India’s defence indigenisation is powered by a partnership between the public and the private sector

by Monica Verma

The year was 2011 and the UPA government was in power. The Indian Army had conducted an internal study, findings of which were presented to the Cabinet Committee on Security. It consisted of a scathing report on India’s lack of preparedness against China in case of a war. According to the study, the Indian Army was facing a critical shortage of ₹60,000 worth of ammunition and war equipment which accounted for around 10 per cent of its total inventory. Forget modernisation, the world’s second-largest army didn’t even have enough provisions to safeguard the country’s national security with former army chief General Deepak Kapoor categorically stating after the 26/11 attack on Mumbai that the army was not ready for a war.

India was so ill-equipped to take on Pakistan, its much less powerful nemesis that the deadline to achieve a 1.5 times superiority over their army remained a pipe dream even in 2012. While this came as a shock at that time, the truth was that it was a pattern that had continued since India had a face-off with China in 1962. Beyond Nehruvian idealism that failed to foresee and even denied any military threat, India also faced a critical shortage of weapons to fight China in the eventual war. Some experts note that India was short of anti-tank guns, radio field sets, field cable, wireless batteries and even trucks and personnel to operate them. Not to mention the use of .303 rifles by Indian troops that were last used only during World War-1.

A country which spans almost the entire Indian subcontinent and has a territory which traverses from the mighty Himalayas to the Indian Ocean should naturally maintain a formidable military strength with access to the most state-of-the-art weapons. But the truth remained much more bitter than that. India in the six decades after its independence not only remained a poorly equipped military as also noted in the CCS report in 2011. But most of its defence requirements were outsourced to other countries with India earning the reputation of the world’s largest arms importer every year since 1993.

While Indian dependency on foreign arms imports continued to be as high as 12 per cent in 2013, countries such as Russia, France and the United States benefitted from the large Indian market. In 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power, this dependence of India on foreign countries for defence equipment continued to be a huge impediment to his otherwise ambitious foreign policy. It is a much-agreed fact in strategic circles that a country’s self-reliance in defence production is a key prerequisite for it to have an autonomous foreign policy as well as a powerful status in the world. All great powers right from the ancient Roman empire to the United States and the Soviet Union enjoying the status of superpower during the Cold War were backed by their tall military-industry complex.

The Roman Empire had a large military industry where huge workshops and big camps produced a slew of standardised weapons. Even China which has emerged as a global power in the 21st century has invested a great deal of effort in becoming a major arms exporter. Today it stands as the fourth largest arms exporter in the world behind only the US, Russia and France.

In comparison, India was not only a poorly equipped army but even its defence production industry was far from adequate. However, in the last decade, things have turned around for much better when it comes to India’s indigenous defence manufacturing.

Last week Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was speaking at a defence conclave organised by Firstpost in New Delhi. As per him, in just a decade today, India’s defence exports have increased from a mere ₹1000 crore to ₹16,000 crore. Also, India which was nowhere in the defence export rankings has finally broken into the top 25 arm exporter countries. The credit for this goes to Prime Minister Modi’s emphasis on indigenous defence production. In 2020 when India launched the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative, a significant focus of this ‘atmanirbharta’ was also on the defence manufacturing industry.

One of the biggest moves that the Modi government made was to out rightly ban the import of defence equipment in a phased manner with more than 1,000 defence items restricted from imports. Thanks to this spirit of self-reliance, India’s domestic production of defence equipment has crossed ₹1 lakh crore annually. At the Firstpost Defence Conclave, Singh also spoke about India’s goal to achieve ₹3 lakh crore annual defence production by the end of this decade. India is also targeting to increase its defence exports from ₹16,000 crore to around ₹50,000 crore in the same period. One may say that India has now transitioned into a net exporter of arms, unlike the past many decades when it was a net importer of arms. The interest in India’s defence manufacturing industry is only growing with some of the offerings such as Tejas, Brahmos missiles, Akash missile system, artillery guns as well as conventional weapon systems attracting global attention.

More than 85 countries buy defence equipment from India today and as per the Department of Defence Production website, the list includes big players such as Russia and France to India’s neighbours such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives. India’s defence indigenisation is powered by a partnership between the public and the private sector. On one hand, India’s arms ordnance factories that were loss-making units have now become profitable after their corporatisation. On the other hand, more than 100 Indian firms and more than 200 defence start-ups are powering India’s self-reliance push in domestic defence production.

In 2047 when India will complete its 100 years of Independence from British rule, then Prime Minister Modi’s vision to have an indigenous defence production industry in the country, which will not only for India but also the world, will play a key role in its ambitions. India’s pursuit of economic growth to become the third largest economy is part of its desire to become a great power. This was one of the key points in the Bhartiya Janata Party’s manifesto. But a similar commitment was also required to create India’s indigenous defence production capability. The good news is that Modi’s second term is ending with an ode to the same. The foundation for an Indian military-industry complex has been laid. India’s pursuit of self-reliance in defence production is all set to power its global dreams.

The author is a PhD from the Department of International Relations, South Asian University