The stock exchange speaks. The adage is not half-truth if the script of the stocks of defence public sector undertakings (PSU) like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) and Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders (MDS), of 2022 are read in entirety.

A report stated the State-owned aerospace and defence companies’ stocks went up by 113 per cent this year. Embedded in such reportage is that the push for Aatmanirbhar Bharat or self-reliance by the Ministry of Defence has started to deliver, though there are issues with the processes, outcomes and governance architecture, besides investment in core technology projects. A shake-up of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) should not be blinked at.

Increase indigenisaton

The government launched Aatmanirbhar Bharat scheme on May 13, 2020, offering a template to reduce reliance on imports and increase indigenisation of equipment used by armed forces. The face off with China happening around the same time in Galwan sector of Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh followed by Covid pandemic brought additional weight to lend a sense of meaning and urgency to the idea of making India self-reliant in defence sector, officials and industry representatives believe.

China’s aggression at the other end of the LAC in Yangtse valley of Tawang sector in Arunachal Pradesh towards the year end on December 9, and in the Indo Pacific Region, and continued Russia-Ukraine war have by default ensured that India cannot turn its eye off from increasing its military capabilities and border infrastructure capacities.

The government took many steps to walk the path of reform, which Ministry of Defence (MoD) would like to spread out in making military into a “youthful, modern and Aatmanirbhar force”.

Defence exports

To get the data, total allocation under capital outlay of defence services was enhanced to ₹1.52- lakh crore in budget for 2022-23. Of that 68 per cent of capital procurement budget was earmarked for domestic industry to boost self-reliance. Defence exports zoomed by 334 per cent in the last five years, reaching a record ₹13,000 crore in the financial year 2021-22, according to the MoD. India is now exporting defence equipment to over 75 countries, including the US, Phillipines, countries in South East, Africa and Middle East.

Perhaps what stood out was June announcement of rolling out Agnipath scheme to have for the first time a temporary cadre of constabulary called Agniveers in Army, Air Force and Navy. Though the official pitch for introducing this transformative scheme, which initially saw stiff resistance from candidates, was to make the forces youthful and tech enabled, the underpinning was to reduce lofty pension bill on the treasury. The first batch of Agniveers, selected from over 54 lakh registeration in Army, Air Force and Navy, have joined and the impact assessment on tri-services will take a year at least, it seems.

Similarly, the September launch of aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, wrapped by the Ministry as “Red letter day for Aatmanirbhar Bharat”, has catapulted India among a select few nation of US, Russia, China, UK and France which can design and manufacture their own warships of such capabilities.

Foundation laying of C-295 transport manufacturing facility at Vadodara is another feat of the 2022 calendar. The Ministry has also approved two dozen induction interests among others for light tanks and cruise missiles while the decision is pending on the test report to procure either of the two naval versions from Dasault Aviation of France and Boeing of the United States of America to replace aging fleet of Mig 29Ks.

Reform in defence governance

The government will have to bring in reform in the defence governance architecture, especially intervening to make the manpower skilled, reform-oriented and driven on times-lines based quality outcome. For that, the government should encourage entry of more domain experts in the Defence Ministry, given that the infusion of new technology and artificial intelligence has challenged the conventional millitary doctrine and decision making.

At the secretarial staff level, even Agniveers with tech bent of mind can be trained to acquire sectoral strength which is important to understand and process requirement of new age armaments. The industry and the armed forces strongly believe for having an officialdom that should act as facilitator and not otherwise.

Rationalisation of processes

Rationalisation of processes overburdened by legacy issues is another area that requires deep dive. The Ministry should prepare itself for facilitating integration of tri-services which would demand to say the least, a re-look at the legislative framework and rules and regulations. For instance, a common website for procurement which can have hyperlink leading to the three services. This would also help the industry to get over the online clutter. Also the Ministry which has opened up quite a fold in comparison to past, needs to engage the stakeholders right from the conceptualisation stage so that end demand can be delivered by the domestic players and reduces time lag which India can ill afford given China’s belligerence and threat of war cannot be ruled out.

It also desirable to reform Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Accountability and transparency have to be seeded into the functioning of the DRDO which, however, has delivered Make in India products for securing the nation. As reported earlier by businessline, serious introspection is needed over the CAG indictment of the DRDO – that 20 of 86 mission mode projects were “declared successful” overlooking that they did not achieve one or more objectives despite spending more than ₹1,000 crore on them.