Gujarat’s Gandhinagar was the venue for DefExpo 2022, the 12th edition of the defence exhibition organised by the Ministry of Defence from 18 to 22 October. In keeping with the Atmanirbharta spirit, for the first time, only ‘Indian’ participants were permitted — defined as Indian companies, subsidiaries of foreign original equipment manufacturers, divisions of companies registered in India, and exhibitors having joint ventures with Indian companies. ‘Path to Pride’ was the adopted theme.
The event was aimed to showcase the country’s progress in achieving self-reliance in defence requirements. It also established a record for the highest number of participants — adding up to more than 1,300. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the event and waxed eloquent in his inimitable style about India moving away from its dependence on defence imports by leveraging its scientific potential, human capital, and entrepreneurial spirit — a process he rolled out earlier and christened Atmanirbharta.
In reality, Atmanirbharta in defence must be interpreted as a quest that can never be fully relieved of its dependence on foreign entities. It is because one simply cannot produce all the military systems required to equip the Indian armed forces in the context of its national security preparations to confront the rapidly expanding array of technological advancements and geopolitical threats. Most major military platforms — aircraft, missiles, ships, submarines and tanks —would require sub-systems both major and minor to be sourced from abroad. There is also a complicated set of dynamic, strategic, and market forces that intersect to shape and restrict access. But there can be no argument against minimising dependence as much as possible within the constraints imposed by national capabilities in research and development, industrial base, and availability of fiscal resources.
Import ban is a ‘concerning’ initiative
A slew of initiatives have been undertaken to promote Atmanirbharta such as energising the participation of the private sector, including the micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), revision of Defence Acquisition Procedures, promoting innovation through projects like Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX), corporatisation of public sector Ordnance Factories, Defence Testing Infrastructure Scheme (DTIS), and the evolved Defence Production and Export Promotion Policy (DPEPP) 2020. However, these announcements must not be mistaken for accomplishments, which should be the index to measure achievements.
Sitting on top of these and other initiatives is an expanding list of items banned from import, referred to as the ‘Positive Indigenisation List’ (PIL). The first list, consisting of 101 items, was promulgated in August 2020, and the fourth list was announced at the DefExpo 2022 inauguration ceremony, covering an overall total of 411 items. The lists, it is said, have been compiled after consultations with all the stakeholders, especially the armed forces and the public and corporate sectors. Each item has a cut-off time frame when import restrictions would become applicable. These items, it is hoped, will be developed and inducted within that period. It is an expectation that may not be met in several cases and is already a cause of concern for the armed forces.
The time frame for the import ban to become applicable must consider design, development, production, and, more importantly, has to traverse the complex processes of the acquisition system before it is finally inducted. Take the example of the Army’s operational need for a light tank that only received attention after China’s 2020 aggression in Eastern Ladakh. The tank is needed immediately, yet figures in the third list promulgated in 2022 and has a time frame of three years.
Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief G. Satheesh Reddy claimed in 2022 that the light tank is at an advanced stage of development with Larsen & Toubro and should be ready for production by 2023. To people in the know, such a time frame is a pie in the sky. Since operational necessity dictated, there was every reason to import a minimum number — which was and is still available — from Russia. But now, with the restrictions imposed by the ban, in all likelihood, the light tank will take at least five to seven years to be inducted, and one can only hope that its absence during that period will be mitigated by other means. Such would certainly be the case for a lot of items on the list that includes helicopters, aircraft, tanks, and ships, among others.
It could be argued that the list will concentrate the efforts and focus of the entities involved and, therefore, provide the ballast for accomplishing the Atmanirbharta mission. Even if this is true, development and induction are time-consuming processes and not easily predictable in terms of delivery as has been in the case of major/minor systems associated with artillery guns, submarines, aircraft carriers, armoured vehicles, armed helicopters and light combat aircraft (LCA). The risks of being unable to meet the demand placed on the private and public sector could have serious repercussions on the operational effectiveness of the armed forces, which might be left holding equipment that urgently requires replacement.
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Why self-reliance should be staged
If the arc of India’s short and mid-term military challenges demands that equipment availability must be of a high order, then certainly it is not the time to rely on promoting self-reliance through bans. It is, therefore, no wonder that the 2020 Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh witnessed a flurry of purchases on an emergency basis. And this has been happening over the years. The major effect of the ban list is that several critical assets are not being put through the acquisition process, even when the user requires it, as they figure on the list. This is certainly avoidable.
It is apparent that the ambitious goals of Atmanirbharta are forcing us to attempt to accomplish what, in essence, is an impossible task. It is especially so when the complex dynamics of the arms trade, now coupled with increasing global tensions, are being played out through sanctions and technology denial. Based on economies of scale, indigenisation also mandates developing the capability to be an arms exporter. This has been recognised and efforts are being made in the relevant directions. But it would be clear that the MoD’s export target of Rs 35,000 crore ($5 Billion) by 2025 is unrealistic and will impact vendors who would require some degree of assurance regarding the volumes of the estimated orders to cover their investment in production infrastructure.
The quest for Atmanirbharta has to be an ongoing and long-term endeavour that must take due note of its adverse impact on the military’s short and mid-term operational effectiveness. It cannot be an end in itself and must be seen as having only an instrumental strategic purpose to evade the possibility of foreign suppliers pulling the plug at critical junctures on military systems and subsystems due to reasons beyond our control. The need of the hour is a change of perspective on the issue that must emerge from continuous and balanced civil-military interactions. Civilians are not always right, and, therefore, if the military voice is shackled or diffident, operational preparedness could suffer — a reminder of that historical lesson is provided this week as we mark the 60th anniversary of the 1962 India-China War.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)