Asia’s largest defense technology showcasing event, Def Expo 2020 Lucknow was held at a critical time when the security challenges confronting the nation are fast outpacing desired capabilities both due to diminishing budgetary allocation and a nascent defence ecosystem. The key retarders, however, remain a wavering and lengthy procurement process, and limited funds for new schemes.
It has been nearly six years since the ‘Make in India’ initiative was announced by PM Modi.
Defence manufacturing is one of the 25 key sectors identified under ‘Make in India’ initiative to boost defence manufacturing and achieve self-reliance and strategic autonomy. India plans to spend $ 130 bn on military modernization in the next five years. The Indian defence market is set to grow at an Compound annual growth rate of >4% with the base year as 2018 and prediction year as 2024.
Urgent Need to Move From Foreign Vendors to Indigenous Ones
Ironically, India is also one of the largest importers of conventional defence equipment with 60% of defence related requirements being currently met through imports. In 2019 India was the world’s second largest importer of defence hardware after Saudi Arabia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
India’s move towards procuring from indigenous market may improve looking forward and ‘Make in India’ initiative seeks to address dependence on foreign vendors. This has resulted in steady rise in the procurement from private Sector with nearly Rs 17000 crore contracts placed with Indian Private Sector.
A total of 71 MoUs, 13 product launches, 18 transfer of technology and six major announcements formed the key takeaways of the 11th edition of Def Expo 2020 held in Lucknow, taking the total number of agreements signed at the expo to more than 200.
What Ails the Indian Defence Market?
However, it’s also time to reassess the reasons for ‘Make in India’ failing to develop a defence ecosystem and a vibrant defence industrial base. There exists a gap between expectations and deliverance due to myriad reasons including continuing budgetary constraints, lacklustre execution of policies, pervasive technological backwardness, reluctance to accept ownership amongst key stakeholders, skewed offset policies and evasive foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence.
There has not been any cultural shift or major restructuring for making the present ‘Make in India’ initiative and defence procurement outcome oriented.
‘Make in India’ is also dependent upon Defence R&D to invigorate defence technology and product development. The present meagre fund allocation for R&D in the country does not auger well for an indigenous technology manifestation.
The Def Expo 2020 for all its grandeur and hectic activity must, thus, be objectively quantified in terms of business outcomes it has generated for time sensitive indigenous projects.
Indian Vendors Seems to ‘Assemble’ in India More Than Design in India
Besides the defence budget being a dampener to the event, the focus of the largest ever global and Indian participants seemed to showcase manufacture in India or assemble in India rather than ‘design, develop and manufacture in India’, with ambiguous assurances of Transfer of Technology (ToT) and elusive Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Comprehensive ToT induction, absorption and life cycle technology upgradation as a package with levers of IPR in Indian hands thus remains a disconcerting challenge.
Another disconnect clearly evident was the focus and receptiveness of the hierarchical decision makers in uniform towards counter-terrorist operation capability building, while the bulk of major global industry were focussing on platform based conventional war capabilities.
Capability development towards digital battlefield, autonomous systems, AI as a weapon of war, and simulated virtual reality, did not draw the desired attention of decision makers mainly due to a lack of doctrinal clarity on these key emerging capabilities.
It seemed obvious that both due to a receding defence budget and an myopic proxy war focus , the conventional war platform based capability and future digital war focus are taking a back seat. This could have a long term implication on the national security strategic outlook and threat-cum-capability development matrix.
Further, a robust defence ecosystem requires an integrated collaborated focus in culture, mindsets and capabilities. A defence interconnected web between all large, medium and small scale industries-private, DPSU or government-has become an urgent necessity.
Strict Audits and More Focused Approach Needed
The present cocooned approach is frustrating the industry and this was the discreet undercurrent among Indian and Foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). The much hyped Make 1 Category of DPP has yet to see the light of the day even in a single product thus creating both credibility and critical capability gap.
On the positive side, the personal interest and involvement of PM Modi and Raksha Mantri inspire confidence that this sector will get the desired focus and push at the highest level in future, and those responsible for lapses will be held to account. It may also be a good idea to carry out an audit of the previous two Def Expos to get an idea of what has been achieved, this will help in a more focused approach in future.
A vibrant competitive defence industrial base with a harmonious eco-system would enable utilization and consolidation of existing capabilities and foster a constructive, long term partnership with global OEMs. This will enable us to be part of global supply chain and augment the role of Indian private sector companies to develop capabilities and capacities through JV and partnerships.
We may also like to consider whether our defence budgetary allocations over the years, are adequate to address the grave challenges/ monumental adversities in our security environment. This singular aspect remains a matter of serious intellectual and strategic concern.
(Lt Gen A K Singh(Retd), is former Army Commander and Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar and Puducherry. Lt Gen Ashok Shivane (retd) was Director General Mechanised Forces and now serves as an Advisor to Ordnance Factory Board. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)