The just-completed disengagement at Pangong Tso and areas to its north and south is a welcome step and should go a long way in paving the way for de-escalation in other areas. The military meanwhile should document the lessons learnt during this unprecedented deployment and identify capability gaps both in infrastructure and equipment, working out a strategic plan to shore up existing capabilities and roll-out projects for the future. In the specific domain of weapons and equipment, it may be prudent to work concomitantly on the incremental short term as well as a long term approach. The differential in equipment capabilities – specifically sustained capacity is large and the military may well identify gaps and plug the same. The PLA has been on a sustained modernization path for the past three decades and therefore an integrated approach to readiness is called for, instead of mere replacements of inventory using first past the post principle.
The recent budget has seen a significant increase in Government CAPEX the highest ever spend on roads, railways, education and healthcare. The share of Defence is 30%, with a total allotment of 125,651 lakh crores, the share of the Air force is 42.5%, Army 29% and the Navy 28.5%. Many have hailed it as a budget of self-reliant India that will modernize the armed forces and provide the capability edge to defend its sovereignty across multiple fronts. There is a need to truly indigenize since defence acquisitions are expensive and the recent order of 83 Tejas aircraft and 118 Arjun tanks does indicate the Government’s intent to support indigenous efforts.
A prime reason for the country remaining the largest importer of arms has been the absence of a systems view and a penchant for siloed working by military, DRDO, OFB, DPSUs and MOD. Siloed working can lead to collective tragedy even if every head of the department takes the most preferred course. It is like creating a system of parallel tunnels, every one digs deeper in his domain little realizing that the solution lies elsewhere. A rising superpower topping the list of importers of defence equipment despite a well-evolved industrial base and brilliant human resource is a national tragedy. What then is the way out? In my opinion, there is a dire need for a cultural shift in the way capabilities are developed. Higher Defence leadership needs to develop conceptual thinking across domains and evolve a capability centred strategic plan say for 10-15 years, setting the True North. The plan needs to be integrated, affordable over the life cycle and not merely an expensive replacement exercise for obsolescent systems as in the past.
The record of defence manufacturing in the public sector has not been very encouraging. In the case of licensed production, there was no record of the absorption of technology by anyone except the production unit. Half baked indigenization was attempted, the sole aim being to complete deliveries and obtain payments. Even after 15 to 20 years of manufacturing, it is disheartening to see a fair number of systems and components either on the import list or where indigenized giving an engineering life of about 50% or less.
Modern-day complex systems like tanks and aircraft are expensive with a service life of four to five decades. The Sabres had a life cycle of 17 years as compared to 4 decades for the F15/16 which is still going strong. The M1Abrams and T 72 tanks are already 40 years old and still in the inventory of many countries. While nations with a strong indigenous defence industrial base like the US, Russia, China or the EU may not face major issues in keeping these systems mission capable, in our context sustaining readiness comes at a huge cost and operational availabilities remain an issue of concern. Hence a long term approaches maximizing the integration of locally developed and manufactured subsystems into current systems alongside a push to acquire locally designed and integrated weapon systems could become the key to plugging capability gaps, as well as taking forward Atma Nirbhar Bharat. This calls for a robust and reliable supply chain and the Government acting as a planner, investor and customer.
The record of defence manufacturing in the public sector has not been very encouraging. In the case of licensed production, there was no record of the absorption of technology by anyone except the production unit. Half baked indigenization was attempted, the sole aim being to complete deliveries and obtain payments. Even after 15 to 20 years of manufacturing, it is disheartening to see a fair number of systems and components either on the import list or where indigenized giving an engineering life of about 50% or less. If an aircraft or tank engine gives limited life it ends up spiking life cycle costs as more replacements get procured. Quality, costs and time overruns have become a hallmark of licensed production. If this continues with Tejas or Arjun, it can spell doom for the Proudly Made in India brand. If our own armed forces complain about quality, reliability and accidents, other countries would back out, detrimentally impacting exports.
The Army too has been raising concerns about the safety of ammunition being produced by the Ordnance Factories (OFs). In an internal assessment carried out, it has been noticed that between 2016 and 2019 several accidents have occurred, fatal in a number of cases. Approximately, 960 crores worth of ammunition had to be discarded due to poor quality and safety issues.
HAL’s saga of manufacturing and maintenance has been like a roller coaster ride. It had remarkable success in the initial years with the production of HT-2, HJT-16 Kiran jet trainer which saw over four decades of usage in the air force. Similarly, the HF-24 Marut fighter saw action at Longewala in the 1971 war. However, these early successes could not be consolidated and thus began a downslide which has seen several lows like reliability issues with the Hawk AJT and fleet readiness issues with Sukhoi-30 MKI. In the case of Rafale, Dassault Aviation had expressed its inability to stand guarantee for product quality for the aircraft that was to be indigenously manufactured as a part of the 126 aircraft deal under consideration earlier. The Army too has been raising concerns about the safety of ammunition being produced by the Ordnance Factories (OFs). In an internal assessment carried out, it has been noticed that between 2016 and 2019 several accidents have occurred, fatal in a number of cases. Approximately, 960 crores worth of ammunition had to be discarded due to poor quality and safety issues.
The Government has shown a strong intent in making Atman Nirbhar Bharat the new path to operational capability development. It is an indispensable choice for the third largest military in the world if it intends to seek a capability edge over the adversary, not in numbers but in the ability to respond effectively to capability surprises. The Indian Navy’s example of shipbuilding has repeatedly demonstrated that homegrown systems can be equally reliable and potent if the military is willing to handhold and facilitate local development. Despite some subsystems like propulsion, armaments, sensors being from foreign OEMs, readiness issues have been tackled innovatively and fleet kept mission capable by the Navy. Similar ownership and facilitation are needed in the Tejas and Arjun programmes so that these possess high system maturity and readiness attributes. On their part, DRDO and HAL should desist from any attempt to enhance indigenous content on the fly simply to fulfil any self-imposed ceiling. It could be catastrophic for fleet readiness and operational availability. For once, all stakeholders need to adopt a collaborative stance to see that systems get delivered on time, without any cost and quality concerns, thereby giving the “Proudly Made in India” brand a positive halo.