On paper the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) comes across as formidable. It is currently engaged in about 70 projects that include making almost every major conventional weapon system and platform that major military powers are already manufacturing. From rifles and machine guns to tanks, fighter aircraft, airborne warning and control system, aircraft carrier and a wide array of missiles—surface-to-air, surface-to-surface and sub surface. In reality, the DRDO has much to answer for its performance.
The DRDO, entrusted with developing weapon systems for India’s defence requirement, is critical for ensuring a high degree of self-reliance. Its huge establishment comprises a partnership with over 40 academic institutions, 15 national science and technology agencies, 50 public sector undertakings including the nine defence public sector units, the 40 ordnance factories and the over 250 private sector industries. By 2008, an estimated 1,500 small and medium enterprises were engaged in supplying about 20% to 25% of defence components to defence firms.
Notwithstanding, however, India’s self-reliance continues to hover at 30% to 35% despite a series of measures taken by the government that has resulted in India continuing to remain overly import dependent for its defence requirements. India has been unable to increase its self-reliance capability from the current 30% to 35% despite a series of measures it has taken in the last two-and-a-half decades in particular. Much of even the existing self-reliance capability is based on licence manufacture and transfer of technology by foreign state-owned or private companies. What is more, the government itself has expressed doubts about the country’s capability to even develop core technologies in reports prepared by the parliamentary standing committee on defence.
The harsh reality is that India’s state-owned defence industry has been unable to even develop a rifle, let alone a tank or an aircraft engine. The DRDO has consistently been shifting the timeline for all projects, ranging from rifles to aircraft. Furthermore, the DRDO has been unable to successfully complete a single major project except for a few missile systems and the nuclear powered submarine, although the latter has several shortcomings in capability. The procurement process continues to be time consuming and the private industry remains mired in bureaucratic processes. Most of the private industry’s involvement currently is low scale and focused on making sub systems. It is yet to graduate to making complete weapon systems or highly sophisticated technologies as is the case with major defence companies in the US and Europe.
India’s mission to increase self-dependency for defence equipment to 70% remains a dream. In 1992, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, which had been India’s main source of weapons supply, catering to 70% of the country’s defence requirements, a defence ministry “Self Reliance Review Committee” conceived “a ten-year plan for Self-Reliance in Defence Systems”, which, starting from 1995, was aimed at increasing India’s self-reliance index to 70% by 2005. The defence ministry has now shifted its deadline to attain about 70% self-reliance by over two decades to 2027. But as of now, this seems unlikely in the next ten years.
Efforts of successive governments have failed despite two unprecedented decisions that were specifically aimed at facilitating the self-reliance process—(a) opening of the military-industrial complex to Indian private sector participation up to hundred per cent, and (b) opening up to foreign direct investment (FDI) permissible up to 26%, which was subsequently increased to 49% in 2014 and 100% in 2016.
The present government’s latest emphasis on “Make in India” is undoubtedly noble, but seemingly idealistic. It remains to be seen whether “Make in India” will translate into “Made in India” or remain “Assemble in India”, without intellectual property rights and design control. Perhaps there is wisdom in the advice of David Gross, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, who during a visit to India in January 2016 advised that in order to “Make in India”, the country should focus on first “Discover in India”, followed immediately by “Invent in India”, before it embarks on “Make in India”. But this seems unlikely, considering India’s inflexible, irrational and outdated bureaucracy and the fact that India overall has been spending a paltry 0.9% of its GDP on research and development, compared to 2.1% by China, 2.7% by the United States and 4.4% by South Korea.
India’s record of producing and exporting weapon systems is extremely modest. For example, India’s defence exports averaged a meagre US$88 million a year between 2006-07 and 2008-09, which marginally rose to $174 million in 2013-14 and $330 million in 2016. At a cursory level, the list of countries that have been importing Indian defence equipment is impressive, as it also includes the United States, United Kingdom and Russia. But a study of the equipment reveals that it is very rudimentary—flight control panels, forging equipment and electronic assemblies to the US, transmitting tubes to the UK and, to Russia, some spares and services for the Russian origin MiG-29 and Sukhoi-30 fighter aircraft. None of these are critical technologies or anywhere close to a complete weapon system or a weapon platform.
In contrast, even while China is a major importer of defence hardware, it is at the same time also self-sufficient in certain key military technologies along with being a major weapons exporter. It was the fifth largest exporter of defence equipment to developing countries between 2000 and 2007, the third largest global supplier between 2010 and 2014 following an arms export increase by 143% and ranked fourth between 2008 and 2015 in arms transfer agreements with developing nations. China’s defence exports to developing countries averaged over $3 billion annually between 2011 and 2014, more specifically $2.5 billion in 2007, $2.2 billion in 2008, $3 billion in 2009, $1.9 billion in 2010, $3.2 billion in 2011, $3.4 billion in 2012, $4.2 billion in 2013 and $3.2 billion in 2014 and $ 6 billion in 2015.
India’s state-owned military industrial complex is characterised by flaws at several levels. Internal criticism against the military-industrial complex range from the way the DRDO is conceptualised and structured, its tendency to over reach, technological limitations and incapability; coordination problems with, and changing specifications by, the users, the myriad responsibilities of the head of the DRDO, the continuing limited involvement of the private sector and the predominant role of generalist bureaucrats with no expertise in defence. Moreover, the bureaucratisation of Indian science has created a scientific-work environment with features comprising caution, rules, reviews, screenings, scrutinies, committees, controls, centralisation, delays, doubts, indecision, inaction, suspicion, friction, and less communication.
Until India increases its self-dependence for its defence requirements, India’s import bill is only expected to rise, making it a foreign-made Indian armed force. But such overdependence has come at a high price for the country and the armed forces, which for the last two-and-a-half decades has been battling depleting force levels and antiquity of weapon systems.
The author is a defence analyst