The move by the Govt to set aside 68% of the capital defence procurement budget for indigenous procurement, has set the gunsights for the deep thrust. The total defence budget has been scaled up to 5.25 lakhs crores, 9% more than the current year. The capital budget has gone up to 1.52 crores (USD 20.36 billion).
The Finance Minister during her speech emphasized the Govt`s intent to reduce imports and promote Atma Nirbharata in defence. With a 12.81% increase in the capital outlay over the 2021-22 (BE), the Govt reinforces its resolve to modernize the military. With the reservation of 68% of the capital budget for domestic procurement, it has also sent a signal to the industry to seize the opportunity.
For the first time, there is a dedicated allotment of 25% for industry-led research towards the development of weapon platforms in a collaborative framework. This should increase capacities, lead to the creation of new manufacturing facilities and enhanced investments. However, what is important is the overall manner in which it gets strategized and executed.
The most important starting point will be the hand-holding by the military, DRDO and the DPSUs in a spirit of collaboration and the military taking ownership to steer the projects from the project management angle.
Reports that the Armed Forces have spent 64%of funds this fiscal on Indian made systems is very heartening. The Govt`s push for maximizing procurement of indigenous equipment seems to be yielding results. Some pre-budget actions of the Govt were also aimed at achieving the stated goal of becoming a 5 trillion dollar economy by 2025 with 25 billion USD worth of defence manufacturing.
The Govt has clarified that any purchase beyond the agreed indigenous to import ratio will need special approval of RM. Earlier, the MOD had scraped or foreclosed a number of procurement proposals from abroad, pertaining to helicopters and vehicles in a well-considered move to ramp up Make in India. Despite the taking out of the import ban list, it was evident that the list did little to allay the fears of the local industry about the fate of certain indigenous projects where considerable time and effort had been expended to develop prototypes and participate in trials.
The fact that certain foreign OEMs were offering frontline tanks, guns, helicopters to the military at very low costs did act as a dampener to local efforts. By foreclosing such programmes the Govt has made it amply clear that weapon platforms will have to be developed in India and buy Indian IDDM (indigenously, designed, developed and manufactured) category will continue to get top priority. Acquisition cost alone should not be the deciding factor. The budget appears to have made its intent clear.
Any procurement of major weapon platforms from abroad at this juncture can have a detrimental impact on indigenous defence industrial capability development as well as operational capability sustainment. High tech weapons from foreign sources are extremely costly to operate and maintain. Besides, a few years down, most systems throw up performance issues impacting operational availability and fleet readiness rates. Spare parts are not available and preferred munitions supplies are limited. High operational costs also inhibit full-scale training, relegating it to simulators. Indigenous platforms will end up being a cost-effective option over the life cycle of 25 -40 years.
The military needs to review the events of the past two years and roll out concrete initiatives on a war footing to develop bespoke operational capabilities for mountains and ultra-high altitudes. Such capabilities cannot be provided by foreign OEMs. Lessons from previous wars and exercises should be the basis for formulating QRs. The performance of weapons and equipment in past conflicts like 1962, 1965, 1971, Siachin, Kargil need to be analysed to provide inputs on desired equipment performance. In addition, experiences gained as a consequence of the large scale deployments at LAC since 2020 could provide pragmatic inputs for reliable homegrown weapon platforms that can provide a distinct edge over any foreign system. Indigenous platforms have a distinct advantage as their specifications, protection levels and vulnerabilities are secure and countermeasures cannot be easily developed by the adversary.
A closer look at indigenously developed weapons and equipment will indicate that the country can boast of locally designed and developed platforms in almost all fields are it tanks, guns, rockets, missiles, helicopters, UAVs, fighters, marine vessels, satellites; capable of delivering high operational tempos and duty cycles. What is lacking is the industrial capability to provide durable subsystems, payloads and sensors for propulsion, weapon equipment package, surveillance and control systems. It is a common comment by critics that the powerpack of Arjun is imported or the aero engines and propulsion systems of the LCA, ALH or warships are foreign. They forget the fact that these platforms have been built from scratch with substantial homegrown technologies like Kanchan armour, main armament, composite airframe, avionics, fire control systems, etc.
