolve to have a leaner and meaner military. The year gone by saw efforts gathering steam to modernise the Indian Army, the Indian Navy, and the Indian Air Force, with a two-pronged approach: military reforms, alongside the hastening of weapons acquisition, and upgrades in the three services.

India faces unprecedented strategic challenges across land, sea and air from belligerent neighbours to its east and west, a vulnerable pelagic stretch — from the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean — and a struggle for air superiority in the Himalayas. With the country’s armed forces under material and financial pressure, its defence planners have an unenviable task in speeding up military reforms while simultaneously balancing the budget.

Restructuring the military is the centre-piece of long overdue defence reforms, aiming to create a viable force structure by enhancing inter-service communication and interaction. The Ministry of Defence seeks to achieve this through establishing integrated theatre commands — a concept that many governments toyed with in the past, but never had the will to implement.

The existing system of operational commands of the services is handicapped by the fact that they are neither co-located nor share areas of responsibility, leading to a lack of inter-operability in the three arms, which would be a serious constraint in a conflict situation. Theatre commands help overcome this by integrating the three services, and synergising their operations in the terrestrial, aerial and oceanic domains.

Fortunately, innovative ideas are redefining the way the armed forces manage their resources. A good example is the new defence procurement process called the Integrated Capability Development Plan that uses intra-service and inter-service financial mapping and prioritisation to determine essential acquisitions. This involves data crunching making it easier for policy-makers to earmark sufficient resources for the military while finding a balance against competing demands in other sectors such as health or agriculture.

Statistics show that India’s defence expenditure dropped from 2.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011-12 to 2.1 percent of GDP in the last fiscal. This should ring alarm bells since the Standing Committee on Defence, in 2018, had categorically endorsed a fixed budget of 3 percent of GDP for the military.

Having pegged India’s defence production mark at an ambitious $25 billion in the next four years (which includes military exports of $5 billion), the government has introduced several schemes to ramp up local manufacturing, thereby avoiding shopping abroad. This will help the country reach its target of 75 percent ‘Atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance in defence equipment manufacture before this decade is out.

But indigenisation in defence through initiatives like ‘Make in India’ can only succeed with the active participation of industry, start-ups, and innovators. Like militaries across the world that depend on private industry to bulwark their modernisation efforts, India too has increased the level of industry inputs in defence, and has opened the door wider to industry participation in the sector. Thus the Innovations for Defence Excellence (IDEX) launched by the government to work with academia, industry, and start-ups to innovate solutions for the military seems to be paying off handsomely. Nearly 200 start-ups are currently working on innovative defence technologies, and many of them have shown interest in using the IDEX platform to incubate and develop their ideas.

The Bangalore-based Tonbo Imaging makes advanced imaging and sensor systems for the military that finds application in reconnaissance, infrastructure security, and transportation safety. Combat Robotics India in Pune is developing amphibious ground vehicles for all terrain operations, while the Tamil Nadu-based Vinveli builds customised drones for the army and paramilitary forces. The Kochi-based EyeROV has developed India’s first underwater drone: albeit expressly meant for remote inspection of offshore assets, it has enormous potential for augmenting the navy’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

Similarly, Torus Robotics India in Tamil Nadu is the first defence start-up to indigenously design and develop India's largest electric unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) equipped with a robotic arm. Modular platforms such as these are force multipliers that defence agencies would want to take advantage of. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), for instance, has ordered plug and play payloads like UGVs from Torus Robotics.

Military aerospace is another critical domain where several start-ups are involved in developing prototypes, products, and technologies. For far too long has the absence of aero-engines plagued India’s emerging defence ecosystem as all our indigenously-produced aircraft are powered by imported engines. But this may be rectified soon if the Indo-French agreement to jointly build aero-engines in India takes off under New Delhi’s strategic partnership model — where Indian industry collaborates with foreign vendors. Safran, the French aerospace company which provides the fighter jet Rafale’s engines, is likely to partner with an Indian firm to manufacture the Kaveri engine for the Indian Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The TEJAS currently uses GE Aviation engines.

So despite the pandemic, 2022 promises to be a watershed year for India’s goal of building a domestic military industrial complex — and becoming a global defence manufacturing hub.