Speaking on the occasion of the 15th Anniversary of the Pokhran nuclear test last year, Gujarat Chief Narendra Modi observed: “There is a crucial question we have to answer. How do we become self-sufficient in defence manufacturing? This is not only about military power but also about being self-reliant for our defence equipment.”

India has, since 2011, retained the dubious distinction of replacing China as the largest arms importer in the world. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India’s major arms imports surged by 111 per cent in the last five years compared to 2004-2008.

While China’s imports have been steadily decreasing, it has leveraged its arms imports to reverse-engineer and develop a vibrant defence industry; it now exports armaments ranging from fighter aircraft and frigates to missiles and rifles. Its major markets are in Asia and the Persian Gulf, with Pakistan topping the list. Pakistan’s Al Khalid tank, its frontline JF17 fighter and its recently acquired frigates are all from China; its nuclear weapons have been largely of Chinese design; its main ballistic missiles, the Shaheen 1 and Shaheen 2, are replicas of their Chinese counterparts. China is a regular supplier of arms to s Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

The pathetic inadequacies of India’s defence industry and its pretensions of being an emerging power were thoroughly exposed when it was unable to meet Afghanistan’s wish-list as American forces prepare to leave. While our missile development programme gives us pride, our nuclear deterrent will be credible only when the Agni V and the navy’s nuclear submarines become fully operational. On the flip side, we are not in a position to export any major weapons platform. Even the 5.56 mm (INSAS) Automatic Rifle, manufactured by our ordnance factories, will be rejected by any modern army. Added to this is the lack of accountability and bungling in the process of acquisition and domestic production. The most classic case of bungling involves the famous (or infamous) Bofors FH77 155mm howitzer.

The Bofors story

In 1986, India signed a $285 million contract for the supply of 410 155mm Bofors howitzers. The contract included a provision for the manufacture of a further 1000 guns in India. The Bofors deal complicated already cumbersome defence acquisition procedures. The government cancelled the entire contract without either arranging for domestic manufacture or selecting an alternative gun. The armed forces pushed for the import of an alternative. Offers for comparable weapons systems from Singapore and South Africa were rejected, on allegations of kickbacks.

India would have been hard-pressed to win the Kargil conflict speedily without the firepower that the Bofors gun provided. By 1987, India had received the entire design data and transfer of technology from Sweden for the manufacture of the gun. For over 20 years, these designs gathered dust. It was only when no alternative was available that these designs were revisited and, after much procrastination, we commenced assembling them.

While the first test of the indigenous gun understandably failed, the Ordnance Factory Board has now successfully moved to commence its manufacture soon, with a range of 38 km as against the 30 km range of the Swedish manufactured gun. We have similarly successfully designed and developed multi-barrelled rocket launchers. But the larger issue is: Who is to be held responsible for mothballing the designs received from Sweden and why was the task of domestic manufacture not undertaken earlier?

Problem areas

What ails India’s defence industry is now common knowledge. There are reports of a number of committees, including those headed by defence scientist Rama Rao and by Vijay Kelkar, apart from the report of the Naresh Chandra taskforce. It is obvious that some issues need to be clearly and expeditiously addressed.

First, the restrictions on foreign investment in high-tech, defence-related industries need radical liberalisation. Secondly, the monopoly of public sector institutions in defence production has to end. Even today, some of the most sensitive and critical assemblies for equipment, ranging from nuclear submarines to tanks and warships, are being sourced from the private sector which must be give a level playing field for competing with defence PSUs.

Defence production must not involve a predominant emphasis on imports and assembly, as at present. There has to be a large measure of import substitution of a vast array of critical raw materials, components and sub-systems, amounting to billions of dollars each year, now imported for regular production by the defence PSUs, under the umbrella of “licence manufacture”. The private sector, with help from the DRDO, could play a significant role in this area.

A good starting point for a new approach to defence production could be with regard to the light combat aircraft, which has now undergone substantial trials and could be inducted into service if it is fast-tracked. By all accounts, both its air defence version and its naval version will have a performance comparable to the Swedish Viggen, which was under consideration for acquisition by the IAF. There will be the usual breast-beating and predictable opposition but this process has to be undertaken once we are assured that the aircraft will be able to meet any anticipated threat from across our western borders.

Unlike China, India can get weapons systems and defence technology from Europe and the US. We will have to leverage this, together with our access to weapons from Israel and Russia, to demand and get the best terms possible for building an indigenous, high-tech defence industrial base.

Moreover, the present structure of our defence ministry, which is run by generalist bureaucrats, needs drastic change. Far greater integration of staff and procedures between the service headquarters and the ministry of defence is imperative if we are arrest the setbacks of the recent past in civil-military relations.

The writer is a former high commissioner to Pakistan