Certainly, there are some capability gaps and it is time very focused efforts are made to plug these in order to retain strategic autonomy. Some initiatives in the public sector are in hand but it is time to accelerate the tempo by allowing the private sector to enter the field of R&D with Govt support. Simply because some subsystems of the Arjun or Tejas are imported, one cannot jettison these in favour of foreign platforms.
The move to provide a dedicated allotment of 25% in R&D for collaborative research with industry, startups and academia will encourage industry to jointly design and develop platforms. The Technology Development Fund /IDEX initiative should provide mission-oriented funding for innovations that seek to address actual operational capability gaps.
Post Yom Kippur war Israel having realized the vulnerability of Western tanks in their terrain and deployment conditions, embarked on the design and development of its indigenous tank to meet its operational requirements. Some technologies like the primary armament were available locally with Israel Military Industry, some were outrightly purchased from abroad and some were developed on a war footing.
Within 4 to 5 years the Israeli Merkava was ready and proved its mettle in the 1982 Lebanon war. Even today its mobility system is not homegrown. A similar approach is needed to develop the light tank, wheeled combat vehicle, gun missile system, guns, aerial and marine platforms in India.
A strong commitment and a collaborative stance from the military could help realize this dream. The renewed efforts by a few to look at import options even for classical hardware like carbines, tanks, guns, helicopters, needs to be nipped in the bud else the country`s dependence on imports is likely to continue well beyond 2050. It makes sense to seek need-based foreign collaboration in niche fields like cyber, drone, counter-drone, space, particle beam weapons, precision munitions technologies.
The import ban list taken out by the MOD some time back did indicate the firm resolve of the Govt to go the Make in India way. However, it was soon revised to exclude certain platforms obviously at the behest of interested parties. Such agile footwork sends a mixed signal to the industry that the military`s obsession with foreign systems is likely to continue. The relentless pursuit of hi-tech tinker toys from abroad has to end at some point in time.
The military needs to consider subjecting the existing inventory to an equipment capability assessment exercise vis-a-vis anticipated missions and vulnerability against enemy countermeasures and work towards plugging these. Till new systems get inducted, it would be wise to cover risks by subjecting a specific number of weapons to retro modifications, technology insertion during the base refit. Once such battle endurance gets mapped it will be easier to formulate alternate plans and GSQRs for next-generation systems, after a clear understanding of mission capability gaps.
The country`s dream for self-reliance in weapon platforms cannot be brought to fruition without the military taking ownership and demonstrating an inclination to operate systems with slightly scaled-down levels of performance. Three specific areas to be addressed are people`s competencies, industrial capability gaps and adequate funding. The following actions could help channelize efforts and resources towards the strategic aim of setting up a robust industrial base under Atma Nirbhar Bharat:-
- Commence with on- boarding of technologies on legacy systems with the aim of enhancing equipment capabilities for high altitudes . This will also help develop peoples` skills and competencies.
- Fast track indigenization of vital subsystems of indigenously crafted weapon platforms like Tejas , Arjun, Dhanush by designating a few numbers as experimental platforms .
- Commission Govt supported , sub system level R&D in the private sector for combat vehicles, warships and aircraft with the aim of integrating these into futuristic platforms. Innovative project could be provided up to 75% funding with no repayment requirements.
- Launch de-novo design and development projects related to land, marine and aerial platforms with the stipulation that these be integrated with minimum 75% indigenously developed sub -systems .
- Large scale indigenization of spare parts to address hollowness and provide economy of scales to MSMEs . Assurance of guaranteed buy back over periods ranging from 5 to 10 years needs to be provided .
The emerging threats in the subcontinent can get addressed comprehensively only if major platforms are designed and developed within the country. The approach has to be centred around acquiring a large number of low cost, operationally effective weapon platforms that can operate, fly and fire on a daily basis without stoppages. We have to look at a fine balance between combat usefulness, cost and complexity instead of low or high technology.
Local technologies will provide strategic assurance and influence, civilian spin-offs, a strong industrial base and technologies to upgrade capabilities. To be able to do so the military has to be willing and prepared to induct systems with scaled-down performance in the interim. One cannot expect indigenous designs to meet all performance requirements in the first iteration itself, as most of these attributes are picked up from foreign platforms where these have been misapplied to create ever-increasing complexity.
Most countries like Israel, China have operated half baked designs in the stride to stabilize the system maturity of local systems. With the Govt`s gunsights firmly set, the military needs to take charge of the national effort to trail blaze a tough transformational course.