Shooting from the hip or shooting oneself in the foot? Is a ban on defence items enough to make India self-reliant?
India is one of the world’s largest buyers of defence equipment. It is also unique among big nations with large armed forces to have an abysmally small domestic arms industry. The country imports everything — from frontline fighter aircraft to clothing equipment and bulletproof vests worn by frontline infantrymen. It is a trade that has made many people in Delhi very rich and led to a completely corrupt military decision-making process, both from the political front as well as inside the forces. Therefore, should the announcement by the Raksha Mantri, Rajnath Singh, to gradually move a hundred items from the import list to beef up domestic production be seen as a positive? Frankly, yes and also no. Yes because there is a desperate need for India to build up a military-industrial complex of companies, both public and private, that can supply our defence needs in a hurry. To give an example, the speed with which Boeing delivered the last batch of Apache attack and Chinook transport helicopters after the events of June 15 shows just how agile and efficient American military suppliers are. Nobody is saying that India can reach this efficiency, from both a scientific or production standpoint, but the knee-jerk reaction with which our country buys arms from abroad at any sign of trouble has to change. With some notable exceptions such as Larsen & Toubro and various Tata Sons companies, the private sector’s involvement in defence production has been abysmal. Mainly because of the Government’s reluctance to involve them, thanks to strong Defence Public Sector Unit (DPSU) lobbies among politicians and bureaucrats. Various research institutions, including the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), too, must chip in to develop technologies and boost in-house capabilities. Even in an area where India is fairly self-reliant — building surface warships — we barely produce one large capital ship annually. Yet China is churning out destroyers and frigates by the dozen every couple of years. If we are to bridge this gap, Indian industry must be encouraged.
However, there is a counter-argument. For several items on Singh’s list, India simply does not have the capabilities. Consider transport aircraft; Indian companies were unable to upgrade the extensive fleet of Antonov 32 medium aircraft. While the Modi Government ought to be complimented on finishing the long gestation period for the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, its three-decade development story is a joke. We have not built any commercial or military transport aircraft in our history. And even if the proposed measures allow for joint development and Indian fabrication, pretending that we suddenly have the skills to make planes is outright bizarre. The same applies to state-of-the-art radar and sonar systems. If we are to get the best systems, we will have to import them until we are able to reverse-engineer or collaborate with the likes of France and Israel to develop our own. Yes, domestic manufacturing is a start and will save considerable resources but it should not come in the way of ensuring that India’s frontline warriors have access to the best technology.
Tuesday, 11 August 2020 | Pioneer
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