Self-reliance is the pillar on which the military capability of any nation rests. A nation that seeks to be a sovereign power invests heavily and is required to allocate a substantial chunk of its resources towards developing its own military capabilities. India has been a significant importer of defence equipment for many years. The country’s defence requirements are met through imports due to the lack of indigenous capabilities and technology.

This over-dependence on foreign imports has made India vulnerable to geopolitical pressures and has led to significant outflows of foreign exchange. To address this issue, the Indian government has been making efforts to reduce its dependence on foreign imports and become self-sufficient in the defense sector.

For the last many decades, India has gradually sought to build self-reliance within the defense sector but with limited results. Heavily reliant on imports in the form of ammunition, missile systems and other weaponry, the scaling up of the domestic defense sector received the necessary attention only in the last half a decade. With the advent of the new policy of ensuring self-sufficiency in the form of atmanirbharta (Self-Reliance), there was emphasis on the significance of reducing external dependence in all sectors including defence.

With a shift in strategy towards boosting locally-produced items, the aim of the campaign was to encourage the indigenous products to be purchased, manufactured and supplied.

India’s journey towards self-reliance in the defence sector began with the establishment of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) in 1958. The primary objective of the DRDO was to develop indigenous technology for the country’s defence needs. Over the years, the DRDO has made significant progress in developing critical defence technologies such as missiles, aircraft, and radars. In recent years, the Indian government has launched several initiatives to promote self-reliance in the defence sector.

One such initiative is the ‘Make in India’ program, which aims to promote domestic manufacturing of defence equipment. Under this programme, foreign defence companies are encouraged to set up manufacturing facilities in India, and domestic companies are incentivized to take up defence manufacturing. Another important initiative is the Strategic Partnership Model (SPM), which aims to promote the development of a domestic defence industry.

Under this model, the government selects strategic partners for specific defence projects and provides them with long-term support to develop indigenous capabilities. The SPM is expected to play a crucial role in developing a robust domestic defence industry in India.

Towards that, governments have taken several policy initiatives bringing in key reforms to encourage indigenous design, development and manufacturing of defence equipment. Promoting defence manufacturing and technology, priority has been accorded towards the procurement of capital items of Buy Indian (IDDM) category from domestic sources under the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020.

A total of 411 items of services have been notified through 4 Positive Indigenization Lists and an additional 3,738 items of DPSUs through 3 Positive Indigenisation Lists as well, through which an embargo on imports beyond the timelines indicated against them shall be placed. Through these measures, the defence industry is now capable of manufacturing a wide variety of high-end requirements like tanks, fighter aircrafts, armoured vehicles, warships, submarines, special-purpose steels and a variety of other ammunition as well. Apart from this other initiatives taken are:

Simplification of Licensing Process: To encourage investment and FDI, the government has simplified the licensing process with a single-window clearance model and longer validity periods. Initiatives like the DefSpace Mission and iDEX (Innovation for Defence Excellence) scheme have further engaged MSMEs and DPSUs, fostering technology development and innovation in the defence and aerospace sector.

Defence Industrial Corridors: The government has launched the SRIJAN portal and established Defence Industrial Corridors in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. These corridors attract investments in the aerospace and defence sector, facilitating indigenization of the MSME sector and technology transfer.

Collaborative Ecosystem: Reorganizing public defence companies and strengthening ties with academic institutions and research organizations have revitalized the defence ecosystem. Increased allocation of budget towards industry-led research and development has driven innovation and collaboration. Regular engagements with MSMEs, start-ups, academia, and innovators have created a supportive environment for technological advancements.

Indigenous Defence Technologies: India has made significant strides in developing critical defence technologies. The successful development and testing of missile systems like Agni, Prithvi, and BrahMos exemplify the country’s progress. Furthermore, India has achieved noteworthy milestones in aircraft development, including the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). The indigenised equipment are made from locally available resources. They become globally cost competitive and it also facilitates integration of the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in the global supply chain.

On 13 March, Minister of State for Defence in a written reply to Rajya Sabha member Tiruchi Siva stated that the Indian government has given focus on indigenization of various defence items to achieve ‘Aatmanirbharta’ (self-reliance). The minister quoted that total defence export value stands at Rs. 13,399 crores as of 6 March, 2023. For 2021-22, the data stood at Rs. 12,815 crores while for 2020-21 it was Rs 8,435 crores.

India has an ambitious target of achieving $5 billion in annual defence export by 2024- 25. As per reports, India is currently in talks with various countries to export several of its indigenous supplies such as Light Combat Aircraft Tejas and the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles.

About 50 Indian companies in the private sector have contributed to defence exports. Some of the major export destinations for defence products have been Italy, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Russia, France, Nepal, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Israel, Egypt, UAE, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, Poland, Spain and Chile etc. The major defence items being exported are Personal Protective items, Offshore Patrol Vessels, ALH Helicopter, SU Avionics, Bharati Radio, Coastal Surveillance Systems, Kavach MoD II Launcher and FCS, Spares for Radar, Electronic System and Light Engineering Mechanical Parts etc.

The other major defence equipment exported during last 05 years include Weapon Simulators, Tear Gas Launcher, Torpedo Loading Mechanism, Alarm Monitoring & Control, Night Vision Monocular & Binocular, Light Weight Torpedo & Fire Control Page 4 of 6 Systems, Armoured Protection Vehicle, Weapons Locating Radar, HF Radio, Coastal Surveillance Radar etc.

The ‘Fourth Positive Indigenisation List’ of 101 items was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the opening ceremony of Def Expo 2022 in Gandhinagar, Gujarat on October 19, 2022. All the items included in the lists would be procured from indigenous sources as per provisions given in Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020. This list provides continuous impetus towards self-reliance in defence. Government has an ambitious program of getting 101 more Defence Items by 2032, to be procured from indigenous sources.

Highly complex systems, sensors, weapons and ammunition have been included in this list. As per preliminary estimates, more than 1,75,000 crore worth orders would be placed on Indian Industry in the next 5-10 years. This would further stimulate the potential of Domestic Research & Development by attracting fresh investment into technology and manufacturing capabilities.

India’s journey towards self-reliance in the defence sector has been a long one, but the country has made significant progress in recent years. The initiatives taken by the government to promote domestic manufacturing and the development of critical technologies have helped India reduce its dependence on foreign imports. All in all, the results of the efforts that were put in are visible for everyone. In the last four years, the expenditure on defence procurement from foreign sources has reduced from 46% to 36% (2018-19 to 2021-22). In such a short duration, the nation has been able to save money, provide alternate supply chains and ramp up its production, manufacturing and exporting mechanisms as well. Gone are the days where India was one of the largest importers of weapons, India is now well on its way towards becoming a major defence products’ exporter.

The self-reliance achieved in the defence sector will not only make India more secure but also provide a significant boost to the country’s economy. India’s pursuit of self-reliance in the defence sector has yielded remarkable results, with data showcasing significant progress. The government’s initiatives, policy reforms, and developmental projects have laid a strong foundation for indigenous defence manufacturing and technology development.

However, challenges remain, including addressing structural and procedural issues to achieve complete self-reliance. Sustaining the momentum and addressing remaining challenges are crucial to achieve the government’s objective of further increasing defence production and establishing India as a global leader in defence manufacturing. By continuing to invest in research and development, fostering collaboration, and streamlining policies, India can achieve complete self-reliance in the defence sector and emerge as a robust and self-reliant nation.