Self-reliance in defence is a long way away

On September 28 Defence Minister Rajnath Singh commissioned the second of six Scorpene submarines (Khanderi) and launched the first Project 17A frigate (Nilgiri), both at Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL). A few days earlier, he had flown in a LCA (Tejas) fighter aircraft built at Hindustan Aircraft Ltd (HAL) in Bengaluru. Some months earlier, a 155 mm gun based on the Swedish Bofors design had been test-fired successfully by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). These appear to be impressive steps on the march towards self-sufficiency in defence production. It is necessary, however, to give them context.

Khanderi was not really “made” in India; “assembled” would be more appropriate. The design is French, as is almost all of the equipment; dozens of French technicians helped those from MDL to fabricate the platform and put things together. The gun for the army is also of foreign design (Bofors), with many components sourced from outside, and came 33 years after the first induction through import. Nilgiri and Tejas were indigenous systems — the first was conceived in-house by the navy and then built with a predominantly indigenous package, while the second has gone through three decades of design and trials by DRDO/ HAL, with some already inducted by the air force, albeit not fully operational to desired performance.

All four systems emerged from defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) or organisations, with varying degrees of private sector participation. These examples are different from the “licensed production” of different military systems for the armed forces over the last several decades, principally aircraft like Jaguars, MiGs, Sukhois and mechanised vehicles like BMPs, T72 and T90 tanks and the 130mm gun, once again all in DPSUs. Some assemblies and sub-assemblies for these systems came from private companies, based on orders given to them, but the final product emerged from the particular DPSU or DRDO. The one instance of substantial private sector involvement in the production of a major platform is Larsen & Toubro, which fabricated the hull of the nuclear submarine of Arihant class. 

Two categories of Make in India are underway in the defence sector. The first involves collaborating with a foreign agency and building the platform in India, based on the design, knowhow and equipment provided by it. In the second, the design is developed by us “ab initio”, and much of the machinery and equipment is Indian. So far, both categories, with a few exceptions, have been pursued through the DPSU/DRDO route. The policy now is to induct the private sector as a new player, but its record so far is mixed. Efforts to build simple Offshore Patrol Vessels at Pipav shipyard by Reliance ADAG have been disappointing, but those by L&T have shown potential for further investment through orders for more ships.

Years ago, the then DRDO chief APJ Abdul Kalam summed up the issue succinctly during a chance meeting at one of his major laboratories in Visakhapatnam: “It is not ‘know how’ (read licensed production) that is so important; it is ‘know why’. While the first will be passed on by foreign companies and can be added to incrementally, it is the second that is more critical, and expertise which no one will share with us. So, there is no option but to generate it ourselves. It will take time, which is why the sooner we start on this road the better.” The ability to design is critical — an essential prerequisite to self-sufficiency in defence production.

The navy created its own design organisation over five decades ago and has nurtured and expanded it. Classes of ships like the Godavari, Brahmaputra, Delhi, Shivalik, Kolkata and now Nilgiri, with an aircraft carrier under construction, have all flowed from initial sketches made by its young naval designers based on staff requirements projected to them and later expanded into more comprehensive drawings and then model-tested in tanks. These are converted into thousands of production folios at the shipyard and then given physical form. Such a platform can be sold abroad competitively but the ability to produce the required numbers has to be created. This is true of the LCA and ALH, both DRDO-designed products.

The way ahead lies in strengthening the expertise that exists in the DPSUs and DRDO, which can offer an export option. Concurrently, we should incentivise chosen private sector performers to meet those needs of our armed forces where we are critically short and to meet which there is insufficient capacity in the public sector. These companies (read strategic partners) can only do this through foreign collaboration, as their own capabilities will take many years to develop. This is especially true of air and underwater platforms. However, to expect this route to provide an export possibility is simplistic, as most countries, certainly India, will prefer to buy such military hardware outright from the original manufacturers.

Ultimately, if India is to become self-sufficient in defence production, it must be able to design its own platforms and manufacture the equipment and weapons systems that will go into them. This possibility exists only in a few areas (highlighted above), and strenuous efforts are needed to augment capacities and capabilities. In the meantime, there is no option but to seek foreign collaboration for projects such as the MMRCA and next-generation submarines. But as Kalam said, self-sufficiency ultimately depends more on “know why” than on “know how”. We have some way to go before we get there.    
The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command. He has also served as member of the National Security Advisory Board

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